I understand that the government believes arming the Libyan rebels may be legal in certain circumstances. Although the United Nations has backed an arms embargo on Libya, ministers believe if arming the rebels was the only way to "protect civilians", the over-riding objective of United Nations resolution 1973 - it could be legal.
The foreign secretary gave a clear indication of this in answer to a question I asked at the news conference at the end of Tuesday's London Conference:
Robinson: Do you fear that it may not be possible to protect Libyan civilians from the air? Did today's conference discuss the possibility of arming the opposition, as they have requested, or do you fear that if you did so you might be arming some at least who have al-Qaeda sympathies?
William Hague: We didn't discuss at the conference today arming the opposition - that was not one of the subjects for discussion....You're right that this subject has been raised of course by the interim transitional national council. But it is not part of any agreement today- the United Kingdom takes into account the UN Security Council resolutions on this. Those resolutions in our view apply to the whole of Libya. Although it is consistent with the UN Security Council resolution 1973 to give people aid in order to defend themselves in particular circumstances but we haven't discussed that so no new decision to communicate to you about that.
Labour have responded by circulating the prime minister's words in the Commons a few weeks ago:
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): Speaking as someone who has watched well-armed Bosnian Serb units smash through civilian populations, may I ask my right hon. Friend the prime minister whether Security Council resolution 1973 allows us, under its provision on "all necessary measures", to avoid the arms embargo and directly arm the people who are fighting against Gaddafi in Benghazi and elsewhere?
The prime minister: The first point I would make to my hon. Friend is how welcome it was that Bosnia was sitting on the Security Council and able to vote in favour of this resolution-for good historical reasons. The resolution helps to enforce the arms embargo, and our legal understanding is that that arms embargo applies to the whole of Libya. Paragraph 4 authorises member states:
"[T]o take all necessary measures...to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack" in Libya, including Benghazi. That is very strong language, which allows states to take a number of military steps to protect people and harm those who are intending to damage civilians. It could not be clearer, and the legal advice is clear."
My understanding is that the National Security Council have not yet discussed any change of policy to arm the rebels.
PS The foreign secretary has added some further detail to the perceived legality of arming the Libyan rebels, in an interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last night. The UK's reading of the UN resolution, said Mr Hague, is that "it might allow equipment to be given to the rebels purely to defend themselves in a limited way". When pressed further on what sort of equipment, he added: "only very limited ones in terms of calibre... But we're not proposing to arm the rebels in any form and not planning to do that - it raises policy as well as legal questions".
His caution was understandable - minutes later on the same programme a spokesman for the Arab League (a crucial partner in the international coalition) warned - albeit rather ambiguously - "we don't talk about arming one group against another group. We have to be careful".