For the UN in general, and the Security Council in particular, a call for ground forces in Misurata pits one of the UN's core principles - respect for national sovereignty - against its mandate to protect the lives of innocents caught up in the wheels of war.
Misurata siege reopens UN military action dilemma
NEW YORK // A plea by Libyan rebels for foreign troops to avert a bloodbath in Misurata is likely to reignite the debate over whether the United Nations should authorise military force to stop rogue governments from massacring their own people.
The city has been under siege by forces loyal to Col Muammar Qaddafi for more than a month. Unconfirmed reports indicate hundreds of innocent civilians have died under an indiscriminate rain of mortar and artillery shells.
The bloodshed has prompted the rebels' first request for foreign ground forces - a deployment for which UN Security Council authorisation would undoubtedly be sought. A senior member of the city's governing council, Nuri Abdullah Abdullati, said yesterday the insurgents were asking for the forces to help stop the killing on the basis of "humanitarian and Islamic principles".
Explaining the rebel shift from refusing the help of foreign regulars to demanding it, Mr Adullati said that, "was before Qaddafi used Grad rockets and planes. Now it's a life-or-death situation."
For the UN in general, and the Security Council in particular, the dilemma pits one of the world's body's core principles - respect for national sovereignty - against its mandate to protect the lives of innocents caught up in the wheels of war.
That mandate is reflected in part by a doctrine called the "responsibility to protect," which was approved in 2005 and calls on UN members to stop widespread bloodshed with a Security Council authorisation of military force.
While the UN had previously authorized force by foreign powers and peacekeepers, the doctrine sought to establish a widely-accepted criteria for using coercive measures to protect civilians.
The upheavals in Libya and Ivory Coast are now putting the theory to the test because "other political agendas intersect with the stated humanitarian intervention," said Jeffrey Laurenti, an expert on the UN for the Century Foundation.
So-called "humanitarian intervention" gained support in the 1990s after the major powers looked on as genocides were carried out in Rwanda and Bosnia. It remains controversial, though, with many seeing it as a fig leaf for a simple grab for more power, influence and control of trade by another name. The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified in part on humanitarian grounds, is the most frequently cited example.
Those worries were evident in the recent Security Council debates that led to resolutions for a no-fly zone over Libya and "all necessary" measures to protect civilians there and in Ivory Coast.
Those resolutions borrowed heavily from the responsibility-to-protect doctrine, and the interventions they authorised have been heavily scrutinised. The UN and France were criticised for pushing the limits of the Security Council mandate in Ivory Coast by taking sides in a conflict that erupted after last year's disputed election.
Likewise in Libya, a demand from US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, that Col Qaddafi "must go" has been criticised by Russia for overstepping Security Council resolution 1973. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said regime change is "violating the UN mandate".
Along with France, the US insists it does not seek regime change in Libya, while at the same saying that it does not envisage a democratic future for the country with Col Qaddafi in place.
Elana Berger, a researcher from the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, insists, however, that interventions aimed at regime change may be the only to way to fulfill the obligations set out in the responsibility-to-protect doctrine.
While the UN resolutions on Libya and Ivory Coast did not authorise the removal of leaders from office, they granted wide powers to foreign forces - a development reflecting a new willingness by Security Council members to tackle tyrants that should be welcomed, Ms Berger believes.
"I am more impressed by the unanimity we have seen than the dissenting voices," she said. "This debate has been over what action will be useful, not about sovereignty and whether the international community is allowed act."
Observers and rights advocates such as Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch say the responsibility-to-protect principle should be invoked by the Security Council less selectively and force used not only when it is "politically expedient".
Critics highlight, for example, the failure to protect civilians in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Zimbabwe from brutality. Others say France shows too much interest in its former colonies, and that Libya merited UN attention because of its oil reserves and strategic position on the Mediterranean coast.
While acknowledging its inconsistent application, writer James Traub argues that it is better to protect civilians on the rare occasions when foreign powers agree to act than never to bother at all.
"It's always going to be political and can always be criticised as hypocritical, and people who don't like the doctrine - mostly because they don't want to see intervention in their own country - will always be able to point to selective usage," he said.
That is likely to again be the case as debate escalates about what to do in Libya.
That a large-scale escalation of military intervention in Libya is even under consideration is noteworthy, Mr Traub said. The 2003 invasion of Iraq made it almost impossible to contemplate another intervention in a Muslim-majority country until the "world's anger had subsided sufficiently", he said.
Still, for the moment, most analysts agree that Britain, France and the US will have difficulty persuading other Security Council members to widen the mandate in Libya, perhaps by allowing them overtly to supply the poorly-equipped rebels with weapons.
Mr Laurenti said "opening the floodgates and arming the rebels would be a major breach" of the Libyan arms embargo and would alienate the Security Council's sceptics - Russia and China - enough to imperil future interventions under the responsibility-to-protect doctrine.
Stéphane Crouzat, spokesman for France's mission to the UN, said his country's support for intervention in Libya and Ivory Coast were an "important development for international law and how the Security Council works" but did not ensure the future of the responsibility-to-protect doctrine certain, he said.
"It's always high stakes when you start a military intervention," he said. "What it entails for the future is difficult to say because every case is unique. Both in Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast] and Libya we were able to intervene. Next time, the cards will be reshuffled and everything will be different."