A Libyan opposition fighter at a checkpoint in the eastern part of Benghazi, Libya, on March 14, 2011. (Photo: Ed Ou / The New York Times)
It's a great thing that the Obama administration has resisted calls for unilateral US military action in Libya, and instead is working through the United Nations Security Council, as it is required to do by the United Nations Charter.
Now, the administration needs to follow through on this commitment to international law by ensuring that foreign military intervention remains within the four corners of what the UN Security Council has approved. If it does not, and instead Western powers take the view that we now have a blank check to do whatever we want, the certain consequence will be that it will be much more difficult to achieve Security Council action in a similar situation in the future, and those who complain that the Security Council is too cautious will have only themselves to blame.
Some of the reporting on the Security Council resolution has been misleading. The Security Council has not authorized military action for any purpose. The Security Council has authorized military action necessary to protect civilians. It has not authorized military action to overthrow the Libyan government. Clearly, some people do want foreign military action to assist in the overthrow of the Libyan government, but such action has not been approved by the Security Council.
The text of the UN Security Council resolution can be found here.
Here is the first action item:
1. Demands the immediate establishment of a cease-fire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians;
The Libyan government has announced a cease-fire. It is certainly true, as Western leaders have noted, that announcing a cease-fire is not at all the same thing as implementing one. But before Western military forces start bombing Libya, efforts to achieve a cease-fire must be exhausted. To do otherwise would be to make a mockery of the Security Council.
It is crucial that the goal of protecting civilians, which the Security Council has endorsed, and the goal of overthrowing the Libyan government, which it has most certainly not endorsed, be kept distinct. There is a clear effort by some actors - especially the French government - to conflate these goals:
Earlier François Baroin, a French government spokesman, told RTL radio that action would come "rapidly," perhaps within hours, after the United Nations resolution authorized "all necessary measures" to protect civilians.
But he insisted the military action was "not an occupation of Libyan territory." Rather, he said, it was intended to protect the Libyan people and "allow them to go all the way in their drive, which means bringing down the Qaddafi regime." [Emphasis added.]
There is no doubt that some actors want a foreign military intervention to assist in the overthrow of the Libyan government. But there should also be no doubt that this goal has never been endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. Any foreign military action beyond what is necessary to protect civilians would be a military action that was not approved by the Security Council, and therefore, would be a military action that violates the United Nations Charter. Any foreign military action outside the framework of the UN resolution - in particular, any action that kills civilians - will be prosecutable as a war crime.