Why UN acted over Libya and Ivory Coast - but not Syria


In the space of two weeks in March, the United Nations authorised unprecedented interventions to protect civilians in Libya and Ivory Coast with dramatic results in both countries. For the BBC World Service, Claire Bolderson looks at how the UN came up with the resolutions and asks whether it is likely to do the same elsewhere.

Image caption, UN resolution 1973 authorised the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya

The United Nations resolution authorising a no-fly zone over Libya and all necessary means to protect civilians was drafted as Col Muammar Gaddafi's troops advanced on the opposition stronghold of Benghazi.

A month into the rebellion, town after town had fallen back under the Libyan leader's control and Col Gaddafi was threatening to wipe out the opposition.

At the UN there were fears of a massacre.

Formal request

While Egypt and Tunisia had been through what the French ambassador at the United Nations, Gerard Araud, calls "civilised transitions", in the case of Libya he says "at our borders, across the street from Europe, we could have had an incredible bloodbath".

But while France and the UK, two permanent members of the Security Council, pushed for military intervention, there was resistance from fellow permanent members China and Russia - both opposed in principle to getting involved in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation.

And the United States - already embroiled in conflicts in two Muslim countries- had little appetite for another such engagement.

Then came a formal request for UN intervention from the Arab League.

"The dynamic was changed by the Arab League statement," the British Ambassador at the UN, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, told BBC World Service.

"If you get a regional organisation pressing for a particular course of action in the council, then that has a disproportionate influence."

It was enough to persuade Russia and China to abstain rather than veto a resolution on the use of force.

It helped bring the United States on board. The resolution passed and two days later the US and European coalition started bombing government targets in Libya.

Then came questions for the West about why they had not acted to save civilians in another dispute which had been raging for nearly four months.

Speedy end

In West Africa, Ivory Coast's leader, Laurent Gbagbo had refused to give up the presidency even though UN and regional observers confirmed he had lost the November presidential election to long-time rival Alassane Ouattara.

Image caption, Fighting between pro-Gbagbo and pro-Ouattarra forces in Ivory Coast raged for several weeks

The political stand-off was fast turning into another civil war in a country already divided between north and south.

The West African regional organisation, Ecowas, had threatened Mr Gbagbo with force if he did not step down.

But the larger, continent-wide organisation, the African Union, was not happy about that.

It refused to back Mr Ouattara outright and asked Ecowas to re-think.

The smaller grouping agreed to stay quiet while the African Union tried to negotiate a peaceful outcome.

It was not until early March that it gave up and Ecowas could ask the UN to beef up the mandate of the UN troops already in Ivory Coast.

The UN responded immediately with a resolution that meant troops could attack Mr Gbagbo's heavy weapons.

This brought the conflict to a speedy end.

The President of the Ecowas Commission, Victor Gbeho, says Ivorians suffered as a result of the delay.

"We cannot hide our disappointment that owing to the doubting Thomases on the continent we had to take a longer route and therefore lose many lives needlessly," Mr Gbeho says.

As in the case of Libya, the role of the regional organisations was crucial.

France was heavily involved in drafting both resolutions but Mr Araud says it wasn't a case of the West getting its own way.

"The West was supporting regional organisations - this is one of the lessons we should draw from the two crises."

Conspicuously silent

Does that mean that when a regional organisation asks for help from the UN they will immediately get it?

Not necessarily.

The next obvious candidate for intervention is Syria.

But the Arab League has shown no sign of asking for UN force to be used against a nation with a far more complex regional role than Libya's.

On the contrary, it has remained conspicuously silent on the subject of Syria's uprising.

And if it did ask the UN to intervene, there is no guarantee the world body would respond.

According to Carne Ross, head of the consultancy Independent Diplomat, much will depend on how intervention in Libya goes.

"If Libya turns into a quagmire - a protracted civil war - then there'll be a lot more hesitation about these kind of interventions in future," he says.

Related Internet Links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.