Arab League opposition calls into question legality of Libya assault

The legal basis of the U.S.-allied military operation against Libya, launched on the eighth anniversary of the U.S. “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq, was called into question yesterday by the Arab League’s harsh criticism of the attacks as going well beyond the no-fly zone that it had earlier agreed to.

Though UN Security Resolution 1973 authorizes the use of “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas,” Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa said that the bombing could actually lead to more civilian deaths, which would negate the very legal basis for the attacks.

“What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians,” Moussa said yesterday.

His point is a valid one, both in terms of logic and legality. If the primary legal justification for taking military action is to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas,” that justification would be undermined if the attacks in fact exacerbate the crisis and lead to more civilian deaths.

The point is even more germane considering the fact that the Security Council resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” specifically mandates consultation with the Arab League.

Language in the resolution requires notification of the Arab League Secretary General by Member States that decide to take action against Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi. Specifically, the resolution:

Authorizes Member States that have notified the [UN] Secretary-General and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban on flights imposed by paragraph 6 above, as necessary, and requests the States concerned in cooperation with the League of Arab States to coordinate closely with the Secretary General on the measures they are taking to implement this ban…

Therefore, by the terms established in the resolution that is serving as legal cover for military attacks, the U.S. and allies are required to “notify” the Arab League Secretary General of its actions and act “in cooperation” with the Arab States. By disregarding the objections of the Secretary General, the continued bombardment of Libya appears to violate the spirit – if not the letter – of the resolution.

Of course, a day after issuing his criticism, no doubt under heavy diplomatic pressure, Moussa clarified his earlier opposition, saying today that the Arab League “respects the U.N. Security Council resolution, and there is no contradiction.”

He added though that “we will continue working to protect civilians, and we will ask everybody to take this into consideration in any military operation.”

However, history does not instill confidence, or bear well upon the United States in its “targeted” military operations. Though the Pentagon stresses the precision of its weapons, and emphasizes that is only targeting military installations in Libya, its track record is less than stellar in this regard. In recent conflicts, U.S. warplanes have inflicted substantial civilian death, either accidentally or on purpose.

For instance, in 1999 during the Kosovo crisis, U.S. warplanes killed non-combatants when going after civilian targets in Yugoslavia, such as bridges and even a television station that was deemed a government propaganda outlet. An international uproar also followed the apparently accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy. The CIA later blamed an “outdated map” for that fatal attack.

In the early days of the Afghan bombing campaign in 2001, U.S. warplanes struck two wedding parties and twice bombed the headquarters of the International Red Cross.

In the attack on Iraq launched eight years ago this week, unknown numbers of civilians were killed either by errant bombs or by intentional attacks on civilian targets.

In one such incident, George W. Bush ordered the bombing of an Iraqi residential restaurant on April 7, 2003, on the suspicion that Saddam Hussein and his sons might be having lunch there.  Four precision-guided 2,000-pound bombs were dropped, which destroyed the target building and several surrounding structures.

Diners, including children, were ripped apart by the bombs. U.S. intelligence later confirmed that Hussein wasn’t there.

Despite this spotty track record, the Arab League is apparently satisfied — for now — that assurances from the U.S. and its allies that this time, civilians will be protected.

“We have received assurances that these issues, especially the protection of civilians, will remain a unanimous goal for the UN and the Arab League,” said Amr Moussa.

Just how many of those civilians are not protected, and how many inevitable casualties emerge over the coming days, will prove decisive, not only in terms of ensuring stability in the region, but also upholding the pretense of legality which is being used as a justification for this particular military action.

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