The Legal Implications of Military Intervention in Libya

(Published in The Huffington Post, March 2, 2011)

As the crisis in Libya deepens there is increasing chatter about the possibility of military intervention. At the moment this is suggested most frequently in the form of a no-fly-zone over Libya, in order to prevent Gaddafi from using the air force against civilian protestors.

A debate is developing over the wisdom of any American or Western military involvement, but as usual there is little being said about the international law principles that would be implicated by such operations. And in the context of the growing unrest throughout the region, perceptions of the legality or illegality of any U.S. military action could have a significant impact on the developing narrative in the Arab world regarding America’s role, and how the emerging regimes ought to frame their relations with the U.S. going forward. The law matters in this situation.

The starting point of the legal analysis is the basic prohibition in international law on the use of armed force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. The two primary exceptions to the prohibition are self-defense, which is obviously not applicable here, and operations authorized by the United Nations Security Council in response to a threat to international peace and security. There is no question, therefore, that if the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the imposition of a no-fly-zone in order to maintain peace and security in and around Libya, as it did in Iraq in the 1990s, the U.S. and its NATO allies could do so with the full imprimatur of international law.

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