Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 19:06 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 19:06 | SYDNEY

Qadhafi does his bit for norms


Graeme Dobell

21 March 2011 14:23

International norms are built by actions. Going to war to enforce a norm gives it force – in the several dimensions of the words 'force' and 'enforce'. Resolutions matter, but enforcing them sets down real markers for future actions and reactions.

Libya is one more step in giving force to an old, oft-ignored norm and building the understandings involved in a new, aspirational norm. The old rule getting new life is the centrality of the UN Security Council in waging legitimate war. The new norm is the responsibility to protect.

Let us hope that one of Qadhafi’s last significant international contributions will be what his fall says about the importance of both these norms. The Qadhafi rule will be that if despots start waging war on their own people, the region will act, the Security Council will resolve and the responsibility to protect will be enforced. 

The way the UN resolved and reported on Resolution 1973 is instructive for understanding the new dynamics involved in the interaction of these two evolving norms. The five abstentions in the vote were notable: Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia. But of even more significance is the fact that China and Russia did not veto. For China, the long-standing imperatives of the Tibet rule (no outside interference in internal affairs) came up against the new Qadhafi rule, and the international norms just won the day. 

Equally notable was the way the UN announcement of the Resolution went almost immediately (in the third paragraph) to 'the important role of the League of Arab States in the maintenance of international peace and security in the region.'

The League can now wring its hands about deaths caused by air attacks. But it is the League's original action in going to the UN that matters and will be the reference point for future understandings of the responsibility to protect. The Security Council invokes the Arab League as a mark of regional legitimacy and to contradict Qadhafi's rant about the Christian pact coming to steal Libya's oil.

Article four of the resolution steers a finely-tuned course in support of the heading it carries: 'Protection of civilians'. Member states can 'take all necessary measures' to protect civilians. With the next breath, though, it states that air war is good but invasion is bad. The resolution excludes 'a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory'.

So the responsibility to protect applies in the air but not on the soil where the people being protected actually reside' Do not apply the logic test too strictly. This is about the slow, bloody creation of new norms. They will be defined as much by what they lack as what they contain.
The air-land distinction offers reassurance to the US as much as it does to the Arab League. Where George W Bush brushed aside any need to go back the Security Council before launching his war on Iraq, Barack Obama can embrace the clause. By being cautious in the days before the Security Council Resolution, Obama has forced others to stand up.

Iraq and Afghanistan urge such proper caution. The UN Security Council launched the air assault on Libya. That speaks to the hopes as well as the weaknesses of this moment.

Libya might all go horribly wrong. At such moments, Churchill's words from 80 years ago rise up: 'Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on that strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The Statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave or unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.'

Yet perhaps Libya will go right. The Statesman who has war fever is Qadhafi. The US, Britain, France and Libya's neighbours are the ones drawing lines, trying to steer through the tides and hurricanes. The Security Council did not act in a moment of fever. It is seeking to build norms that will matter well beyond Libya.

Photo by Flickr user Abode of Chaos.