Armed humanitarian intervention in Libya?

The maximum the UNSC can do is authorize other countries to implement their armed forces in Libyan skies. But countries will only do so if it serves their national interest; sadly, humanitarian causes alone can never suffice.

UN Security Council 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
UN Security Council 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
Forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi have apparently been using fighter aircraft and helicopters against the rebels. In response, the rebels have made an appeal to the UN for the deployment of international, armed "humanitarian" intervention against Gaddafi's forces. This could be done by declaring a no-fly zone over Libya, similar to the zone declared in the past over the Kurdish areas of Iraq.
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The problem with declaring a no-fly zone is that it requires aerial enforcement, presumably by a NATO air force. In the past, NATO acted against Serbia and did not obtain UN authorization. However, it only did so because it considered the situation in Serbia to be a threat to European stability. Armed forces of a state seldom take action and will only do so if the state considers it absolutely necessary to its national interests. Countries are reluctant to deploy their armed forces for “altruistic” purposes like the preservation of human rights in other states. 
However, it is possible that NATO may justify intervention on the basis that the disruption of Libyan oil and gas supplies poses a real threat to European economies. Gaddafi’s tyranny will therefore be eclipsed by the intervention’s priority in preserving the oil supplies. Unfortunately, the world is host to many a cruel dictator and the powers that be - including NATO – are content to sit and watch without getting their hands too dirty.
For political reasons, it is unlikely that the UN Security Council will authorize an armed intervention in Libya. Any of its five permanent members can easily veto such a decision; Russia and China (among other members) have vested interests in Arab regimes that will likely dampen their enthusiasm to authorize anything. 
But even in the case that the decision is approved by the Council’s members, it is unlikely to advance past the authorization stage. The UN has no combat air force and neither does it have the authority to instruct countries to use theirs. The only power the UNSC has is to license the use of force.
This brings us back to the aforementioned conundrum: The use of force with the UNSC stamp of approval will only be implemented if states (and more specifically, NATO states) think that their national interests merit the inevitable risks involved in combat. The military action undertaken by NATO and other forces against Iraq in the first Gulf War had UNSC authorization; but ultimately, the intervention only happened because the states involved viewed the preservation of an independent Kuwait as a vital national interest.
As outlined in Chapter VII of the UN Charter, UNSC authorization for military intervention requires evidence of a "threat to world peace." This is very different from the dispatching of Blue Helmet UN peace-keeping forces. Blue Helmets are essentially observation forces sent to states who agree to host them and have no combat role whatsoever. They are only entitled to use force in cases of self-defense.
Despite the tragedy of witnessing civilians being strafed by fighter aircrafts, states continue to be reluctant to intervene or even to authorize intervention. African countries themselves have been vociferous in condemning the possibility of so called "humanitarian intervention" without explicit UNSC authorization. The African states are fearful - and perhaps rightly so - that under the pretext of intervention the former colonial powers will attempt to reintroduce their armed forces into the continent.
Unless NATO member states view the deposition of Gaddafi as being of vital national interest, NATO combat forces will not engaging in aerial combat any time soon. Meantime the UN Security Council can only continue its sanction efforts against the Gaddafi regime.
The writer teaches international law at Hebrew University and is a former legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry.