Finger-Pointing At The U.N. Distracts From Threats Facing Libyan Civilians

Our guest bloggers are Sarah Margon, associate director for Sustainable Security at the Center for American Progress and Alex Rothman, special assistant with the national security team at CAP.

(Photo: Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

In recent weeks, the security situation in Libya has become increasingly precarious, with Ian Martin, the U.N. special envoy to Libya, warning the Security Council earlier this week that the continued presence of armed “revolutionary brigades” and loose weapons presents a significant threat. But as the situation on the ground takes a turn for the worse, the Security Council remains divided and distracted by political infighting about civilian casualties from the NATO bombing campaign.

Critics of the intervention, most significantly South Africa and Russia, have prominently called for an investigation into civilian harm caused by the NATO airstrikes. But a closer analysis suggests that this posturing may be more motivated by a desire for political gain than concern for the rights of noncombatants.

In March, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1973, authorizing the creation of a no-fly zone over Libya as well as “all necessary measures…to protect civilians.” At the time, neither South Africa nor Russia outright opposed the intervention. In fact, South Africa voted in favor while Russia abstained. As the intervention in Libya progressed, however, both countries became more explicitly critical of NATO’s extensive involvement, arguing that the NATO airstrikes overstepped their mandate. In the words of South African U.N. Ambassador Baso Sangqu, Resolution 1973 approved a no-fly zone but not “regime change or anything else.”

While the numbers of civilians inadvertently killed or wounded by NATO is likely on the lower end, a NATO investigation would nonetheless be beneficial for two reasons. First, while NATO maintains it took care to minimize the effects of its air campaign on civilians, an examination of instances in which these precautions failed would provide lessons as to how the alliance can take more effective protection measures in the future. For example, the NATO tactic of “double tapping” targets (in which two sequential air strikes were carried out on the same target) appears to have unnecessarily imperiled those who rushed to aid victims of the first attack. Second, investigating civilian victims of the bombing campaign would present a first step towards allowing NATO and/or the Libyan National Transition Council to make amends.

Such steps are tremendously important as political reform in Libya continues. Early efforts to build a government that is accountable to and responsible for its citizens can help build trust in national institutions — something that has been absent in Libya for more than four decades.

But while a NATO inquiry may be warranted, it is disingenuous for countries like Russia and South Africa to use the issue of civilian deaths to score points at the U.N. Security Council. As the victims advocacy organization CIVIC points out in a recent press release and op-ed, “Libyan civilians are not pawns to be used in a political game between those who did and did not support the NATO operation.”

Instead, Russia and South Africa should support the work of the U.N.’s International Commission of Inquiry for Libya, which is undertaking an independent review of civilian harm in the Libyan conflict, and focus their efforts at the Security Council on addressing the threats that continue to harm civilians in Libya.