Libya as a Multilateral Moment

The extraordinary violence carried out by Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya has captured the world’s attention and created a multilateral moment. Despite shocking acts, such as the aerial bombardment of civilians, it has been clear that for the time being, no individual government would or could take responsibility to resolve the situation. Hence, the task of upholding the international community’s norms fell to international organizations.

A multilateral moment is a situation in which action is required on a particular problem that cannot be solved by any single country. We have reached multilateral moments before, but they are not common. In some instances, the international community rose to the occasion, as in the deployment of a coalition of forces to East Timor to stop post-referendum violence or the unanimous UN Security Council support for the United States to act in self-defense after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In other situations, such as Rwanda and Srebrenica, the multilateral moment passed with ignominious inaction.

To be clear, the crisis in Libya is about the response of the Libyan people to the authoritarian rule of Qaddafi, and it will be resolved primarily by Libyans. External actors might have a role in the outcome, but it will not be decided by them.

As much as organizations such as the United Nations are considered by many to be relics of the mid-twentieth century, when it became clear that no individual state or informal group of states was willing to act regarding Libya, the world turned to them for action. Their response has been mixed, but some notable steps have been taken. It remains to be seen how ultimately effective the UN response will be if the crisis becomes protracted.

On February 22, the Arab League and the UN Security Council each issued statements on the situation in Libya. The Arab League condemned the use of the military against the protestors and barred Libya from taking part in League meetings. The Security Council released a press statement, the lowest level of expression of the Council’s views, which called on the government of Libya to meet its responsibility to protect its civilians, condemned the violence and use of force against civilians, and underscored the need for those responsible for the attacks to be held accountable. On its face, the statement touched many important points, but it was clearly just words in a situation of urgency. After unconscionably lengthy silences, the African Union (AU) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) spoke out as well. The AU criticized Qaddafi for “the disproportionate use of force,” and the OIC issued a statement saying that it considers the “ongoing coercion and oppression in Libya as a humanitarian catastrophe which goes against Islamic and human values.”

By February 25, the UN Human Rights Council, which has often accurately been criticized for not taking human rights abuses seriously—especially those committed by its members—took unprecedented action. In a resolution adopted by consensus, the Council strongly condemned the gross and systematic human rights violations committed in Libya, voted to recommend to the General Assembly that Libya’s membership on the Council be suspended, and requested Navanethem Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights, to send to Libya a commission of inquiry into the facts and circumstances of alleged human rights violations. The initial cosponsors of the resolution were African and Arab members. The General Assembly followed the Human Rights Council’s recommendation on March 1 and suspended Libya by consensus.

With violence increasing, and widening popular calls from around the world for military intervention in Libya, on February 26, the Security Council met again to adopt unanimously resolution 1970, which imposes targeted sanctions (asset freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo) on Qaddafi and his associates and refers the potential crimes against humanity carried out by the regime to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The resolution was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which requires all states to cooperate in its implementation. Resolution 1970 is a strong and clear expression of the international community’s revulsion with the actions of the Qaddafi regime. The unanimous referral to the ICC is groundbreaking and could set a precedent for future action.

By most accounts, the Security Council negotiations over the text of the resolution were difficult, with certain member states expressing concerns about the ICC referral. A number of states had to swallow long-held misgivings about meddling in the internal affairs of another state. The negotiations were carried on behind closed doors, so we do not know exactly who took what position. But the fact that it took four days to reach agreement on the resolution—lightning speed in Security Council terms—underscores that there was not easy unanimity among its members.

Despite the strength of the resolution, it is unlikely to result in an immediate halt to the violence. International organizations are not set up to end violence rapidly, even though after each horror we assure ourselves that such atrocities will occur “never again.” The problem with rapid action through multilateral organizations such as the United Nations is that getting the agreement of member states is hard. It is made more difficult in the UN Security Council among the veto-wielding permanent members who hold strongly divergent views on external intervention. The disagreement is over whether sovereign borders should protect states from intervention, or if sovereignty is contingent on whether a state observes or seriously violates the rights of its people. China and Russia—and many formerly colonized states such as India—are wary of what they believe to be an easy Western willingness to interfere in the internal affairs of states.

Even though the multilateral project is so fraught with these difficulties, multilateral moments will continue to arise. Resolution 1970 shows that the members of the Security Council can rise to the occasion. The unanimous vote in the Council on measures to be taken against the Libyan regime gives them a legitimacy that would not attach to a unilateral action. It also advances the legitimacy of the Security Council as a body that can cope with critical challenges. That is the good news. The bad news is that the United Nations and relevant regional organizations took far too long to respond to the crimes being committed by the Libyan government and are still not able to take rapid action to stop those crimes. Progress in multilateral terms is slow and often fitful. However, as of this week, it is real and tangible.

Mark Quarterman is senior adviser and director of the Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation (C3) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Mark Quarterman