Last night the United Nations Security Council passed a robust and far reaching Resolution in response to the situation in Libya. Whatever happens from here this is an important moment in the life of the United Nations.
There is no guarantee that this piece of paper will have any impact on the ground, but its very existence challenges those who have written off the UN as ineffective, weak and morally questionable. It shows that multilateral diplomacy while at times painful can work.
So what might this UN Security Council Resolution mean in practice?
The Resolution includes a broad mix of objectives: the protection of civilians and civilian populations; the unimpeded and safe passage of humanitarian aid and personnel; the immediate establishment of a ceasefire and a complete end to the violence; a political solution to the crisis that responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people.
The Resolution allows for governments to take “all necessary measures”, including the setting up of a No-Fly Zone, to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack, but it excludes a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory. It also provides for the strict implementation of an arms embargo and a more comprehensive freeze of Libyan government assets held overseas.
The use of military force appears relevant only so far as it is necessary to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack or under attack.
Since rebels opposed to Gaddafi are located in civilian areas, it is logical to assume that this provision will be interpreted as meaning that any move against rebels by forces loyal to Gaddafi constitutes a threat to civilians and civilian areas. Assurances given by Gaddafi that he intends to protect civilians when rooting out rebels are likely to be ignored.
It is less clear, however, whether the Resolution provides for the use of force against Libyan Government forces held stationary outside of civilian areas. The Resolution could be read as allowing military measures to be taken against those forces involved in any siege of civilian areas, but it is harder to see the Resolution allowing military measures to be taken against those forces that pose no threat, either direct or indirect, to civilian areas.
It is also unclear how this provision might apply in practice if those cities that have recently been recaptured by Gaddafi decided to rebel again. The Resolution entitles the use of military force to quell any counter measure, but such action is unlikely to be taken if troops loyal to Gaddafi are already in the city in question. There might well be strikes on supply lines, but it is difficult to see the international community doing anything more than this.
Militarily this Resolution provides for both a no-fly zone and a no-drive zone. Politically, the intention appears to be that these provisions will help to create a de facto ceasefire which might in turn lead to space for negotiations and a political settlement.
Governments are no doubt hoping that this Resolution casts such doubt in Gaddafi’s mind that he withdraws or puts on hold any further advance against Benghazi so making military intervention unnecessary.They will be concerned, however, if Gaddafi decides to chance his arm by blitzkrieging Benghazi on the grounds that it might take the international community weeks rather than days before they can assemble the necessary capability. That would be high risk strategy.
In all of this it is still far from clear which countries will enforce these provisions and how long it might take to assemble the necessary force capability. The Resolution legitimates military action, but it of course takes a coalition of the willing to actually enforce it.
Britain and France have obviously taken the lead on this and both countries will be expected to contribute significantly to any operation. It should be remembered, however, that Cameron faced a sceptical House of Commons on Monday. The Resolution will be presented as a diplomatic coup for Cameron when he faces MPs today, but it will not in itself allay back bench concerns about mission creep. He might seek to avoid a vote in Parliament on this by arguing that a decision has already been taken in Cabinet. Constitutionally that is allowed, but it might be unwise politically.
Having voted for the Resolution, rather than abstaining, the US will be expected to play a part. The question is whether the US will play a pivotal or supportive role. Having been resistant to the idea of military intervention until the eleventh hour, Obama will have a tough job explaining to a sceptical US public what the objectives are and why the US should participate. For all the talk of international diplomacy, he will also need Congressional approval authorising the use of force and that takes time.
With such a fluid situation both internationally and on the ground in Libya, it has to be hoped that consensus as to the best way forward emerges quickly and before further tragedies unfold.