War in Libya

I was living in Paris in 1990 practicing law when the first Gulf War broke out. President George H.W. Bush led a coalition, pursuant to U.N. Security Council Resolution 678, to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Resolution 678 was adopted by a vote of 12-2 (Cuba and Yemen voting against, and China abstaining). I remember thinking then how interesting it was that the three television channels available to me on cable – CNN international, BBC and TF1 (the French station) carried the war “on TV” but the commentators presented the events quite differently. CNN had an all-star cast including Dan Rather and Christiane Amanpour who fascinated viewers worldwide. The BBC and French stations were more muted in their coverage.
Fast forward 20 years to the decision by the Security Council to empower UN Member States to pursue “all necessary measures” to protect civilians under threat of attach in their country embodied in Resolution 1973 – voted on March 17, 2011 — echoes very much Resolution 678. This time it was a case of intervention in a State’s internal conflict rather than the expulsion of an external aggressor. Perhaps that is why there were five significant abstentions: Russia, China, Germany, Brazil and India. This time, however, ike the last, the United States joined with European allies to press for Security Council authorization for the use of force. Hillary Clinton flew to Paris to exchange “bises” with French President Nicolas Sarkozy – France having decided to spearhead the operation ostensibly to save civilian lives as an example of the Responsibility to Protect in action. (The French press was not terribly enthusiastic about the whole matter and made fun of Sarkozy as “commandeur en chef”)
The Paris summit was carried live here, of course, but even more astonishing was that now it was carried not only on French stations and the BBC, but on CNN, Skynews, France 24, and, of course, Al Jazeera English (and Arabic). The presence of an Arab international television outlet is something one could not have imagined in 1990. What is quite interesting is that the differing perspectives actually seemed closer than they did in 1990 – that is, the multiplicity of media outlets seemed to be producing more convergence than divergence, although different issues were featured (and CNN International definitely does not seem to have the stars it had back in the good old days!). Perhaps they all keep each other honest? The one exception to this convergence is a channel called “Guysen TV” which offers a distinctive Israeli perspective on the Middle East. It was recently reported that China is going to start an English language (!) international station to offer a Chinese perspective on the world. In the immortal words of Tom Lehrer “who’s next?” (Better more TV than more nukes, anyway, seems like progress to me).
NATO began operations and the bombardments began. Many here in Paris have asked me about the legality of these operations. I personally don’t think there is any problem with them as they were authorized by the Security Council. Of course, the authorization is not a “blank check” and operations must be tailored to the aims of Resolutions 1973, which are quite limited. Moreover, all military operations must comply with the laws of war.
What of the wisdom of the intervention? That is a more difficult question. Even if protecting civilians immediately is the right thing to do, worries abound about what happens after Qaddafi is gone. Only time will tell. Others are now asking why there is no similar response to the Syrian situation. That is a good question. Finally, others worry about the deaths that the NATO bombardments could cause. They might take some comfort in the fact that the ICC had already been referred the situation before they began (see my earlier post). That means that the military operations on Libyan territory carried out by all ICC Party States are clearly potentially subject to the ICC’s jurisdiction. (The US managed to extract an exception for itself, which will unfortunately benefit all non Party States). This was true in the case of the 1999 intervention by NATO on behalf of Kosovo, versus the FRY, and while that campaign did result in civilian casualties and bombardment of arguably civilian objects, the casualties were in the order of 250-500 persons killed in 3 months of bombing according to the Report commissioned by the ICTY to investigate Serb allegations of war crimes. Compare those figures to the havoc and death wreaked by the “shock and awe” campaign of the US and the UK in Iraq in 2003, and I am left with little doubt that the presence of an active and functioning war crimes tribunal is a real constraint on the military operations of law-abiding governments and a true protection for civilians in a war. And that can only be a good thing.