Congress’s questions on Libya sidestep international law

A few in Congress have begun posing some tough questions to the Obama administration regarding the wisdom, constitutionality and fiscal responsibility of the U.S./NATO military intervention in Libya. As The Hill reported yesterday,

Liberal Democrats — the heart and soul of Obama’s meteoric rise to the White House — are using floor speeches, op-eds, committee hearings and even legislation to condemn the administration’s decision to send U.S. forces to help Libyan rebels oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The lawmakers have questioned the timing, cost, wisdom and constitutionality of the White House endeavor, stealing headlines from Democratic supporters of the policy and practically drowning out the condemnations from Obama’s more traditional conservative critics. Less then 30 months after Obama ascended to commander in chief with a message disdainful of unilateral military operations, the liberal detractors are all but charging him with hypocrisy.

Some of the fiercest criticism has come former presidential candidate and vocal peace advocate Dennis Kucinich (D-OH):

In two years, we have moved from President Bush’s doctrine of preventive war to President Obama’s assertion of the right to go to war without even the pretext of a threat to our nation. This is a clear and arrogant violation of our Constitution. Even a war launched for humanitarian reasons is still a war — and only Congress can declare war.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, concurs. “The Constitution grants sole authority to the Congress to commit the nation to battle in the first instance,” he said last week. “That decision is one of the most serious that we are called upon to make, and we should never abdicate this responsibility to the president.”

In addition to the issue of constitutionality, lawmakers have primarily raised three other concerns: 

 — How will the conflict be paid for?

— Who precisely are the Libyan rebels the U.S. is protecting?

— How can the U.S., and NATO allies ensure Gadhafi’s regime is toppled without sending in ground troops?

These are all valid points, speaking to issues of fiscal responsibility in a time of financial crisis, the strategic wisdom of supporting armed insurgents whose loyalties and ideologies are largely unknown, and the basic question of how the intervention will play out and what the long-term commitment may be. 

But some of the biggest questions about this military intervention remain unaddressed, especially those related to international law. In particular, it is rarely asked whether the U.S. support for the armed opposition in Libya oversteps the UN Security Council resolution that purportedly authorizes this intervention.

 UN Security Resolution 1973 authorizes the use of “all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas.” It further “establish[es] a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians,” as well as imposes an arms embargo on Libya and freezes the assets of the Libyan regime.

Nowhere does it authorize the U.S. or NATO  to provide military support to Libya’s armed rebels fighting to overthrow Mummar Gadhafi.

Yet,  this is precisely what the U.S. is intending to do with its air strikes designed to support the Libyan rebels. As the L.A. Times reported on March 24, leaders of the rebel opposition say they are making regular contacts with allied military officials to help commanders identify targets for the U.S.-led air assault.

“There is communication between the Provisional National Council and UN assembled forces, and we work on letting them know what areas need to be bombarded,” rebel spokesman Ahmed Khalifa said.

As The Times points out,

The contacts, which began over the weekend, are evidence of cooperation between the Libyan opposition and the international military alliance that is waging air and missile strikes on Moammar Kadafi’s command and control centers as well as other military targets.

They also highlight the diplomatic delicacy of the mission and the awkwardness of a military operation designed by governments with sometimes conflicting goals. The Obama administration and the Pentagon say the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing military action in Libya does not include airstrikes specifically to aid rebel forces.

In addition, it now appears that in order to secure backing from the Arab League in support of the Security Council resolution, the U.S. hatched a secret deal with Saudi Arabia, giving the Saudis a green light to invade Bahrain to put down a pro-democracy rebellion there.

As Pepe Escobar reports today in Asia Times,

You invade Bahrain. We take out Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. This, in short, is the essence of a deal struck between the Barack Obama administration and the House of Saud. Two diplomatic sources at the United Nations independently confirmed that Washington, via Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave the go-ahead for Saudi Arabia to invade Bahrain and crush the pro-democracy movement in their neighbor in exchange for a “yes” vote by the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya – the main rationale that led to United Nations Security Council resolution 1973.

The revelation came from two different diplomats, a European and a member of the BRIC group, and was made separately to a US scholar and Asia Times Online. According to diplomatic protocol, their names cannot be disclosed. One of the diplomats said, “This is the reason why we could not support resolution 1973. We were arguing that Libya, Bahrain and Yemen were similar cases, and calling for a fact-finding mission. We maintain our official position that the resolution is not clear, and may be interpreted in a belligerent manner.”

It is also now known that despite Western claims that the attacks have Arab League support, only 11 of the Arab League’s 22 full members were present at the time of voting on the no-fly zone resolution, and two of those — Syria and Algeria — voted against it. In other words, only nine out of 22 members of the Arab League voted for the no-fly zone. The U.S. and its NATO allies in turn used this Arab League “support” as political cover for the attacks, despite the fact that resolution 1973 specifically mandates consultation with Arab League states.

Immediately after the allied bombing began, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa warned that the attacks could lead to more civilian deaths, which would negate their very legal basis.

“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 on March 20.

Despite U.S. assurances regarding the precision of its weapons, it is now clear that Moussa’s concerns were valid. Today, warplanes belonging to the U.S./NATO military coalition killed several Libyan civilians as they dropped bombs on the opposition-held town of Brega. In addition to the civilian deaths, 13 opposition fighters were also killed in the attacks.

The military alliance admits that its forces have killed dozens of civilians in the ongoing aerial attacks on key Libyan cities. These civilian deaths further call into question the entire legal basis for the assault, and as we have seen in Iraq, when an intervention is launched in violation of international law, human rights violations tend to proliferate.

In addition to the questions on constitutionality, strategic wisdom and fiscal responsibility, Members of Congress should also be addressing these issues. They need to ask: Under what legal basis is the U.S. and NATO intervening in a civil war? At what point must the U.S. seek additional UN approval? And perhaps most importantly, if an intervention is started under false pretenses and in violation of international law, where do the violations end?

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