There are two measures of a successful United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution. First, not that it is approved unanimously, but that those who supported or opposed it are equally critical of it when it is passed. Second, that it is effectively implemented. The UNSC resolution 1973 establishing a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians might be considered a success by the first yardstick, although it is still too early to say if it meets the second criterion.
Indeed, there was equal consternation in London, Paris and Washington, which voted for the resolution, as well as in Beijing, Berlin, Brasilia, Moscow and New Delhi, which—despite their serious reservations—abstained rather than voted against it. The former were wary of the lack of adequate military support from Arab states, and afraid that this would be seen as yet another Western intervention in the civil war of a Muslim country. The latter were concerned about the absence of a clear objective and the fear of authorizing yet another open-ended military operation for regime change.
India, in particular, was haunted by the ghosts of UNSC resolutions 687 (which it supported) and 688 (where it abstained) on Iraq during its 1991 UNSC membership. These resolutions established open-ended sanctions and no-fly zones and were used by Washington and its allies to justify the 2003 “regime-change” invasion of Iraq. While there is no love lost between India and the current Libyan regime, New Delhi is concerned about establishing a precedent for regime change by bombing from 30,000 feet.
Despite these serious differences, the resolution got neither a veto nor a single negative vote; instead, countries merely abstained to register their opposition. This has significant import for the future and reflects a new normal for global governance for a number of reasons.
First, Washington’s call for the UNSC to decide the course of action on Libya connotes, according to a Brookings policy paper by Bruce Jones, the shift of the US from being the majority shareholder in the global order to being the largest minority shareholder.
Second, it indicates that unlike the Cold War, where the UNSC was frozen into inaction, emerging powers such as Brazil, China and India are willing to work with traditional powers by not blocking the functioning of the UNSC. This is a sign of new pragmatism among the key global actors.
Third, the fact that even the abstentions were taken so seriously by the supporters of the resolution implies that the emerging powers and UNSC aspirants (notably Brazil, Germany and India) have now established virtual vetos.
Fourth, the divisions within the UNSC were not along the traditional “West vs the rest” lines. Germany’s abstention along with key non-Western states illustrates a more complex and fluid power dynamic. It is not inconceivable that the line-up might change in a future UNSC resolution and India might find itself in different company.
Finally, while the original unanimous resolution on Libya (resolution 1970) clearly establishes the responsibility to protect civilians as an international norm, resolution 1973 reveals that there are serious limitations in its actual implementation. At the moment, the only options to enforce this appear to be either sanctions or the use of force. This shows the abysmal failure of robust diplomacy as a real option, evident in the appointment of the lightweight Abdel-Elah Mohamed Al-Khatib, the former minister for foreign affairs of Jordan, as the special envoy of the UN Secretary General on the Libyan crisis. If diplomatic options are to be taken seriously then someone with appropriate gravitas to tackle the likes of Moammar Gadhafi should have been appointed and supported by the key actors. Otherwise, the use of force will become the only option.
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