By now this is a cheap cliché, but let me begin with this: We know how the intervention in Libya began, but we still don´t know where it will lead. In this world of fast flash communication, information comes and goes and news get old very quickly. The dilemma about whether ‘we’ should intervene (with weapons, of course) in Libya reached its peak around 10 days ago but seems almost obsolete now. It is just a couple of weeks since Chris Riddell published the cartoon below in The Observer. Terms like ‘no-fly-zone’, unknown for most of us until very recently, belong now to the most basic vocabulary on radio and TV debates.
The intervention continues, armed forces of several countries (mostly Western, but also a few Arab states like Qatar and UAE so far) are involved, Gaddafi is in trouble, etc. In this context, the unrest spreads across the Arab world: Syria seems a likely candidate to go next. As said, the future is full of shadows. Many issues remain unclear:
How long will this war last? Will Gaddafi materialize his threats and retaliate against Europe? Will there be a divided Libya? When will Obama begin to seriously suffer the economic and political consequences of this war (the third one he would be involved in as President of the USA after Iraq and Afghanistan)? What is the extent of the political endorsement of the Arab League to the intervention? And last but not at all least, what is the ultimate goal of the military action? This is the main point of disagreement, because the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 calls for a ceasefire and is limited to the protection of the civilian population. However, rebel groups have already made clear that they will not respect the ceasefire. Moreover, European leaders are also talking about the need for regime change and about a post-Gaddafi democratic transition, a goal China and Russia (permanent members of the Security Council) will not agree upon.
Yet the scenario is not only blurry as regards to what’s going to happen in Libya. There is a clear uncertainty about the normative impact of this military intervention. 13 years after Kosovo, the crisis in Libya has shifted the focus back to what some call the ‘European sphere of influence’. The intervention in Kosovo wasn´t approved by the UN Security Council (it was propelled by NATO), but it catalyzed the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, ratified thus far by 114 countries, and paved the way for the innovative idea of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (also known as R2P). Actually, the text of the UN Resolutions (1970 and 1973) and the actions of the states involved in the military action are deemed by some as the general acknowledgment of the importance of R2P in the current Libyan context. Others, in contrast, are more sceptical. The UCLA scholars Asli U Bali and Ziad Abu-Rish, for example, argue that behind a façade of humanitarianism lies a set of concerns on the part of Europe and the US over oil markets, geopolitics and migrants and refugees. In a similar fashion, in a recent post Michael Hammer notes that:
While the normative arguments for intervention may have been significant in cases such as Darfur, Guinea, Kyrgyzstan, Burma / Myanmar, and Sri Lanka (see the ‘Global Center for the R2P’ for details), action there has been limited in most cases to bi- and multilateral diplomacy, peacekeeping and other work by the UN. To date direct military interventions by nation states (and mostly those affected by problems arising from disruptions of stable global energy supply), has mainly focused with or without UN blessing on countries where strategic energy interests were at stake or things were just a bit too close to home (such as in Bosnia).
The altruism of the military intervention in Libya is, at minimum, very questionable. Anyhow, the future effects of this intervention at the normative level cannot be denied. On the one hand, if the UN Security Council has honestly decided to appropriate the R2P discourse with all its consequences, the idea of ‘just war’ and the principles of jus ad bellum will change dramatically forever, for better or for worse. On the other hand, if the rationale of the intervention in Libya is purely geopolitical, the Security Council and great powers will have to explain this intervention when the UN Charter restricts the use of force (Chapter VII) to the maintenance of international peace and instability (Articles 1.1 and 2.4). The orthodox and traditional interpretation of the UN Charter is at odds with this conflict. And the allies are well aware of that. Does it mean that the intervention is a ‘bad thing’? Not necessarily. It only means that the Security Council is taking its leave of the ‘normal’ way. And, at the very least, this requires an explanation in the light of economic and security interests as well as international law.