Unusual Level of International Unity Seen in Response to Libyan Turmoil

By Patrick Goodenough | February 28, 2011 | 5:02 AM EST

The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 1970, imposing a package of sanctions against the Libyan leadership, in New York on February 26, 2011 (UN Photo by Evan Schneider)

(CNSNews.com) – Muammar Gaddafi appears to have achieved what many political leaders before him have been incapable of – uniting the notoriously divided international community around a common position on a crisis.

The U.N. Security Council on Saturday evening voted 15-0 in favor of an arms embargo, travel ban, asset freeze targeting the regime in Tripoli, and referral of the regime’s violent crackdown to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for an investigation of possible crimes against humanity.

A day earlier, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council held an emergency “special session” on the Libyan situation, and approved a resolution condemning the Gaddafi regime and recommending that it be suspended from the HRC – a body to which Libya was elected by a large majority of U.N. member states less than a year ago.

The meeting in Geneva was unusual on more than one level. It was the first time the five year-old HRC has held a “special session” focusing on any sitting member; it was also the first time that the council has called for the suspension of a member.

More broadly, it was unprecedented for the HRC to agree to a common position on a sensitive, country-specific issue that, in previous occasions, would have highlighted the deep divide between the Islamic-China-Russia-Cuba camp at the council and the Western-led democracies.

During the debate, the representatives of China, Russia and Cuba all voiced reluctance on the question of suspending Libya’s HRC membership. In the end, however, as the resolution was adopted without a vote no individual country was required to take a clear stand in a recorded vote.

Even so, it was unusual to hear members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) line up to criticize the actions of a fellow Islamic state.

OIC governments have been shaken by the wave of popular unrest in the heart of the Muslim world. Pakistani ambassador Zamir Akram, speaking on behalf of the OIC, told the council that it was a time of reckoning. “Muslims will no longer tolerate inequalities and injustice.”

Some countries’ delegates, speaking either as council members or observers, used the opportunity to make political points.

Ecuador’s representative, Veronica Aguilar, said her government was surprised at the behavior of some countries that were now criticizing the Libyan regime after having sold it a large quantity of military equipment in these latest years.

Venezuelan envoy German Mundarain Hernandez complained that suspending a council member would lead to a situation in which some members were permanent and others whose status was unclear.

Israel, which has been targeted by almost half of the total number of condemnatory HRC resolutions, took aim at the council itself.

Its ambassador, Aharon Leshno-Yaar, said the fact that a “murderous” regime was a member of the council, and was not long ago entrusted to head the U.N.’s anti-racism campaign, underscored the need for the HRC to reflect seriously on its own actions, its own record, and its own credibility.

Several delegates raised concerns that suspending Libya could set a precedent for calls for others to be removed in the future.

China, Russia and Nigeria (speaking on behalf of the African Union) all stressed that the adoption of the resolution did not constitute a precedent.

Whether Libya will in fact become the first member of the HRC to lose its seat will depend on the full 192-member U.N. General Assembly, which must approve of the step by a two-thirds majority vote.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the General Assembly would likely meet to consider the issue on Tuesday.

Gaddafi clan targeted

Saturday’s meeting of the Security Council and unanimous passage of resolution 1970 saw a number of ambassadors comment on the “swift and decisive” action taken by the top U.N. body.

Chinese ambassador Li Baodong explained his country’s setting aside of its usual policy of strict “non-interference” in other countries’ internal affairs by citing “the special circumstances” in Libya (China has evacuated 20,000 citizens from Libya, most of them employees of China-run oil and other projects.)

Russia and Lebanon both stressed that Libya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but also joined the consensus, as did another non-permanent council member South Africa, whose ANC government fostered close ties with the Gaddafi regime.

Resolution 1970 was adopted under chapter seven of the U.N. Charter, making it binding on all member states.

It requires all countries to enforce an arms embargo on Tripoli, and authorizes the seizure and disposal of any weaponry heading to or from Libya in violation of the embargo.

The resolution imposes a freeze on assets held by Gaddafi and five of his children.

The travel ban applies to 16 individuals, including Gaddafi, his seven sons and his daughter, Aisha (who served as a U.N. “goodwill ambassador” focusing on anti-poverty issues from mid-2009 until the post was abruptly terminated last week.)

It is only the second time the Security Council has referred a case to the ICC, a tribunal based in The Hague which is empowered to act in cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

The first was the March 2005 referral of the conflict in Darfur, which passed with no members voting against and four, including the U.S., abstaining.

(The Bush administration abstained to demonstrate its strong reservations about the ICC, but by not vetoing the move it allowed the Darfur investigation to go ahead. That action that has led to five ICC cases, one of which is against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has refused to cooperate with an arrest warrant and remains at large.)

Libyan deputy ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi addresses a Security Council meeting discussing Iran’s nuclear program, at the U.N. in New York on March 3, 2008. (UN Photo by Evan Schneider)

The strongest language used during Saturday’s Security Council meeting came from Libya’s deputy ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbashi, who last week publicly denounced his government.

Speaking in the council after the vote he called Gaddafi a “criminal” and described his regime as fascist.

Before the crisis and his defection, Dabbashi was better known as the often controversial face of the Gaddafi regime during its two-year stint as a non-permanent member of the council, which began in January 2008.

In that capacity, he called Israel a “terrorist regime” and likened it policies to those of the Nazis; objected to the use in a council statement of the term “terrorism” to describe rocket attacks launched against Israel from Gaza; and blocked moves to adopt a council statement criticizing Sudan for atrocities in Darfur.

Dabbashi at the time also objected to the ICC decision to issue an arrest warrant for Sudan’s Bashir.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow