Don’t Let the Security Council ‘Authorize’ Intervention in Libya

by Mario Loyola

The idea of a no-fly zone over Libya appears to have more legs than teeth. The Pentagon seems to have little stomach for new foreign engagements, but I expect their contingency planning has nevertheless gone far beyond no-fly zones to planning for a major boots-on-the-ground stability operation, in case the humanitarian crisis becomes a really major catastrophe. But whatever the Pentagon decides to do, I am for the moment more worried about the State Department.

On February 24, NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen made the somewhat amazing statement that any NATO intervention in Libya “would require a clear mandate from the United Nations.” The NATO intervention in the Balkans during the 1990s had no such mandate. Indeed, the U.S. didn’t even try to get a Security Council resolution, chiefly because the Russians stupidly telegraphed their intention to veto any resolution. At the time, it was the position of the U.S. and allied governments that a decision of the NATO Council was legitimacy enough. Why is the NATO secretary general now saying that the NATO Council is not legitimacy enough? And why does he think it’s his place to say what rights his masters, the NATO governments, have and don’t have under international law? Even Kofi Annan, in the run-up to the Iraq war, studiously avoided exceeding his competency by making pronouncements on what U.S. actions might require Security Council authorization. As Kofi Annan himself argued (or at least intimated) on more than one occasion, the Security Council’s failure to act should not be an obstacle to necessary humanitarian interventions.

Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal quoted the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, as saying that, for any intervention in Libya, “All of us want a Security Council resolution for that eventuality. That’s a pretty clear requirement. … We would certainly seek one.” Such a statement is bad enough coming from a NATO secretary general, but it is totally unacceptable from a U.S. official.

Curiously enough, however, that’s not what Daalder actually said — not if the State Department’s official transcript of the press briefing is to be believed. You will see, in the following exchange, that the word “requirement” was in the reporter’s question — not in Daalder’s answer — and it makes a big difference:

AMBASSADOR DAALDER: [. . .] With respect to a Security Council resolution for a no-fly zone, all of us want to know — want the — a Security Council resolution to — for that eventuality. So there is — that’s a pretty clear — a pretty clear stand.

QUESTION: And that’s an absolute — that’s a requirement; without one, there wouldn’t be a no-fly zone?

AMBASSADOR DAALDER: What I said is everyone would want a UN Security Council resolution. We would certainly seek one.

In the July/August 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs, I argued that U.S. actions must be “legal” in order to have the “legitimacy” necessary for the sustained political support that ultimately defines the reach and effectiveness of U.S. power. We have to follow the rules — when the rules don’t work, we must get them changed. Ignoring them is not an option.

One really terrible rule (of quite recent vintage) is the one that requires Security Council authorization for humanitarian interventions and the prevention of remote threats. The Security Council needs to get out of the business of authorizing states to do things they already have the right to do, because over time, the perception is created that without Security Council authorization, we don’t have the right to do them.

The first time the word “authorize” appeared in a Council resolution in connection with the use of force was Resolution 678 (1990), which “authorized” the expulsion of Saddam from Kuwait. (The Korean War resolution “called on” states to defend South Korea, but didn’t “authorize” any use of force). As Margaret Thatcher argued privately to Pres. George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker at the time, Security Council authorization was redundant given the right of collective self-defense against an armed attack under Article 51. But the resolution was needed for political purposes, and now we see the consequences: Almost exactly 20 years later, the NATO secretary general says that without U.N. authorization, NATO cannot act to halt a crime against humanity. Luckily, that statement did not come from an American official, and hopefully never will, but the rule is nevertheless becoming entrenched, and sooner or later will block some vitally necessary action.

There’s a lot more to say about this. For now, let it suffice to say that if we do go to the Security Council, let’s make sure the resolution “calls on” members to intervene in Libya, or “requests” a humanitarian intervention, or “decides” something — anything so long as the word “authorize” is not used. The word “authorize” should never appear in a Security Council resolution.

It will be very unfortunate if the Security Council votes to “authorize” the use of force by NATO or anybody else. Force is already justified by the humanitarian crisis at hand. The Pentagon may decide it’s not a good idea, but the State Department should be making it clear that we have every right to act, NATO has every right to act, and we don’t need anybody’s permission.

And while they’re at it, they might send the NATO secretary general a note clarifying his responsibilities.

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