Libya: Is a no-fly zone the solution?

March 16, 2011 - 0:0

If the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) discusses the imposition of a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) over Libya in the next few days it should give serious attention to the situation on the ground and the evolving military and political dynamics in the country.

When Libyans in Benghazi rose up against the Gaddafi government on February 15, 2011, it echoed popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Given the despotism, nepotism and elite corruption of the Gaddafi government, many of us felt that Muammar Gaddafi should quit immediately. Instead of quitting he used excessive force to suppress the mass protest. It angered international public opinion.
In this regard, it should be conceded that unlike the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab states, the protesters in Libya resorted to arms almost from the very outset. Their rapid take-over of a number of towns in the initial phase of the conflict was due in some measure to this. The ensuing violence has injected a new and unhealthy element into what has been otherwise a peaceful uprising of the Arab masses in North Africa and West Asia.
It now appears that Gaddafi has regained the initiative. His forces have recaptured important towns and large swathes of the country. Well-trained and better equipped soldiers and air-power, which his adversaries are without, have helped his military offensive. But if he has made significant advances, it is also because he still has the support of a segment of the populace and of some of the principal tribes. This is why he and his henchmen are now projecting the state’s military action as a legitimate attempt to put down an armed rebellion which any government in its place would do. And the Gaddafi government is in law the legitimate government of Libya.
What this means is that the situation that faces the UNSC has become exceedingly complex. If it tries to establish a NFZ now-- given Gaddafi’s present control over Libya and its people--- it would be seen as “unlawful intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, prohibited by Article 2(7) of the UN Charter”, to quote Professor Richard Falk, the distinguished expert on International Law. Gaddafi will retaliate especially since the force mandated by the UNSC to establish a NFZ (if it happens) will first have to cripple Gaddafi’s air defenses. This could prolong the conflict. More lives will be lost, including civilian lives.
There is also no guarantee that a NFZ will succeed to dislodge Gaddafi from his perch. If, after a couple of weeks of NFZ, he is still in power and able to maintain his grip upon his people, the UNSC force may be compelled to send in ground troops. There will then be a full-scale war. More bloody battles will occur. A segment of the Libyan population, a lot of other Arabs and concerned groups in the Global South and even the Global North will view the UNSC force as a camouflage for Western invasion and occupation of Libya. Given what has happened in the Arab world in recent years -- specifically the occupation of Iraq since 2003 -- it will be perceived as yet another crafty Western ploy to gain control over an extremely rich, sparsely populated oil-exporting state.
Even as it is, some commentators are contemptuous of claims made by leaders in certain Western and Arab capitals that the real purpose of the NFZ is to save lives. Why, they ask, were their governments not concerned about saving lives in Gaza when it was being pounded by Israeli jets and missiles in January 2009? Or Shabra and Shatilla in Lebanon in 1982? Or the Ivory Coast today? Or the Congo and the Sudan yesterday?
Rather than be accused of selective justice and biased maneuvers, Western and other governments in the UNSC should explore, with greater sincerity and seriousness, political remedies to the conflict in Libya. One such remedy already adopted by the UNSC on 26 February 2011 is resolution 1970(2011) which inter alia imposes travel and asset sanctions against Gaddafi, his family and his aides, and an arms embargo upon the Libyan government. Though it will take a bit of time for its full impact to be felt, these are potentially effective measures. The UNSC should also endorse efforts by African and Latin American leaders close to Gaddafi to meet with him and other Libyan leaders including representatives of the rebellion. They should try their very best to persuade the long-serving Libyan dictator to step down on the basis of a time-table and within the framework of a solution that ensures the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Libya.
Such a resolution to the conflict is a lot better than escalating it through a No-Fly Zone, the outcome of which is fraught with uncertainties.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) and Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Photo: Group of Eight powers dropped French-led proposals for a no-fly zone to end bombardment in Libya, making no mention of it in a closing statement read out by French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe. (Getty Images)