On the evening of March 17th, the U.N. voted to enact a no-fly zone in Libya. I watched as Libyan friends and neighbors breathed a sigh of relief and let themselves take a moment of cautious celebration. Yet there have been a lot of questions about what this all means. Is this war? Who will enforce it? Why now? Is this really necessary? Why in Libya and not Egypt, Bahrain, or Yemen? Well we’re going to answer all of this (and possibly more!). So sit back, relax, and let’s get started.
What is a no-fly zone?
A no-fly zone is an area where an elected or military party has ruled all flights prohibited. The U.S. has a number of these over the White House, numerous naval bases, nuclear assembly plants and even the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando. The reasons for these are mostly self-explanatory. We do not want to risk aircraft over potential terrorist targets. For these reasons, most aircraft that stray into this space are communicated with and promptly asked to leave. If they refuse, they are escorted by fighter jets, if they try to evade over certain areas, fighter jets are authorized use lethal force.
Other no-fly zones are not enforced with the same violent ramifications. During the Bosnian Crisis, the U.N. enacted a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1993-1995. Rather than using force they simply counted the number of airplanes (approx. 500) that defied the resolution. There are also no fly zones in Israel, Cuba and India.
Is a no-fly zone an act of war?
No. This idea, this phrase is nothing more than propaganda from Gaddafi himself. A no-fly zone, in the case of Libya, is simply a resolution that will keep Gaddafi’s forces from using air strikes against its own people. Throughout history numerous revolutions have sought the help of outside forces without bringing those forces directly into the conflict. One prime example is the United States’ own revolution against the British. The French government sent both supplies and military leaders over to aid the settlers, but you rarely hear of the French assistance. Nor do you hear many French people use phrases like, “If it weren’t for us, you would be speaking the Queen’s English right now!” But that’s another story altogether.
So who is in charge of this in Libya?
So far it looks like the French, British, and Lebanese have volunteered to enforce this resolution along with a number of other Arab countries assisting in the operation. The French, in the past week, have thrown their full weight behind the opposition in Libya. They formally recognized the interim opposition leadership as the legitimate government of Libya. They also invited an envoy to Paris where Sarkozy pledged his support in person. Sarkozy has also spoken of taking out Gaddafi strongholds in targeted strikes. So there seems to be very little doubt that the French are going to go after Gaddafi’s army with a fair amount of force. The British and Lebanese armies will likely follow suit.
So why are they doing something now? Why not two weeks ago?
In the past week, Gaddafi, in no uncertain terms, spoke to the world and declared that he was going to wipe out the opposition on all fronts. That he was advancing on Benghazi (the opposition stronghold) and that anyone (military or civilian) who did not support him would be slaughtered. That is a threat of genocidal proportions. A number of Libyans living abroad with family in the region have been panicking over what was going to happen.
It also seemed clear that the uprising has needed some help. While the Libyan opposition is well-intentioned and has no doubt fought incredibly brave battles, they also are neither trained nor funded. In contrast, Gaddafi’s army is well-trained and well-funded. Everybody feared a massacre (and really still does to an extent). The next couple of days will show how effective this U.N. resolution has been in protecting Libyans.
Is this really necessary?
It is if you believe that the world has an obligation to step in when a tyrant is committing mass murder. The U.N. does believe that, citing in their agreement on human rights (more specifically their convention on genocide) that:
This convention bans acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. It declares genocide a crime under international law whether committed during war or peacetime, and binds all signators of the convention to to take measures to prevent and punish any acts of genocide committed within their jurisdiction.
Why is this happening in Libya but not Bahrain or Yemen?
There is a disparity there. Part of the reason it makes sense to enact it in Libya is because there is a clear opposition party that is ready to take control. There has also been a long, bloody struggle against Gaddafi that has its own share of wins and losses. Right now, it looks like the opposition is pushed to the brink in terms of resources and needs. Gaddafi is taking advantage and has vowed to show “no mercy.”
While the situation in Bahrain is most certainly a massacre, there are also regional ties to the island that has prevented any Western intervention. There is a U.S. military base there and there are numerous financial agreements between Bahrain and Europe. Is it fair or right? No. It is most absolutely not. I would urge anybody concerned to take action by writing the U.N. and their respective governments urging their leaders to condemn and sanction the al Khalifa kingdom for their acts of murder.
In Yemen, the situation, while still brutal, is the least violent. Right now ranks are swelling around Sana’a University and there have been some people killed by police in minor clashes. However, it has not seen the same level of violent unrest as Libya or Bahrain. However, I would still urge anybody who is writing on behalf of Bahrain to also include Yemen. Urging their leaders to pressure Yemen’s President Saleh to acquiesce to his people’s demands and step down.
Meanwhile, the people of Benghazi are gearing up for what looks to be an incredible battle. Gaddafi has promised to show “no mercy” to the Libyan opposition. The impact that the no-fly zone may help dismantle the Gaddafi army enough that the opposition can, if not outright win, remain in control of their stronghold. It is much easier to defend a territory than to advance into into it, so the opposition has a few factors working in their favor. This may be a battle that changes the entire future of the country. With the opposition winning the support of the U.N., it will hopefully be a great moment of victory and inspiration for popular movements everywhere.