Libya no-fly zone: Moment of reckoning for the United Nations?
The United Nations' early response to the Libya crisis shows it can be relevant, some say. Now the Security Council is poised to take up a no-fly zone.
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In the forefront of the push for a resolution is France. As rebels fighting Qaddafi's forces lose ground, retreating from their last stronghold west of Tripoli Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in a radio interview that had the international community acted last week, the rebels would be in a much stronger position.Skip to next paragraph
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But world leaders including President Obama are insisting that the response to Libya must be multilateral and come through international organizations. Mr. Obama's willingness for the US to take a back seat is making room for others, beginning with some in the region, to act.
Moreover, global political reaction to the uprisings in North Africa has emphasized universal values and human rights rather than countries' strategic interests – mirroring traditional UN policy. For the moment, at least, the world seems to be moving toward the UN's view of things, and that has given the international organization a rising "relevance."
"It's true that Qaddafi's particularly egregious actions have spurred the international community in ways that another crisis might not have, and that has forged a unity in the organization that we don't see every day," says Edward Luck, senior vice president at the International Peace Institute in New York. "But we're also seeing the invoking of universal norms and standards that go to the heart of what the UN is about, and that's something you wouldn't have imagined even a few months ago."
For example, regional organizations like the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference set the tone with strong statements on Libya that encouraged the UN to take more forceful action. The Security Council resolution on Libya, which passed unanimously, took those cues and invoked an emerging "responsibility to protect" doctrine. In effect, it advanced the idea that a leader who either fails to protect the country's population or openly attacks it is opening the door to international intervention.
That reference, combined with the council's referral of Qaddafi to the ICC, suggest that the UN is at the forefront of an effort to redefine national sovereignty, subjecting the governing class in any country to the threat of international intervention if they do not uphold rights and values central to the UN's character and mission.
This threat of international intervention "is a serious factor people have to take into consideration," says Lynn Pascoe, the UN's undersecretary-general for political affairs.
"If you have your war planes out there shooting people, it's going to cost you – and that's a good thing."
On one hand, it is somewhat surprising that the Security Council would be willing to make such a strong statement. Its makeup this year includes several revolving members such as India and Brazil who are hoping for a permanent seat some day. But rather than acting as a drag on action, they have been catalysts.
"The new aspirants are eager to show that the Security Council is a serious place," says a senior UN official. "They don't want to throw sticks in the spokes, they're out to show the Security Council can work."
Yet critics counter that for all these heady ideals, UN action on Libya has not amounted to anything tangible.