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Critics howled with derision at the UN Security Council‘s response to the bloodshed in Libya this week.
An emergency session produced no action, not even a legally binding resolution: only the Council’s weakest form of expression, a press statement.
Here at the UN, however, Western diplomats were flush with the triumph of finally getting the Council to address at least one of the revolts in the Middle East. One called it the “strongest statement in years”.
That difference reflects the enormous gap in perception between the public and the diplomats over how the UN works and what it can do.
The Security Council was set up in 1945 to “protect international peace and security,” which at the time essentially meant preventing another world war.
Some Council members – China and Russia in particular – still hold to a narrow definition of what threats deserve UN attention.
In the case of Libya, they see a tyrant accused of killing his people as a domestic, if bloody, affair.
Others, like the European states, see the prospect of refugees flooding across borders as an international threat.
They also argue the Security Council’s role has evolved to include a “responsibility to protect” civilians from murderous governments.
But Council diplomats put great stock in sending a “unified message”.
They strive to achieve consensus among all 15 members, and they have to avoid a veto by one of the five permanent members – Britain, France, Russia, China and America.
So the Security Council tends to settle on the lowest common denominator.
That is why its responses are often bemoaned as inadequate by the world, but hailed by insiders as hard-fought achievements.
Still, we haven’t heard the last word from the Council on Libya yet. Western nations are pushing for action, not just statements.
That could include mandating safe passages for humanitarian goods, an arms embargo, sanctions, an investigation into alleged atrocities, the deployment of peacekeepers, a no-fly zone to protect civilians from regime air strikes, and/or military intervention.
But which of the steps listed above is likely to happen?
Military intervention can be safely ruled out: It is so complex and controversial that the Council has only twice taken that route – Korea in 1950 and Iraq in 1991.
Sending in peacekeepers, too, is a non-starter – typically, they are deployed to fortify existing truces or borders (not to fight) at the request of the government of a strife-torn country.
Instituting a “no-fly zone” over Libya enforced by fighter jets is also most unlikely. Council members are wary of such Western-led military measures after their experience in Iraq.
Authorising an investigation into Col Gaddafi’s violent crackdown is more feasible, but New York will almost certainly wait to see what comes out of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, which is currently debating such a measure.
Such a probe could prompt the Security Council to refer Libya to the International Criminal Court for a war crimes investigation, but that is not an easy step: Only Sudan has received such treatment, and some Council diplomats believe that was counter productive.
The concept of a humanitarian corridor has been tossed around, but no one’s very clear on what that would entail.
Some talk about asking neighbouring countries to ease border restrictions to facilitate convoys, although that seems to be happening already.
Perhaps the Security Council would formally endorse that step. UN humanitarian agencies are already poised to take their own action.
That leaves us with an arms embargo and sanctions targeting Col Gaddafi’s entourage and key members of the military and elite.
These might send a “political signal” that would encourage defection from the Colonel’s ranks, says a UN diplomat.
If the Security Council does authorise action, these last are the most likely options.
But before that, we may very well get more words – a more authoritative, tougher statement.
The Libyan revolt has put the UN under the spotlight, partly because the collapse of the state threatens a fallout more dangerous than that from the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, but also because European nations on the Security Council are under public pressure to be seen as doing something.
The trick is to win agreement from all Council members on something that is not dismissed as meaningless by people in the West, the region, and above all in Libya.