“The movements currently sweeping across the Arab world constitute a historic time, and what is happening in Libya is creating precedence and can give confidence to the Arab peoples,” as Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy, President of the French Republic, has just stated, at the end of a European Union Council. From North Africa to the Persian Gulf, Arab peoples are proclaiming their hope for freedom and democracy, two principles that France, the United Kingdom and India particularly cherish. Hope is becoming a reality — in Tunisia, in Egypt, and in Morocco, where King Mohammed VI, in a brave and visionary speech, announced the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.
But not in Libya, where since early February Colonel Gaddafi has launched a systematic, cynical and bloody crackdown against his own people. Libyans fighting for freedom have appealed to the international community to come to their aid and protect them against the brutality of their own government.
At the Security Council, India, the United Kingdom, France and all other Council members have worked together to avoid becoming impotent bystanders as crimes against humanity are perpetrated. On 26 February, we unanimously decided to adopt Resolution 1970, which, inter alia, imposed tough sanctions against Colonel Gaddafi's regime and took the ground-breaking move of referring Gaddafi and his henchmen to the International Criminal Court.
But this was not enough to halt the massacre. The ongoing violence led the League of Arab States to demand on 12 March that the United Nations Security Council establish a no-fly zone and safe areas for civilians. On 17 March, the UN Security Council adopted a new resolution that established such a no-fly zone and authorised UN Member States to “take all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian populated areas” from the attacks by Gaddafi's regime.
After the adoption of Resolution 1973, Colonel Gaddafi had a further opportunity to meet the requirements of the UNSC. Instead, he mocked international demands with a sham “ceasefire” at the same time as he cynically accelerated the deployment of his tanks and threatened to annihilate Libyan freedom fighters and the people of Benghazi. His promise of a “bloodbath” and “no mercy and no pity” was chilling.
Facing the threat of an imminent massacre, at France's initiative, the Paris Summit for Support to Libyan People took place on 19 March. The range and seniority of the participants underlined the gravity of the situation; 18 Heads of State and Government, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs from Europe, North America and the Arab world gathered and were joined by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Secretary General of the Arab League, the President of the European Council and the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
At the conclusion of this Summit, the countries who so desired, agreed to assume their responsibility with regard to international law and implement UNSC Resolution 1973. On this basis, air operations began on 19 March to protect the Libyan people from attack by Colonel Gaddafi and to enforce a no-fly zone.
At the outset of the air operations, British Prime Minister David Cameron explained that this action was necessary, legal and right: “It is necessary because, with others, we should be trying to prevent him [Gaddafi] using his military against his own people. It is legal, because we have the backing of the UNSC and also of the Arab League and many others. And it is right because we believe we should not stand aside while this dictator murders his own people.”
These air strikes have prevented the large-scale killing of his own people by Colonel Gaddafi and have given those people a greater chance to assert their rights. We believe this operation should last a short period of time. And we hope that the Libyan people will finally be able to shape their own lives, free from fear.
Some have termed this intervention as “imperialist”, “neo-colonial”, or a struggle between the West and Islam. On the contrary, we act on the basis of a strong UN mandate adopted at the request of the Arab League — a collective decision by the international community. The coalition that is implementing Resolution 1973 is broad-based and includes American, European and Arab States.
“Regime change” is explicitly not the mandate of Resolution 1973. The leaders of France and the United Kingdom have been open and consistent in their political view that Colonel Gaddafi has served his time. But that is a matter for the Libyan people, not us. The aim of the operations is to ensure that Colonel Gaddafi's regime ceases to massacre innocent victims once and for all. This will allow Libyans to decide freely on their future.
There have been questions regarding the loss of civilian lives. We have saved thousands of lives in Benghazi and have taken great care to select targets that help to stop the regime's attacks on civilians and establish the no-fly zone. It is Colonel Gaddafi who is systematically crushing his own people.
We have been asked why action is being taken in Libya alone and not, for example, in Yemen or Bahrain. The answer is simple: Libya is the only country in this “new Arab spring” to take massive recourse to military force against its own people. Colonel Gaddafi has shown no sign of genuine interest to start discussion with the opposition. In Yemen, President Saleh has opened the prospect of change by offering to step down at certain conditions. Bahrain has a long-term process of reform. As recently as 13 March the Crown Prince renewed his offer of national dialogue. We support the aspiration of the peoples across the region for freedom and democracy. We have been clear that it is vital that governments in the region respond to calls for change with reform, not repression, and that they respect the civil rights of peaceful protestors, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly .
Finally, some fear actions to implement UNSCR 1973 could destabilise the region and split Libya. This should not be seen that way. Countries of the Arab world are witnessing an unprecedented and profound wave of aspiration for freedom and democracy. It is important to respond to this in ways similar to the King of Morocco, who announced measures to establish a constitutional monarchy. It is unfortunate that Libya has not chosen the path of reason and that we have been compelled to act to end the massacres.
We would conclude by recalling that France and the United Kingdom deeply respect the entire region, with which we have close ties. We hope that this “new Arab spring” will help unite the two shores of the Mediterranean and build a common space of prosperity and shared values.
(Jérôme Bonnafont is Ambassador of France and Sir Richard Stagg, United Kingdom High Commissioner.)