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After Qaddafi: A Security Council Divided

After Qaddafi: A Security Council DividedPeople are celebrating in Libya in response to the news that Muammar el – Qaddafi is dead. While the end of Qaddafi’s forty – two year dictatorship should be celebrated, the precedent set by NATO’s intervention should not. Atrocities were prevented and the country has been freed from Qaddafi’s iron clad rule, but the Security Council is unlikely to authorize coercive action to stop atrocities again anytime soon.

The Security Council’s quick and decisive response to the threat of atrocities in Libya was both impressive and surprising. After all, the Council failed to adequately respond to genocide in Rwanda, ethnic violence in Kosovo, and atrocities in Darfur. The Bush Administration’s decision to ignore a Security Council veto in 2003 gave credence to arguments that the Council was becoming increasingly irrelevant. But, the Obama Administration’s reinvigorated diplomacy, which succeeded in gaining consent for coercive action in response to violence in both Cote d’Ivoire and Libya this year, helped reestablish belief in the idea that the Council could work as it was supposed to.

Indeed, the Council’s vote to authorize a no-fly zone in Libya suggested that U.S. diplomacy was paying off. While nobody expected Russia or China to lead atrocity prevention efforts, the Council’s resolution on Libya seemed to indicate these two veto – wielding powers could be persuaded to refrain from hindering action in these situations. That perception was short – lived. Russia was quick to protest when the West sent military advisors to Benghazi to assist the rebels, noting that such action went beyond the narrow mandate authorized by the Security Council. Support for NATO’s intervention further crumbled when leaders of the military alliance admitted to pursuing regime change in Libya. And Russia, China, and Brazil only become more outspoken against the intervention after NATO airstrikes nearly hit Qaddafi’s compound in April.

Arguments that NATO acted within the bounds of Security Council Resolution 1973 are unpersuasive. Indeed, it would be difficult to claim that NATO’s offensive operations were consistent with the resolution, which authorized force solely for the purpose of enforcing a no – fly zone aimed at protecting civilians. Even if NATO’s legal argument were persuasive, it would be irrelevant because in the world of international politics, perceptions might as well be truths. And statements by decision-makers in Moscow and Beijing over the past few months indicate that they did not believe a vote on the Libya resolution was a vote for regime change. Importantly, NATO’s overreach gave Russia and China a powerful reason to distrust the West. Suspicions that the West will twist any authority granted by the Security Council to pursue its own agenda is one reason both Russia and China vetoed a resolution on Syria earlier this month.

Foreign Policy’s March Lynch recently noted that Russia and China would have vetoed the Syria resolution regardless of what happened in Libya. According to Lynch, the perception that NATO violated its mandate factored into diplomatic calculations, but it was more an “excuse for veto than a reason.” There is some truth to that. As I have written before, Russia has never been too enthusiastic about these revolutions, and Syria hits close to home for the Kremlin, which is concerned that popular revolts could unseat friendly dictators in nearby Caucasus states. Further, international support for intervention in Libya was far more significant than for coercive action in Syria. Still, NATO’s actions in Libya helped reduce international support for more robust action in Syria, and provided Russia and China cover for their vetoes on the Syria resolution.

Yesterday was a historic day. The tyrant that ruled Libya for forty – two years is dead. The rebels have consolidated control over most of the country. And, NATO looks prepared to declare victory and end the mission. There is no doubt that Libya is in a better place today than back in January. Yet, NATO’s intervention in Libya has deepened the divide between the West and other Council members, and prevented the Security Council from acting timely and decisively in response to atrocities in Syria. While the West’s bait and switch helped end the conflict in Libya much sooner, it has also led to paralysis at Turtle Bay.



Trevor Keck

Trevor Keck is currently a fellow with the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC) based in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he is researching civilian casualty issues, and advocating for policies that will better protect civilians from the conflict in Afghanistan. Trevor holds a graduate degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, at Tufts University, where he concentrated in international security and public international law, and BA in peace and conflict studies from Chapman University. Trevor's writings on this blog may or may not reflect the views of CIVIC.

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