Libya – No fly zones FT 4 March 2011

Libya – No fly zones FT 4 March 2011

 Commenting on Libya the other day, ex-British Prime Minister John Major said “Events alter opinions”. He was right and he should know.


At the start of the Bosnian War very few were calling for military intervention (and John Major’s government was strenuously resisting it). By the end of the war, almost no-one wasn’t.


What changed the situation was events – and specifically Srebrenica and the infamous mortar bomb massacre in Sarajevo’s Markale market.
The problem is that between the two, around a quarter of a million people were killed, two million driven from their homes, the United Nations was humiliated and international rhetoric was shown to be sham.


There is a second parallel with today. In 1991 we were told that the Yugoslav crises would prove “The hour of Europe” had arrived. It hadn’t. Europe proved itself divided and impotent, even though the Balkan wars were in our backyard.


It is difficult not feel a wearisome sense of déjà vu watching European leaders on Friday saying something needed to be done in Libya, but failing completely to say what.


Libya is not our backyard. But what happens there and in the other countries of the Maghreb matter to us Europeans very much. If those who have overturned dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt (and hopefully Libya) in this “Arab spring” can create effective, broadly secular democratic republics on the model of Turkey, Europe’s crucial relationship with its southern (and oil-providing) neighbours will be fundamentally altered to the advantage of both. If they fail, then dictatorships will inevitably follow – and very likely extremist Islamist ones. The nature of our neighbourhood is being decided on the dusty streets of Libya’s towns and that matters to us very much indeed.


But now – again – time is not on our side. Muammer Gaddafi’s indiscriminate use of overwhelming force against his people – in flagrant contravention of his international obligation to protect them – is now having an effect. To do nothing is to acquiesce to the crushing of a people, which will almost certainly be accompanied – if it has not been already – by horrors which amount to crimes against humanity.


So what should we do? What can we do?


The answer is a lot in the long term – assistance, aid, trade, maybe visa liberalisation for new Arab democracies as they emerge.


But for Libya, there won’t be a long term unless we can do something quickly to stop Col Gaddafi slaughtering his people’s aspirations and killing many of them in the process.


It is clear that diplomatic pleading will not persuade him to halt or leave – the most impotent moment of the European summit on Friday was when leaders called on him to go, knowing he would do no such thing.


Of the other options available to us, only one makes sense and that is a no fly zone. Could it lead to us being drawn in further? possibly. Is that a risk? Certainly. But, as with Bosnia, we must calculate not just the risks of action, but also the risks of inaction. Here too, the risks of standing by and doing nothing are greater than those which will be incurred by a careful, graduated and proportionate response designed to assert the primacy of international law and enable the people of Libya to make their own choice about their government.


Thanks to the lead given by London and Paris we may assume the military preparations for a no-fly zone are broadly in place. We await only the right conditions to impose one.

First and most important there has to be a clear call from Libyans. This action must be at their initiation, not ours. They have already made this call.


The second is Arab regional support – perhaps even a regional face. The Arab League’s support for a no fly zone is remarkable and important. There now needs to be a diplomatic campaign to bring other Arab nations in.


It would be help this if Western leaders changed their language. To call for a no-fly zone as part of a revolution in favour of democracy not only sounds hypocritical given our past support for the region’s dictators, but is also very unlikely to attract the support of the those Arab nations who are neither democratic themselves, or very keen to become so soon. The case for action here needs to be framed around the urgent need to protect the ordinary Arabs of Libya and nothing else.


Third, the imposition of a no-fly zone will need at least the acquiescence, if not the active support, of the Security Council. The days when West could play fast and loose with the need for explicit UN legitimacy ended with Iraq and the new shift of power in the world.


There are currently discussions in train for a resolution to be put before the Security Council for the imposition of a no fly zone. It will be difficult of course to get China’s and Russia’s support, but not I hope impossible as the world continues to witness Col Gaddafi’s bloody progress in the desert. Given what is at stake for us, the right response of European leaders should not be to suck their teeth in indecision as they did last week, but to back this resolution and say they stand ready to enact it immediately if agreed.