My friend Claus Kress yesterday brought to my attention a most pertinent legal issue: In Resolution 1970, the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Lybia. The embargo was reaffirmed and strengthened in op. paras. 13-16 of Resolution 1973. The embargo appears to be comprehensive; no explicit exception is made for the possible distribution of arms to the rebels. However, both President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron have deliberately left open the possibility of supplying arms to the rebels, even though they have not done so for now. What then is the legal argument in support of supplying the rebels with armaments? Yesterday Secretary Clinton remarked that “It is our interpretation that [UN Security Council resolution] 1973 amended or overrode the absolute prohibition on arms to anyone in Libya.” She was echoed today by the PM in Parliament, who said that “The legal position is clear that the arms embargo applies to the whole territory of Libya. But at the same time UNSCR 1973 allows all necessary measures to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas… We do not rule it out but we have not taken the decision to do so.” This position was confirmed by the UK foreign secretary.
This argument raises serious questions of interpretation and of the deliberate ambiguity in the drafting of UNSC resolutions. On the one hand, there are specific provisions imposing an arms embargo without exceptions. On the other, a broad phrase such as ‘all necessary measures’ is taken as overriding the embargo, thus allowing foreign powers to favour one of the parties to the armed conflict. I am not saying that this argument is necessarily wrong, but its correctness is also far from obvious. It is of course tantamount to saying that the provision of arms to organized armed groups can be a method of protecting civilians or civilian populated areas; it also has the Council taking sides in a conflict, without saying so explicitly. I am not aware of similar arguments being made so forcefully by states with regard to UNSC arms embargos – though of course recall the embargo imposed on Bosnia, and the Bosnian argument that it was void as it disabled the Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves from genocide, in conflict with a norm of jus cogens.