The United Nations in Libya

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April 2011 | On the Issues by Abiodun Williams

April 21, 2011

USIP’s Abiodun Williams discusses the United Nations’ role in Libya. For more on the U.N. in Libya, read USIP's Paul Hughes' Q+A on the No-Fly Zone in Libya.

Experts from the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) are closely following developments throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Read more.

How would you assess the effectiveness of the U.N.’s response to the conflict in Libya? What has worked? What is missing?

The U.N.’s response to the conflict in Libya demonstrates that the Security Council can act swiftly and decisively where action is needed, and that governments can muster the political will and military strength to fulfill their responsibilities, including the protection of civilians. I recall that in 1999, NATO took action to halt “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo, without seeking Security Council endorsement because it was assumed that any authorizing resolution would be vetoed.

In less than three weeks, the Security Council adopted two resolutions on Libya. The first, Resolution 1970, adopted on February 26, invoked the Libyan authorities’ responsibility to protect the Libyan people, demanded an immediate end to the violence, imposed an arms embargo and targeted sanctions, and referred the matter to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The second, Resolution 1973, adopted on March 17, in a historic move, authorized international military intervention by U.N. member states to protect civilians in Libya.

The General Assembly has also taken action. In February, the Assembly decided to suspend Libya from the Human Rights Council. On the diplomatic front, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy Abdel Elah Al-Khatib is in close contact with the Libyan authorities and the opposition, and trying to help broker a political settlement to the crisis.

The U.N. is a potentially powerful instrument for conflict prevention, management and resolution. It has at its disposal unique legal and moral authority. It can do what member states agree to give it the power to do. Not more.

The European Union (EU) has developed a “Concept of Operations” for Libya that includes the deployment of non-combat ground forces to support humanitarian operations. Is the U.N. likely to authorize such a step?

The humanitarian situation in Libya is worsening every day, especially in the besieged city of Misrata. According to the U.N.’s worst-case scenario estimate, as many as 3.6 million people could eventually require humanitarian assistance. Full and unimpeded access is a fundamental principle of humanitarian work and an essential prerequisite for effective humanitarian action, especially in zones of conflict such as Libya. The Libyan government is under strong moral obligation to provide the U.N. humanitarian access, including to rebel areas.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which brings together humanitarian actors to ensure coherent responses to crises, is usually hesitant to have military escorts for humanitarian convoys because of concern that this would compromise humanitarian principles of impartiality and independence. However, if the Libyan government refuses to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to all those in need, the U.N. might have no alternative but to authorize troops to protect aid deliveries. Key member states would push for such action, but OCHA’s position on the matter would be an important factor in the UN’s ultimate decision.

Current operations have not succeeded in bringing an end to conflict in Libya. Nor have they prevented forces loyal to Col. Qadaffi from advancing into rebel-held areas. What are the implications for the U.N. if the conflict in Libya continues for an extended period of time?

It is an inescapable fact that the U.N. is often judged by what it does in particular crises. Its role in Libya is no exception. But progress is never easy or quick in such operations. These interventions take time and I think the Security Council understands that. And as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon observed at the Cairo Conference on Libya on April 14, the U.N.’s engagement in Libya will “span the full range of peacemaking, peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction.”

For now, the Security Council resolutions have set the scope and limits of what should be done, and the U.N.’s performance will be evaluated against the goals of the resolutions. If the objectives of the two resolutions are not achieved, this would undermine the credibility of the Security Council which has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, tarnish the image of the Organization, and weaken the morale of all those who look to the U.N. for help in preserving the peace, and in protecting their human rights. It could also lead to a crisis of confidence within the Security Council, and lessen the political will of member states to implement the responsibility to protect. I do not think that any of the 15 members of the Security Council would wish to take responsibility for such an outcome.