Turtle Bay

Did Ban just subtly admonish NATO’s Libya campaign?

You wouldn’t have noticed it if you weren’t a trained student of U.N. press statements. But Ban Ki moon’s statement Thursday on the human rights situation in Libya included a slight shift in phrasing that appeared to mark a new willingness to challenge NATO’s conduct in the campaign against Muammar al-Qaddafi‘s government. In the past, ...

You wouldn’t have noticed it if you weren’t a trained student of U.N. press statements.

But Ban Ki moon’s statement Thursday on the human rights situation in Libya included a slight shift in phrasing that appeared to mark a new willingness to challenge NATO’s conduct in the campaign against Muammar al-Qaddafi‘s government.

In the past, the U.N. has routinely responded to reports of civilian casualties by urging "both sides" in the conflict — meaning Qaddafi’s forces and the Benghazi-based opposition — to show restraint in order to avoid the killing of innocent civilians.

But on Thursday, Ban’s office issued a statement for the first time urging "all sides" to show restraint. That raised the possibility that Ban was shifting his stance on Libya, reflecting mounting concern about the human cost of NATO’s six-month long air campaign.

The change comes at a sensitive time for NATO. The Libyan government accused allied coalition striking a series of farm buildings with precision-guided missiles near the town of Zlitan, killing more than 80 civilians. NATO insists the farm buildings were being used as staging areas for Qaddafi’s forces. A preliminary investigation by Human Rights Watch, which visited the site and interviewed relatives of the alleged victims, suggested that some civilians had probably killed by the strike. But they have not yet been able to determine the number of dead or establish whether the site was a legitimate military target.

"Establishing what happened in a case like this is challenging given the controlled environment in government-held areas in Libya," said Tom Malinowski, the director of the rights group’s Washington, D.C. office. "But we will be bringing our findings to NATO in the coming days, hear their side of the story, and if possible draw some conclusions."[*See note below]

More generally, "there is a broad sense that NATO has been very careful in Libya, and that NATO and the alliance have steadily improved its performance in avoiding civilian casualties from the 1990s on," Malinowski told Turtle Bay. "That isn’t to say they haven’t done anything that we would take issue with, once we have all the facts, but we don’t have all the facts now."

For months, Ban has lent firm support to the coalition operation in Libya.

When Irina Bokova, the head of UNESCO, "deplored" NATO’s recent decision to bomb Al-Jamahiriya, the state television station – saying "media outlets should not be targeted in military actions" — Ban stood up for the coalition.

Asked if the U.N. chief supported Bokova stance, a U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, said Ban believes Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force in Libya, has been used properly in order to protect civilians in Libya. The U.N. coalition members also defended the strike, saying that the broadcast facility had been used to incite violence against civilians.

To seasoned U.N. watchers, Thursday’s statement seemed a shift in stance, perhaps calculated to give Ban’s special envoy, Abdel-Elah Al-Khatib, greater credibility with Tripoli as he pursues a mediation role in Libya, according to U.N. diplomats.

Whatever the intent, coalition diplomats took note of the wording and raised objections with Ban’s office. They were assured that there was no shift in policy.  In response, Ban’s office today climbed down, issuing another statement saying that while Ban "has consistently called for restraint and caution to avoid" harming civilians "he of course recognizes and appreciates NATO’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties."

One council diplomat said that Ban has "been clear that he appreciates NATO’s role in protecting civilians. We don’t believe the intent [of the statement] was to criticize NATO." The diplomat also noted that Ban’s office said the phrasing was a "miscommunication" due to the fact that the secretary general is traveling overseas. However, despite the U.N.’s climb down this morning they did not retract the phrase.

And another U.N. source suggested the change in language was not accidental, saying each word and comma of the secretary general’s statement are carefully considered.

Guess we’ll have to wait and see what he says next.

[*Note: an earlier version quoted Malinowski saying "nothing screamed out military installations"]. The Human Rights Watch team investigating the case believes it was premature to make definitive claims about the site.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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