My article in The Guardian, Comment is Free:
Several days after the Gaddafi regime began attacking its own people, the UN Security Council, relaxed and refreshed from its long weekend (the UN was on holiday on Monday), met on Tuesday afternoon to issue its weakest form of expression: a press statement. That statement condemned the violence, demanded that civilians be protected, and – almost laughably – called for political dialogue. It was, of course, lowest common denominator stuff.
We can safely assume that China, Russia and perhaps others resisted any stronger decision, on the familiar if discreditable grounds that the council has no business in the “internal affairs” of states. But even I was shocked to learn that the meeting only took place because the Libyan deputy representative at the UN, who had announced his refusal on Monday to serve his “genocidal” government, had requested it. Not one member of the council itself made that request.
In other words, had the diplomat not defected there would have been no meeting at all.
People are being killed in Libya. Every member of the UN has declared its commitment to protect civilians, including in circumstances where they are being attacked by their own government. In 2005, every member state signed onto the so-called “Responsibility to Protect” (which you can see here), which states, among other things, that all countries must prevent mass killing. The UN Security Council itself endorsed this principle in its own resolutions, including on Darfur and in its resolutions on protection of civilians (including this one). What is happening in Libya is the true test of such declarations, and it is for every UN member, including the UK and US, in their positions as permanent members of the council, to declare loud and clear – and now – that this principle must be respected, and if it is not, that consequences will follow.
I spent four and a half years negotiating resolutions on the Middle East at the UN Security Council. When it wishes, the council can make decisions in hours. We agreed a resolution condemning the 9/11 attacks in less than an hour, the morning after the attacks took place. Time is of the essence. The only message that Gadaffi will understand is one of real substance and force. Such a resolution should state, at a minimum:
• The demand that all violence cease immediately, and that if lethal force continues to be used, the government will face consequences. At this point, such consequences do not need to be spelled out (and would unlikely be agreed) but imply sanctions, and, in extremis, force.
• Immediate freezing of all assets and an explicit travel ban on members of the regime, until all violence is halted and has been fully investigated.
• Since Libya is not a party to the International Criminal Court, the Council can and should refer Libya to the ICC for an immediate investigation into possible war crimes.
• Demand that there be an immediate transition to a representative government, involving consulting civil society and all relevant political actors.
• The decision should be taken under chapter VII of the UN Charter, recognising that events in Libya are an international threat to international peace and security (there are already refugees flowing out of Libya), and requiring all UN members to comply (this reference also implies the threat of military enforcement action).
I would love to see the council agree a no-fly zone or exclusion zone, to prevent air attacks on civilians. However, unless someone is prepared to enforce such a ban, it is meaningless. Realistically, only the US has this capability and such a call would risk playing into Gaddafi’s hands in his specious claim that foreign forces are behind the unrest.
Such a resolution can be drafted and tabled very rapidly. All right-thinking countries should urge its immediate adoption.