Turtle Bay

The U.N.’s tough stand on Qaddafi: exception or rule?

Shortly after the U.N. Security Council authorized an international criminal probe into Moammar Qaddafi‘s bloody crackdown on civilians in Libya on February 26, France’s U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud proclaimed that the forces of change sweeping across North Africa had reached the U.N. council’s chamber and shaken it at its foundation. For the first time, the ...

Shortly after the U.N. Security Council authorized an international criminal probe into Moammar Qaddafi‘s bloody crackdown on civilians in Libya on February 26, France’s U.N. ambassador Gerard Araud proclaimed that the forces of change sweeping across North Africa had reached the U.N. council’s chamber and shaken it at its foundation.

For the first time, the 15-nation council’s major powers had overcome their historic reservations about the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) and joined in a unanimous vote to invite the tribunal’s Argentine prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, to investigate possible crimes against humanity perpetrated by Qaddafi’s government.

"A wind of liberty and change is blowing through the Arab world," Araud told reporters. "We feel it, we felt it in the Security Council chamber, we feel it in the corridors of this organization." The council’s vote, he said, should send "a warning to all the leaders who could be tempted to use repression against this wind of change, this wind of liberty."

But did the vote really mark a turning point, a beginning of a new era in which the U.N.’s despotic champions of stability will no longer be countenanced? Or had the diplomatic stars simply aligned momentarily at the United Nations, influenced by the genocidal ravings of a tyrant, and facilitated by a diplomatic coup at the Libyan mission to the U.N., where renegade envoys worked feverishly to protect their people from a brutal despot?

Resolution 1970 was a rare instance in the council’s history, a moment when hardened ideological positions melted away as diplomats struggled to grapple with a bloody crisis in North Africa. It happened before in 2001, when the council adopted a series of sweeping resolutions requiring foreign governments to rewrite their anti-terror laws to rein in Al Qaeda; prior to that in 1990, when Arab governments from Syria to Saudi Arabia rallied behind U.S. war plans against Iraq.

This time around, stalwart critics of the court, China, India and Russia, as well as court’s erstwhile foe, the United States, checked their misgivings about the ICC at the door and granted the prosecutor a free hand, a development that would have been unthinkable only two weeks ago. Arab and African leaders turned on one of their own, supporting the council’s decision to investigate crimes and impose a raft of sanctions on Qaddafi’s family. Even the Lebanese government, over which the Islamist movement Hezbollah has significant say, piled on, co-sponsoring a resolution in the U.N. General Assembly that suspended Libya’s membership in the Human Rights Council.

"Impunity isn’t what it used to be," said Edward Luck, a historian of the United Nations who serves as the U.N.’s special advisor for the Responsibility to Protect, a six-year old human rights doctrine that obliges states to protect their civilians from mass atrocities. Resolution 1970 marked the first time since 2006 that the council has reaffirmed its commitment to the Responsibility To Protect. The council’s action constituted one of those rare "moments of clarity," according to Luck, when the council advances, or reinforces, a set of new moral standards.

There were a number of developments that made the vote possible, Luck said. Key regional groups — the African Union, the Arab League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference — had issued a set of extremely condemnatory statement prior to the council vote. Qaddafi delivered a highly provocative public statement instructing his Libyan supports to hunt down and kill protesters. Libya’s permanent representative Abdurrahim Mohamed Shalgam issued an extraordinary call for council to protect his people and hold his leader accountable for crimes against humanity.

"Contrast that with Rwanda in 1994, when the Rwandan government’s U.N. ambassador was busying denying" atrocities had been committed in his country, Luck said. The forceful response to Libya "is quite remarkable in that sense, but not easily replicated in the future," he said

Indeed, the old forces of the status quo have begun to push back as expectations of a swift overthrow of Qaddafi’s regime have given way to the harsh realization that he may survive the wave of popular unrest that has toppled leaders in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. Qaddafi, who had momentarily lost control of his country’s U.N. mission, has moved to install a loyal envoy, Ali Abdusallam Treki, a former U.N. General Assembly president who is well known at the United Nations.

The U.N.’s old guard, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have denounced what it is has described as a U.S. led plot to occupy Libya. "We urge peace-loving countries in all regions of the world to put a stop to the invasion plans against Libya," Jorge Valero, Venezuela’s U.N. ambassador, said at the General Assembly. "Its purpose is clear: to appropriate the vast potential of natural and energy resources that are stored in the mother land of Libya." Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, opposed foreign intervention in Libya, saying Libyans should sort out their own problems. China’s U.N. ambassador Li Baodong made it clear that his government has no intention of embracing the international criminal court. "Our position," he said tersely, "remains unchanged."

More importantly, Arab and African governments that had been vital in swinging world opinion against Qaddafi appear unready to accept a key provision of the Responsibility to Protect: That if a state is unwilling or unable to prevent the large scale killing of its population the outside world has an obligation to step in and do so. Mauritius, speaking on behalf of the African Union, cautioned that the move to isolate Qaddafi’s government should not be seen as a precedent.

Indeed, the Obama administration’s calls for regime change in Libya have fueled suspicions about American, British and French military intentions, including the establishment of a no fly zone over Libya. "What is the purpose of a no-fly zone?" one African diplomat told Turtle Bay. "Is it to occupy Libya?"

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

 

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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