NEW YORK – At the United Nations headquarters, signs of a brewing debate as heated as the 2003 invasion of Iraq can be found aplenty.
Parallel to the growing criticisms of the Barack Obama administration’s military gambit in Libya in the US Congress, which saw the House of Representatives speaker John Boehner demand an explanation from President Barack Obama on the “contradictions” of his Libya policy, there is also a rising chorus of discontent in the UN community.
This reflects sharp divisions over UN Security Council resolution 1973 last Saturday, which established a no-fly zone in Libya and was weakened from the outset by abstentions from several key
countries – Russia, China, Germany, Brazil and India.
On Wednesday, after closed-door deliberations at the Security Council, an upbeat UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon expressed the optimism that “the international coalition will have a successful operation” regarding Libya. Unfortunately, this view is not shared by a large number of UN member states, many of whom, including the 53 members of the African Union as well as many members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), including Cuba, Venezuela, India and Brazil, have openly expressed their “rejection of any form of foreign military intervention in Libya”.
Thus, while Western supporters of “liberal humanitarian intervention” in Libya dominate the airwaves, their sway over the collective opinion of the UN community is actually diminishing, in light of the growing skepticism on the part of many developing nations regarding the true Western intentions behind Operation Odyssey Dawn.
The opinion that “Libya is attacked because of oil”, to paraphrase a China People’s Daily’s commentary, is far more popular among Third World delegates, some of whom have told this author that the UN and its prestige are bound to suffer as a result of its “inappropriate” action on Libya.
“We need a General Assembly intervention on this matter as soon as possible,” a NAM diplomat said on Wednesday, adding that “time is not on the UN’s side” as the longer foreign intervention continues the less popular the UN’s role will become. This is already reflected in a dwindling list of countries enlisted in the military campaign, compared to a growing unofficial yet powerful list of a “coalition of the opposed” at the UN.
A diplomat from South Africa, on the other hand, expressed optimism that the African Union’s call for a mediation meeting in Addis Ababa this Friday between the Libyan government and the rebels would be heeded by both sides. “Tripoli has accepted the invitation but we still don’t know if any rebel leader will attend,” he said.
Part of the problem concerns the (rather amorphous) rebels, who have set up a provisional government, and in New York have usurped the authority of the Libyan mission to the United Nations. A delegate from the African Union blamed both the rebels and the US-led coalition for preventing the landing in Libya earlier in the week of an African Union delegation – consisting of representatives from South Africa, Congo, Mali, Uganda and Mauritania – that was seeking to mediate between the warring sides.
Nor so far has the UN secretary general expressed any genuine backing for the AU’s conflict-prevention efforts in Libya, throwing his weight instead behind the US-led military campaign.
The trouble with Ban’s statement that “the military campaign will continue until Libya ends its hostilities with rebels” is that it looks at one direction only and, by ignoring the rebels’ share of responsibility for the ongoing hostilities, in effect condones violence by the rebels. This points at one of several “contradictions” of Ban’s shaky position on Libya, that includes his choice of a former Jordanian former minister, Abd al-Ilah al-Khatib, as UN special envoy on Libya.
“This was a poor choice by the secretary general because of bad blood between [Muammar] Gaddafi and the Jordanian king, who has supported the foreign military campaign and is now providing logistical support to the coalition – that is a veneer for US and NATO,” said the NAM representative.
Another reason for widespread misgivings in the UN regarding the no-fly resolution is that it is increasingly viewed as an American operation launched by the American president securing UN authorization to circumvent blocks in the US Congress, thus exacerbating legitimacy problems that were reflected in stinging criticism the UN as a pawn of Western powers by Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (see Obama fans flames of animosity in Iran Asia Times Online, March 24).
Also, the fact that US diplomats at the UN forced exemptions for Algerian and Ethiopian mercenaries from prosecution added fuel to the mounting criticisms of the UN’s initiative on Libya. As a result, only mercenaries from Tunisia, Chad, Niger, Kenya and Guinea will be subject to prosecution by the International Criminal Court, which is now investigating the crimes of Gaddafi’s regime.
To his credit, Ban has exerted some pressure on the US and its Western allies to limit their military campaigns, by expressing “extreme concern” about the plight of civilians, urging the countries enforcing the no-fly zone not to endanger civilian lives; this after receiving written concerns from Ukraine about the safety of its nationals in Libya.
Irrespective of Ban’s qualifier that the “operation in Libya is not open-ended”, the endgame is nowhere in sight and the conflict may turn into a protracted stalemate, in which case it is a sure bet that the proponents of resolution 1973 will lose the popularity contest in the international community, with debilitating consequences for the UN’s prestige and its secretary general.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
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