While sovereignty does serve the global system reasonably well, situations in Libya question its effectiveness. Particularly, whether the UN should have the ultimate authority to prevent intervention by external actors regarding sovereign nations or if regional institutions should be able to act without a UN resolution on the use of force.
Except for Benghazi, Qaddafi has retaken significant portions of Libya that had been seized by rebels in the first weeks of the uprising and is poised to complete his military campaign. Rebel leaders are decrying the inaction by the international community and there have been suggestions that the West should act unilaterally and impose a no-fly zone. Despite the appetite of some to pursue a no-fly zone, they are notoriously difficult to expedite.
International law explains that in order for a no-fly zone to be executed the UN Security Council would have to approve it. If the U.S., France or the U.K. were to unilaterally execute a no-fly zone this would violate norms of non-intervention and international law. Military actions would violate Libyan sovereignty. The UN Security Council was created to mitigate against this. Following World War II, the international system surmised that the Security Council would minimize the chances of conflict between states. Because Russia and China oppose a no-fly zone, unless the U.S. and others are willing to violate international law and the norm of non-intervention than a no-fly zone will not happen. China and Russia ostensibly oppose a violation of Libyan sovereignty because, according to Joshua Keating, they comprise the “sovereignty caucus.”
A no-fly zone would be a violation of Libyan sovereignty and an act of war. Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained, “Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses.” The 1990s no-fly zone over Iraq has many international relations experts debating its legality because the U.K. and the United States acted without UN approval. The U.S. is aware that if it acts unilaterally and bombs certain parts of Libya it would be acting on the behest of the Arab League but its intervention would result in the U.S. killing Arabs. Roger Simon of Politico writes, “The Arab League countries don’t want to kill Arabs in Libya. They want the United States to do it for them.” Arab League member states have capable pilots and planes so they could act now.
Libyan sovereignty insures that unless situations reach a point comparable to Rwanda or Bosnia the West will not intervene without UN approval. Libya highlights the underlying problem with the ineffectiveness of some regional institutions. The African Union, the Arab League, the European Union and NATO exist for more or less the same purposes, which is to address collective security and regional issues.
The difficulty is that within these institutions, sovereignty is the ultimate authority as it mitigates against aggression by a neighbor or regional power. When violence was at its height in Darfur the African Union did not unilaterally intervene. African states deferred to the U.S. to act despite a lack of U.S. strategic interests. When Robert Mugabe was brutalizing Zimbabwean’s in a bid to stay in power the AU and neighboring states did not intervene instead choosing to defer to the U.S. and the UN
The Arab League has recently asked for military intervention in Libya. It has requested that non-Arab fighter pilots patrol Libyan skies and shoot down and most likely kill Libyan pilots and potentially target Libyan ground assets. Under Article 2 of the Arab League Charter, “The purpose of the League is to draw closer the relations between member States and co-ordinate their political activities with the aim of realizing a close collaboration between them, to safeguard their independence and sovereignty, and to consider in a general way the affairs and interests of the Arab countries.”
While the Arab League respects sovereignty it is suggesting in its request for intervention that the West violate Libyan sovereignty but not the Arab League despite being a regional institution. According to the League, “The Arab League is involved in political, economic, cultural, and social programs designed to promote the interests of member states. The Arab League has served as a forum for member states to coordinate their policy positions and deliberate on matters of common concern, settling some Arab disputes and limiting conflicts such as the Lebanese civil wars of 1958.”
Events in Libya are within the purview of the Arab world and should be addressed by the Arab League. The request for a no-fly zone does not give great confidence to the idea that the League will take the lead in the enforcement of one. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa in comments to Der Spiegel suggested, “I am speaking of a humanitarian action…It is about assisting the Libyan people with a no-fly zone in their struggle for freedom against an increasingly inhuman regime. The Arab League can also play a role.”
The difficulty in intervening to stop the Libyan civil war is an acknowledgement of Libyan sovereignty. States hold sovereignty in the highest regard. Conversely, when situations have dictated, states have violated the sovereignty of states to curtail genocide or civil war. This is the standard by which the debate for Libyan intervention should take place with Arab League members. The context of the larger debate for U.S., French and U.K. involvement should be to offer material assistance to an Arab led assault against Qaddafi. Sovereignty is an important concept that should be respected. Sovereignty protects a state from external assault. Sovereignty also exists as a quasi social contract. When a state violates certain norms and mores it violates tenants of sovereignty.
Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes, “Our notion of sovereignty must therefore be conditional, even contractual, rather than absolute. If a state fails to live up to its side of the bargain by sponsoring terrorism, either transferring or using weapons of mass destruction, or conducting genocide, then it forfeits the normal benefits of sovereignty and opens itself up to attack, removal or occupation…The goal should be to redefine sovereignty for the era of globalisation, to find a balance between a world of fully sovereign states and an international system of either world government or anarchy.”
Because the Arab League is aware that building consensus within the Security Council is a time consuming process they should not have waited as long as they have to ask for assistance. The Arab League should have assessed that Qaddafi’s forces must be stopped before they reach Benghazi and reclaim Libya. The U.S. and other powers should offer assistance to an Arab League led exercise.
States consider sovereignty to be the ultimate authority. World wars and interstate conflicts that have pervaded the international system for centuries demonstrates the wisdom of protecting sovereignty. Conversely, respecting Libyan sovereignty while Col. Qaddafi reasserts control over Libya demonstrates that protecting Libyan sovereignty over the welfare of Libyans is a fallacy. Qaddafi has clearly violated tenants of a reasonable and well-intentioned state.