News »

U.N. Chief's Ambivalent Role in the No-Fly Zone

p>By Thalif Deen

(Inter Press)

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (left) holds a press conference with Amr Moussa (right), Secretary General of the League of Arab States, in Cairo

The eight-page resolution calls on member states to “immediately” inform both Ban and Moussa of measures taken in enforcing the “no-fly zone” over Libya and also to “coordinate closely” on measures taken to implement the ban on flights, including “to supply a concept of operations”.

“This is probably the first time the head of the U.N. organisation is participating in the planning of military operations,” said Chakravarthi Raghavan, a longstanding journalist who has covered the United Nations both in New York and Geneva since the 1960s.

“I read through the resolution carefully,” he told IPS, and “while various nations acting under the mandate to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians are asked to report their actions to the secretary-general, there are (also) paras about ‘cooperating’ with secretary-general.”

But there is nothing in the resolution asking him to coordinate or plan the military operation, said Raghavan, a former editor of the South-North Development Monitor in Geneva.

He said “it is appalling the secretary-general – possibly electioneering for a second term – should have participated in the Paris meeting to plan the military operations.”

The logistics of the no-fly zone were finalised in Paris last week at a meeting of heads of state and foreign ministers, mostly from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), along with Ban and Moussa.

The relevant operative paragraphs in the resolution have also given rise to political ambiguity – on the real role of the U.N. secretary-general in the no-fly zone operations.

“It remains to be seen whether Ban Ki-moon will actually function as General Ban, with any influence over real-time military decision-making,” said Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.

She said the language of the resolution calls for close coordination by the governments participating in military action in Libya, with the secretary general.

“But it remains quite unclear, both from the actual language of the resolution and from statements of the governments carrying out the military actions in Libya, what, if any, the real role of the secretary-general is to be,” she told IPS.

Beyond the calls for governments to “coordinate with each other and the secretary-general” on their military actions, the only specific role assigned to him is to report to the Security Council what implementation is underway, said Bennis, author of “Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s U.N.”.

Although Ban Ki-moon participated in the Paris meeting that aimed at coordinating military action, she said, there was no indication following that meeting the U.N. chief was actually playing a substantive role in military decision- making.

It may be that his primary role will be in that “report- back” position, where he will relay to the Security Council – which of course includes five members who have expressed varying degrees of opposition to the U.N.-approved military action in Libya – what the military enforcers are doing, Bennis added.

Given the concern particularly of the Barack Obama administration to insure U.N. backing for the military intervention in Libya, it may be that ensuring the presence of the secretary-general in Paris is primarily a political gesture aimed at reminding the world that this U.S.-French- British attack – with the requisite minimal involvement of other Europeans and, so far in theory, Qatar – does indeed have the U.N.’s imprimatur, she said.

Responding to questions about Ban’s role in coordinating the enforcement of the no-fly zone, U.N. spokesperson Martin Nesirky told reporters Monday the first step the secretary- general undertook was to take part in the high-level meeting in Paris.

“And that was part of the follow-up to the Security Council resolution,” he said.

“And I am sure when he briefs the Council on his return from his trip, as he is also expected to do under the terms of the Security Council resolution, there will be more details about precisely how this is being coordinated,” said Nesirky.

Pressed further whether the secretary-general was told in advance of the air strikes on Libya, Nesirky said: “As you know, countries are duty-bound under the terms of the resolution to notify what measures they are taking. And those notifications are being received and transmitted to the Council as they are received.”

The high-level meeting in Paris, he said, “strikes me as a fairly clear example of coordinating”.

“And further details of what other mechanisms are in place, I am sure, will be becoming clear as the days pass, not least when he briefs the Security Council,” Nesirky added.

Bennis told IPS that given the legacy of illegal unilateral no-fly zones, such as that established by the U.S. and UK in Iraq in 1991, which resulted in the deaths of over 700 civilians – and 144 of them documented by the U.N. in 1999 alone – it is not surprising that keeping the face of the United Nations front and centre remains a high priority for the Western countries attacking Libya.

However, Ban’s follow-up statements calling for “an immediate end to violence by all parties, in accordance with Security Council resolutions 1970 and 1973, and for the responsibility to protect civilians” may represent a potentially important move to reassert the limitations of the U.N. resolution.

Or at least to remind the Western powers of those limitations, she said, pointing out that while the resolution allows the virtually unlimited use of “all necessary measures”, it does restrict those measures to the goal of protecting civilians, not for the purpose of supporting or encouraging or enabling the opposition’s own military efforts.

So the statement of the secretary-general could be seen as distancing his office from the stated regime change goals of the Western powers – goals that clearly violate the terms of the Security Council resolution, but which are just as clearly central to the operative policies of Washington, Paris and London, Bennis declared.