Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
Libyan rebel forces' recruits take part in a three-week course at a training facility in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi June 29.

France admits it armed Libyan rebels

France's admission Wednesday that it provided weapons to Libyan rebels renews debate on the legality and wisdom of arming rebels in conflicts whose outcome is unpredictable.

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France revealed Wednesday that its forces parachuted weapons to Libya's rebels earlier this month, making it the first NATO country to disclose that it provided arms to rebel forces and renewing debate on the merits of such action.

The ambiguous wording of UN Resolution 1973, which authorized foreign intervention in Libya, has led to clashing interpretations of what is allowed under the guise of protecting civilians. There is no consensus on whether arming the rebels is permissible under the resolution's guidelines. According to NATO, France is the only country to provide weapons, the Associated Press reported.

UN Resolution 1970, passed in February, placed an arms embargo on the country, and some critics consider providing weapons to the rebels a violation of that resolution. However, resolution 1973, passed in March, offers a loophole in the arms embargo, according to proponents of arming the rebels, Reuters reports.

In exceptional circumstances, we can not implement paragraph 9 [of resolution 1970] when it's for protecting civilians," [French ambassador to the UN Gerard] Araud said.

Resolution 1973 authorized U.N. member states "to take all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya. It also adds "notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970" – referring to the arms embargo.

US and European officials have argued that the word "notwithstanding" is a loophole that could allow them to arm the rebels in the interest of protecting civilians. Araud made clear Paris subscribed to that view.

Security Council representatives say that Russia, China, and India disagree with arming the rebels and that the majority of the council members believe doing so violates the arms embargo, Reuters reports. Some have warned that ignoring resolution 1970 could lead China and Russia to do the same with Iran and North Korea.

“Individual NATO countries have basically started giving direct military aid to one of the warring sides,” Russia's NATO envoy Dmitry Rogozin said, explaining that it could be considered "direct interference in an internal conflict," RIA Novosti reports.

The weapons were dropped in the Nufusa Mountains in western Libya, where rebel fighters were under siege from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi's forces. France intended to drop only humanitarian supplies such as water, food, and medicine. But the situation worsened, “So France also dropped equipment that allowed them to defend themselves — self-defense assets — which is to say weapons and munitions,’’ said French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard, according to AP.

The top commander of the rebel forces, who says he is in constant contact with the fighters in the mountains, denies receiving any weapons, the Los Angeles Times reports. He suggested that France may be lying about the weapons drop as part of its "psychological warfare" against Qaddafi. "They're fighting more of an information war," he said. "They need to fight Kadafi."

The disclosure came after French newspaper Le Figaro reported that France provided the rebels with large numbers of weapons, including "rocket launchers, assault rifles, machine guns, and anti-tank missiles." The government sought to correct the record, claiming that only "light munitions and weapons" were provided, the Financial Times reports.

Some Nato officials said France’s admission that it was supplying arms could lead to debate inside Nato over whether more should be done on this scale.

“There are many people who think the time has come to get serious,” said an official at Nato headquarters in Brussels. “The fact that the French are prepared to let the news media know they are doing this kind of thing reflects that.”

On Thursday, the African Union condemned the weapons drop, saying that putting more arms in the region increases the chances of future violence. "The risk of civil war, risk of partition of the country, the risk of Somalia-sation of the country, risk of having arms everywhere... with terrorism," said African Union Commission Chief Jean Ping, according to the BBC. "These risks will concern the neighbouring countries."

"What worries us is not who is giving what, but simply that weapons are being distributed by all parties and to all parties," he also said, according to RIA Novosti. "We already have proof that these weapons are in the hands of al-Qaeda, of traffickers. These weapons will contribute to the destabilization of African states."

The US history of arming rebels indicates this is a valid concern, Max Fisher wrote in The Atlantic in March, when the debate over arming Libya's rebels first came up. He cites the decisions to arm the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, anti-communist militias in Argentina and Honduras, and the Nicaraguan contras as just a few examples of support that went wrong later on.

But France and the UK largely lack the same unhappy track record. The US will need to persuade them not to provide weapons by explaining to them the possible negative outcomes, Fisher argues.

The most common outcome of US-funded rebellions has been to create instability and violence that, whether in the form of intractable insurgencies or low-level sectarian fighting, tends to last far longer than whatever political conflict they were meant to resolve. The flood of arms – particularly the easy-to-use, impossible-to-destroy, grimly effective Kalashnikov rifle variants – make weapons so prolific and so cheap that terrorism, criminal gangs better armed than the police, and militias of every political and religious stripe are all but impossible to stamp out. … Violence begets violence, instability begets instability, and the U.S. tactic of arming rebels has been incredibly successful at fomenting both, but has done little to end either, often creating problems far outsizing those we originally meant to solve.

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