Libya, Syria, and Paralysis at the UN

The Security Council demonstrates how ineffective it can truly be.

During the last few days, there has been a flurry of talk at the United Nations Security Council regarding the post-conflict transition in Libya, as well as the situation in Syria.

With respect to Libya, there has been no concrete action from the Security Council since the approval last week of the release of $1.5 billion dollars in frozen assets for humanitarian relief.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon gave a report to the Security Council on August 30th in which he emphasized that the United Nations must take the lead role on behalf of the international community in responding to the needs of the Libyan people as they move forward in a post-conflict environment.  He said that the Libyan rebels' National Transitional Council has requested help in five areas:

1. Restoring public security and order and promoting the rule of law;

2. Leading inclusive political dialogue, promoting national reconciliation, and determining the constitution-making and electoral process;

3. Extending state authority, including through strengthening emerging accountable institutions and the restoration of public services;

4. Protecting human rights, particularly for vulnerable groups, and supporting transitional justice; and

5. Taking immediate steps to initiate economic recovery.

Ban said that the "National Transition Council appears to be largely in control of Tripoli and other cities," which appears to be an overstatement. While Qaddafi's regime has collapsed, The New York Times has reported that top civilian officials of the National Transitional Council (NTC) are yet to arrive in Tripoli, citing personal safety concerns. Moreover, there is still a jockeying for power amongst rival regional and ideological groups. The Times quoted an influential member of the NTC, who said that there is a "power vacuum" in the civilian leadership in the capital. There are also sharp divisions among competing military brigades in determining who should be in command. Thus, the United Nations may be counting on dealing with a group that will turn out to be an essentially powerless organization.

The Secretary General made no mention of plans for any UN peacekeeping force or of NATO's role in Libya going forward. However, the UN special advisor on Libya, Ian Martin, who is overseeing the UN's efforts in Libya during the post-conflict transition, told reporters during a press briefing following closed-door Security Council consultations that no UN peacekeeping role was envisioned. There will be no "military observers" on the ground, he said, disavowing his own earlier recommendation for the presence of such observers and continued NATO support.

As for NATO, there appears to be a disconnect between NATO itself and key players at the UN on NATO's future role.

Oana Lungescu, the NATO spokesperson, and Colonel Roland Lavoie, Operation ‘’Unified Protector’’ military spokesperson, paid lip service to the UN's "leading role" during their press conference on August 30th, but also made it clear that it was up to NATO itself to decide when to cease its activities.

Colonel Lavoie said:

[M]y message is that despite the fall of the Qadhafi regime and the gradual return of security for many Libyans, NATO's mission is not finished yet. We remain fully committed to our mission and to keeping the pressure on the remnants of the Qadhafi regime until we can confidently say that the civilian population of Libya is no longer threatened.

In reply to a question concerning the process for ending the NATO mission and whether NATO would look to the UN to make that decision, Oana Lungescu responded, "The decision will be taken by the North Atlantic Council on the military advice of our commanders of Operation Unified Protector and of the military authorities." The NATO spokesperson claimed that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had endorsed this approach, but Ban's associate spokesman in New York as well as Ian Martin refused to confirm whether this was true.

The Chinese and Russian UN ambassadors have made no secret of their displeasure with NATO's military actions in Libya, which they claim have exceeded the authority granted under UN Security Council 1973 and contributed to civilian casualties. They are likely to press for a quick end to NATO's mission, now that the conflict is essentially over. Indeed, the Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong made this precise point in remarks to the press on August 30th.

As for any further UN Security Council action on Syria, two competing resolutions have been introduced. Russia, supported by at least China, has introduced what amounts to a reiteration of the bland, toothless Security Council Presidential Statement issued on August 3rd. The United Kingdom, on behalf of itself, France, Germany, Portugal and the United States, introduced a much stronger resolution containing economic sanctions. Russia and China point to the civilian casualties in Libya that accompanied NATO's escalation there as justification for not starting down that slippery slope again in Syria.

Key non-permanent members India, Brazil and South Africa have not publicly indicated which resolution, if any, they would support, but it is likely they are leaning toward the Russian version. India's UN Ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri, who has served as the president of the Security Council during the month of August, tipped his hand to the press on August 30th when he used terms like "coercive" and "punitive" to describe the UK version.

In a demonstration of how ineffective the Security Council has been in dealing with the ongoing atrocities by the Assad regime against the Syrian people, it has spent days trying to decide which draft resolution was filed first for consideration.

Confusion, obfuscation and inaction continue to rein at the United Nations.