UN Authorisation for Military Action

UN authorisation for military action has a legal status; it is granted by the Security Council to maintain international peace and security.

The troops involved are chosen by the UN Military Staff Committee, whose role is “to advise and assist the Security Council on all questions relating to the Security Council’s military requirements for the maintenance of international peace and security, the employment and command of forces placed at its disposal, the regulation of armaments, and possible disarmament.”

UN Resolution 1970 in February 2011, referring Libya to the ICC, was an important precedent – as described in Clive Baldwin’s article, Libya: What the Security Council Has Done for Justice,  because Libya was not a signatory to the Rome Statute.  The UN Resolution SC/10200 authorised the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’, which involved the use of military force.  China and Russia abstained from voting at the Security Council, preferring a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and:

“The delegations of India, Germany and Brazil, having also abstained, equally stressed the need for peaceful resolution of the conflict and warned against unintended consequences of armed intervention.”

UN authorisation for military action in Libya was given on the basis of The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which was agreed in 2005: allowing the UN Security Council to authorise armed interventions against governments which are killing their own people – but only as a last resort, if a country had been unwilling or unable to prevent atrocities even with assistance from others.

Unfortunately, the intervention in Libya was mishandled.  It was allowed to evolve into an attempt at regime change, without any plan as to how that might be peacefully achieved.  The country descended into chaos, giving an opportunity for international terrorists to establish a following.  The BBC published a report, MPs attacked Cameron over Libya ‘collapse’, after Parliament’s foreign affairs committee had severely criticised the government.

Although America played a less active role in the intervention, President Obama was also criticised in a Foreign Affairs article, Obama’s Libya Debacle.

Although intervening in another country’s affairs might seem desirable in some circumstances, it is very risky.  After the Libyan debacle, the UN Security Council is unlikely to approve any similar action in future.  Regime change is a highly risky venture, as described later (, which is not an inevitable consequence of R2P.

Perhaps R2P could eventually be reinstated if it were given legal status (without requiring case-by-case UN Resolutions), under tightly defined conditions, to protect human rights in countries whose leadership has ceased to work for the benefit of their citizens or to protect their minority groups.


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/5365.htm.