In a move preceded by acrimonious argument, the United Nations Security Council voted by 10 to none, with five abstentions, for a no-fly zone throughout Libyan airspace — and Libya caved in by announcing acceptance of the resolution as well as a ceasefire. The no-fly zone, from which aid flights would be exempt, is backed by authority to member states to “take all necessary measures” to enforce compliance; this is diplomatic code for military action. In addition, the Security Council has widened the existing U.N. asset freeze and arms embargo against Tripoli and called on member states to stop mercenaries going to Libya. An occupation force is expressly excluded. The resolution would almost certainly have failed had the League of Arab States (the Arab League), the African Union, and the Secretary-General of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference not already condemned Libyan violations of human rights and international law. Muammar Qadhafi's first response was, in fact, a mindless rant: he said “no mercy” would be shown to residents of Benghazi who resisted him and also threatened retaliatory targeting of all air and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean.

The possibility of air strikes against one's own people, combined with Mr. Qadhafi's imprecations, might bring to mind the widely publicised possibility raised in 2009 of Indian Air Force action against Maoists, which would surely affect civilians as well; this was quickly ruled out. The Libyan strongman's threats, however, were of a quite different order, especially in the context of his regime's acts of brutality against its own people. As for the U.N. Security Council, while its tough stance might have worked for now, the course of action indicated in the resolution is deeply flawed. Jana, the official Libyan news agency, has reported that government forces might cease military operations on Sunday so that rebels could hand over weapons; a “general decision on amnesty” has also been mentioned. It is not clear what kind of Libyan action would qualify as sufficient compliance for the resolution not to be implemented. A no-fly zone would not stop Tripoli's ground troops and armour from advancing on and attacking rebel-held areas; the 1990s NATO no-fly zone in Bosnia failed, with terrible consequences for civilians. Finally, the Security Council resolution has no clear political objective. Is it to protect rebels or all Libyan civilians? Remove Mr. Qadhafi in what will amount to regime change? Something else? The U.N. has not even waited to hear from its Special Envoy to Libya. External military intervention in Libya would be both wrong and disastrous. Given the murky circumstances, India has done well to express its reservations and abstain in the Security Council vote.

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