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David Cole
Resolution 1973: Preventing a massacre
Although more clarity on intervention in Libya is needed, failure to act would have led to another Srebrenica.
Last Modified: 31 Mar 2011 15:13
Had forces not intervened in Libya, the consequences in Benghazi would have been reminiscent of when the West failed to intervene quickly enough in 1995, when 8,000 Bosniaks were slain in Srebrenica [GETTY/GALLO]

In 1995, eight thousand Bosniaks were massacred near Srebrenica because the West failed to act.

UNPROFOR was rightly and roundly criticised for its failings. It was generally accepted that there's an obligation to prevent crimes against humanity where we are able.

Libya lies just three hundred kilometres from Malta. If intervening in the Balkans was helping our neighbour, intervening in Libya is helping the family across the street.

There can be no doubt that the regime of Colonel Gaddafi was and is embarked on a deliberate and systematic campaign of violence to crush all opposition to his regime.

On February 19th, Ajdabiya was controlled by the government and Benghazi looked set to fall next, taking with it the Libyan uprising.

Since then, the situation has changed. A UN mandated arms embargo, blockade and no-fly zone are restricting the Gaddafi regime's ability to wage war against his own people.

Of necessity, this intervention has been put together quickly. Only now is there a clear command system, largely put together through NATO as the organisation in the region best able to do it.

Neither NATO's involvement nor, indeed, Resolution 1973 set out what happens next. That leaves questions that must be at least considered, if not answered.

Firstly, what happens if Gaddafi goes of his own accord? Even now, we can hope that he will follow Ben Ali and Mubarak in quitting.

The international community will then need to help the establishment of a democratic state, presumably through the Libyan Transitional Council. That will entail the LTC establishing effective control over the territory of Libya, but it will likely need assistance in terms of civilian reconstruction and food aid in the short term.

Secondly, what happens if Gaddafi is forced out or killed by the rebels? Presumably by that point, the LTC would have effective control over all or nearly all of Libya.

In both of those cases, Resolution 1973 would effectively no longer apply and the current military operations should and would cease.

It is essential, both from a moral point of view and to avoid charges of imperialism, that it is the Libyans who govern Libya. Crucially, decisions on the use of Libyan gas and oil should be made by Libya, and there should be no repetition of the problems around the Iraqi Hydrocarbon Law.

A third option seems possible: stalemate. If Gaddafi does not go and is not forced out, there could still be justification for continued actions to protect the rebels.

President Obama's interpretation of Resolution 1973 – that Gaddafi must withdraw from Benghazi, Zawiya, Ajdabiya and Misrata; and to allow in water, electricity, gas and humanitarian aid – at least suggests that a situation could arise where there is no mandate for further military action, but Gaddafi remains in power in some capacity.

Equally, the current situation may persist, with the Gaddafi regime not being repulsed by the rebels, even with the support of airstrikes.

In these cases, we would need to better understand what we wanted to do and how we wanted to achieve it.

Given the need for general agreement, a new resolution would probably have to be sought at the Security Council. Indeed, that would hold true for any changes or developments in Libya, such as providing weapons to rebel groups.

There is, undeniably, a lack of clarity. That lack of clarity seems to be at the base of concerns that Libya will become another Afghanistan or Iraq.

There have been charges made that this is an act of Western imperialism, or that it will become one. The mandate provided under UN Security Council Resolution 1973 specifically rules out an occupation force.

There is no political appetite or public desire to see another long conflict like Iraq or Afghanistan. Moreover, it is not clear, given existing military deployments, that NATO members could occupy Libya, even if they wanted to.

Yes, there needs to be clarity on what we will do, and as soon as possible, but the situation is ever-changing. In any case, an inability to predict the future does not mean that the West is about to embark on a neo-colonial expedition.

Nor does the fact that we cannot intervene everywhere to prevent crimes against humanity mean that we should not intervene anywhere.

Engaging in military action is always risky. Even in the Libyan case, there are arguments against intervention, as well as for different forms of military engagement.

What cannot be denied is that failing to intervene is also a positive, moral choice that brings its own consequences.

The acid test for any political decision is ultimately "what is the alternative"?

The alternative here would, like as not, have been the fall of Benghazi. The alternative would, like as not, have been another Srebrenica.

David Cole is the director of the Atlantic Council of the United Kingdom.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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