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Libya Presented as Case Study in Multilateralism

November 29, 2011

“The world is not a classroom,” Gabriel Swiney '98, an international lawyer for the US Department of State, told a group of undergraduates at Brown University earlier this month. “The real world has lots of interests. Democracy is an interest; the prosperity of your own people is an interest; maintaining relationships with necessary allies, sometimes distasteful, sometimes not, is an interest. They all have to be balanced in policymakers’ minds.”

Swiney, who graduated from Brown with a BA in political science before earning his JD at Harvard Law School, returned to Providence to discuss the international response to the situation in Libya.

As an international lawyer, Swiney has had various State Department assignments, including drafting treaties, negotiating arbitrations with Iran, and working for the US embassy in Baghdad. Most recently, his work has centered on United Nations issues, and in the last year, he has been dedicated to dealing with US intervention in Libya. As such, in his lecture at Brown, Swiney examined the response of the United Nations Security Council, which authorized the use of force in Libya and imposed extensive sanctions against the Gaddafi regime. Swiney explained the drafting and diplomatic process that led to the UN’s response, and went on to explain the practical implications and unintended consequences of UN resolutions and foreign intervention in the region.

Swiney told the audience that he was speaking in a personal capacity, and not on behalf of the US Department of State or the federal government. He went on to provide a detailed account of the international response to the last year of upheaval in Libya. Swiney traced the events back to December 2010, when the beginnings of Arab revolutions were witnessed in Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt. He discussed a series of developments in Libya in February, when civil unrest escalated as pro-government demonstrators clashed with anti-Gaddafi protestors. Demonstrations originating in Benghazi soon spread to the country’s other cities, and by the end of the month, the Libyan police and army were moving quickly, using force to quash the demonstrations. Gaddafi and his sons made a series of media statements, vowing to continue using such force.

The international response, Swiney said, was clear, with the Obama administration denouncing the Libyan government’s use of lethal force against peaceful demonstrators, Libyan diplomats in New York calling Gaddafi a genocidal war criminal, and both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaking out to condemn the violence.

By the end of February, Swiney said, it was clear that the United Nations would be involved. He explained to the audience at Brown that the Security Council swiftly adopted UN Security Council Resolution 1970, imposing tough measures on the Libyan regime. The resolution vowed to provide humanitarian assistance to the Libyan people, while imposing an arms embargo on the country and a travel ban and assets freeze on the family of Gaddafi and certain government officials.

But by the second week in March, Swiney said, it was clear that a second resolution was necessary, as violence in Libya continued to explode. Swiney described the Gaddafi regime as “pretty much on the offense” against the Libyan people. He told the audience that in a series of a few days, the Gulf Cooperation Council, African Union, and Arab Union issued recommendations on an international response to the situation, including the implementation of a no-fly zone.

Swiney told the audience that while Arab nations are often wary of foreign intervention, the support of the GCC and Arab Union in implementing a no-fly zone allowed for further international action in the region.

“Foreign military intervention in the Middle East or in Africa is not something the countries of those regions take very lightly,” Swiney said. “In fact, they’re pretty much violently opposed to foreign intervention. … But GCC and Arab support changed that.”

Swiney went on to describe a variety of drafts for a second resolution, which circulated among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with nonpermanent members. While multiple ideas were discussed, in the end, the Security Council unanimously passed UN Security Council Resolution 1973, invoking Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. The binding resolution, Swiney said, provided three authorizations for the use of force: an authorization of the use of force to create a no-fly zone over Libya, an authorization of the use of force to protect civilians, and an authorization of the use of force to enforce an arms embargo. The resolution also included economic sanctions, he said, which went beyond the previous economic sanctions of Resolution 1970. The sanctions of Resolution 1973 extended to Libyan government institutions in oil, banking, and investment, including the country’s central bank and investment authority.

Swiney said the resolution was far from perfect, and the operations were not free from controversy. Questions emerged over who would carry out the resolution, and countries differed in their opinions over whether the arms embargo should prevent them from providing arms to the rebels. Swiney also pointed to unintended consequences of economic sanctions, as the Libyan government turned out to have high stakes in various international organizations and companies. Said Sweeney: “By freezing their investment portfolio, we almost accidentally shut down telecommunications in Rwanda.”

Swiney said there were other unintended consequences, too, including difficulties with foreign transactions and the importation of food and supplies, as under Libyan domestic law, all exchanges had to go through the country’s central bank – yet the resolution had frozen the bank’s assets.

But overall, Sweeney said, it is “fair to say the measures worked.”

Military intervention by NATO and other countries did halt the advance of the regime forces,” he said. “And it did destroy their ability to conduct offensive operations against portions of their own population.”

“The situation in Libya is definitely still very fluid, and it’s impossible to know how things are going to turn out,” he added. “Until very many years have passed, we’re not going to know if the steps that the international community took will make things better or worse in the long term.”

Swiney concluded his lecture by reminding the audience there is “no substitute for regional support,” as he found the support of the GCC and Arab League invaluable in Libya, and that in the future, countries must be “extremely careful” when it comes to applying economic sanctions.

But Swiney ended on a positive note, saying: “Even though this felt like confusion sometimes, and pretty much a mad scramble to do the best we could with limited time, and limited information, and limited resources, the fact is that the international response to the situation in Libya, from my perspective, was consistent with international law.”

“This response was actually the product of international law,” he said. “No states intervened in Libya without international authorization. Nobody ended up running off with Libyan assets. And no one used the conflict as a pretext for gaining control over Libyan territory or oil. We worked through the Security Council, using the tools set out in the UN Charter.” When there is the political will, those tools can be very effective, he concluded.

Swiney’s lecture was presented by the International Relations Undergraduate Group (IRDUG) Speaker Series, "Bombs, Ballots and Bailouts."

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Lauren Fedor ‘12