Libya’s Test of the New International Order

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The current dangerous situation in Libya has become a serious test for the international community’s resolve and credibility, especially in the context of a changing Arab world. In particular, it is a test of the ability of a much heralded multipolar new world order, which includes the United States and Europe and the newly emerging actors, China, Brazil and India. The challenge now is how to respond to a situation where the UN believes there are occurring gross violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including “crimes against humanity.”

It is a test that the international community has to pass. Failure would shake further the faith of the people’s region in the emerging international order and the primacy of international law. Success would demonstrably draw a line in the sand to deter other Arab autocrats who resort to attacking their people rather than dialogue and genuine reforms.

With Qaddafi and his sons vowing to die in Libya, a decisive battle for the liberation of Tripoli seems imminent. Calls for international support have also grown louder both from inside and outside the country. Furthermore, the rising spillover effects of refugees on both African and European continents as well as oil prices and world commerce, have turned the Libyan situation in to a threat to international peace and security.

To date, the response of the international community has been painfully slow. The United Nations Security Council, which this year includes Brazil, India and Germany in addition to its permanent members, the US, Russia, China, the UK and France, finally met last Tuesday following credible and persistent reports of more than one thousand deaths in under a week. In fact, it was the first time the world’s principal body responsible for addressing threats to international peace and security had met since the uprisings in the Arab world started in Tunisia in December.

A non-binding press statement, not a resolution or a presidential statement, was the hard won result of four hours of negotiations. World leaders took comfort from achieving a consensus condemning the regime’s actions and that the statement called on the regime “to meet its responsibility to protect its citizens.”  Even this outcome was in doubt as the Russian and Chinese delegations attempted to water down the most significant parts of the statement, including efforts to hold accountable those attacking civilians and a possible UN investigation in to the current events. These objections were finally dropped when the Arab League produced its own strongly worded statement and as diplomats listened to Qaddafi’s extraordinarily threatening TV appearance where he claimed he had “not yet ordered the use of force” and warned that “when I do, everything will burn.”

Worse still, after days of shameful silence, the UN Human Rights Council (HCR) finally met today in special session to consider the situation in Libya. While the Council has now proposed suspending Libya from the HCR to the UN General Assembly, the country remains one of its 47 elected members required to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” Notably, the HRC has decided to send an international commission of inquiry to investigate “alleged violations of international humanitarian law in Libya.”

With today’s meetings of the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council coinciding with increasing reports of fighting around Tripoli, the international community’s efforts are coming under particular scrutiny.  It is imperative “that the nations and people’s of world speak with one voice” as President Obama has said, but also act as one to end the violence.

The United States today showed leadership by announcing that it will impose unilateral sanctions on the Qaddafi regime. It has also indicated that US spy agencies were monitoring for evidence of violence or atrocities by the regime.

However, ending the violence will not be an easy task. Many have wondered what can the international community do short of a massive military intervention to influence events on the ground in Libya. Libyans are not seeking such foreign intervention – this is their fight, which they are prepared to sacrifice for and win.

Instead, swift declaratory and targeted actions by the international community can help tip the balance in favor of the anti-regime forces. In particular, such actions will encourage further resignations of senior regime figures and crucially, lead to further desertions of senior officers and their units from the Libyan armed forces.

At this stage, strong declarations from the international community are important. A strong and swift UN Security Council resolution under Chapter VII condemning the actions of the regime as well as containing specific provisions would provide strong evidence of the international community’s resolve in ending the violence.

The resolution should express serious concern that Libya has not met its responsibility to protect its citizens from war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing and invoke UN Security Council Resolution 1674, which sets the stage for the international community to intervene more coercively to protect civilians.

The Council should commit its support to the newly established Human Right Commission’s international commission of inquiry. Such an action would set the conditions to refer Qaddafi and other senior regime figures to the International Criminal Court or a newly established international tribunal, if they are found to be in violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. Such a provision would send a powerful message to all Libyans.

Other provisions in the resolution should include an asset freeze targeting Qaddafi and his family and an arms embargo to stop the influx of weapons and fighters in to the country. It should also include a strong call to allow access of international humanitarian actors and ensure their safety. To enforce this, the resolution should contain provisions to establish a no-fly zone over Libyan territory. This would be a serious measure, which some in the international community have cautioned is equivalent to a declaration of war. However, with the Libyan air force seemingly in disarray with a number of pilots defecting and ejecting from their aircraft, a no-fly zone is unlikely to come under any serious and sustained challenge. Rather, such a measure should have the effect of further demoralizing air force pilots and effectively grounding all Libyan aircraft.

With the UN Security Council members meeting today to discuss a possible resolution, the question is can they respond swiftly and decisively regarding Libya? Previous experience, particularly of the workings of the UN Security Council point to a drawn out and protracted negotiation over several days, possibly weeks. This will not do.

The permanent members of the Council, including Russia and China, carry a particularly heavy responsibility in ensuring that the international community takes strong action now.

Otherwise, the people in Libya and the vast number of people in the region who are concerned about events in the country will not understand why the international community is hesitating while innocent and largely unarmed citizens continue to be threatened and attacked.

It is important that the members of the powerful states club, including its newer members – China, Russia, India, Brazil – as well as the established actors, the US and European Union understand that their national interests can be compatible with the people of the  region’s demands for freedom, human rights and democracy. In a changing Middle East where citizens are demanding a greater role in choosing their representatives, respecting and promoting these values will in the future provide the best path for all states to further their own interests in the region. Starting with the urgent situation in Libya, the people of the region are watching and expecting.