What can the West do now – and can anything really hurt Gaddafi?

From freezing bank accounts to imposing a no-fly zone, the international community's next steps will be crucial to the region. Ben Chu and Jake Heller assess the options
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Option: Refer Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court

What it means

Threatens senior figures with prosecution for crimes against humanity. A resolution was passed by the United Nations Security Council at the weekend authorising a referral. Anyone who is responsible for an international crime in Libya since 15 February is now subject to the ICC. The investigation covers not only those who carry out the deeds, but those who give the orders and those who know about crimes but fail to prevent them. This is the first time a referral has been unanimously supported since the court was established in 2002.

What is its likely effect?

The referral sends a message to the regime that it can expect to be held accountable for the slaughter of its own people. The consequences for those targeted could be trial and imprisonment in The Hague, where the ICC is based. In theory, at least, this should be a disincentive for Colonel Gaddafi and those around him from ordering attacks against unarmed protesters. Yet the court is still lacking in international credibility since the world's biggest military power, the US, has not signed up to it.

Option: Asset confiscations

What it means

Hit the Libyan regime financially. The UN Security Council has voted to impose a freeze on the assets of Muammar Gaddafi and his family. The US Treasury has also frozen $30bn in Libyan assets in America. And at the weekend, Britain froze £1bn in assets held by Gaddafi and his children. But there has been no decision yet on whether the freeze should be extended to the estimated £60bn-£80bn holdings of the Libyan Investment Authority, thought to be controlled by the Gaddafi family.

What is its likely effect?

This provides another incentive for those close to Gaddafi to abandon him. Even if they survive, they will not get access to the funds he has salted away abroad. It could also impede the ability of the regime to access cash to pay the mercenaries Gaddafi has imported, which could be crucial if he survives the present assault. The imposition of an asset freeze in 1993 did help to persuade Gaddafi to co-operate with the inquiry into the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. But it is doubtful how significant an asset freeze would be.

Option: Sanctions

What it means

Cut off Libya from international trade. The United Nations and the European Union have imposed an arms embargo on Libya and a cargo inspection system. We have been here before: the US began imposing sanctions in Libya in the 1980s under President Reagan when the Gaddafi regime was suspected of terror links. These included a ban on US citizens travelling to Libya and on US firms investing in the country. The United Nations and the European Union imposed their own sanctions in 1992.

What is its likely effect?

Previous sanctions were largely lifted in 2004 when Gaddafi, under considerable pressure, gave up his weapons of mass destruction programme in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq. The danger is that if Gaddafi does survive, the pain of sanctions will be felt primarily by the Libyan people rather than the regime – just as they were in Iraq after the first Gulf War. And since there is no trade taking place at the moment these measures are likely to have little impact in the immediate term.

Option: Travel ban

What it means

Restrict the international freedom of movement of the Gaddafi regime. The United Nations Security Council has voted to impose a travel ban on Gaddafi and his family, which prevents them from travelling to any member of the United Nations. There have also been UN travel bans over the past decade on leaders from Ivory Coast, Sudan, Liberia and Iran. In 2002, the European Union imposed a similar ban on Robert Mugabe and other high-ranking Zimbabwean politicians that prevented them from travelling to Europe.

What is its likely effect?

In theory, a travel ban puts more pressure on Gaddafi – but the precedent is far from promising, even when the bans are enforced. The EU travel ban did not dislodge Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. And UN travel sanctions on African leaders have had similarly minimal impact. Such bans can also be flouted. In 2007, one of the members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who was supposedly covered by UN travel restrictions managed to travel to Moscow unimpeded.

Option: No-fly zone

What it means

Prevent the Libyan air force from bombing protesters and rebels. Libyan pilots would face the threat of being shot down if they took to the skies. The head of US Central Command yesterday said that such an operation would also inevitably involve bombing missions to remove Libya's air defence systems. The US, UK and France imposed a no-fly zone in northern Iraq after the first Gulf War in 1991. And the United Nations Security Council voted to impose a no-fly zone in Bosnia in 1992.

What is its likely effect?

It would be difficult to get authorisation for a no-fly zone through the UN Security Council. China is likely to oppose it. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, ruled out the idea yesterday calling it "superfluous". A US-UK only operation would have unfortunate echoes of the divisive 2003 Iraq invasion. And its effectiveness should not be overstated. The Bosnia no-fly zone was widely violated and the no-fly zones that followed the 1991 Gulf War did not remove Saddam.

Option: Military action

What it means

Direct armed force by the West to remove Gaddafi. There are precedents besides the US-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The UN Security Council sanctioned the ejection of Saddam Hussein by military force from Kuwait in 1990. In 1995, Nato launched military operations, without UN sanction, to protect Bosnia from Slobodan Milosevic and did the same in 1999 to protect Kosovo from the Serbian dictator. And Britain intervened unilaterally to help to end the civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000.

What is its likely effect?

Military action was successful in removing Saddam from Kuwait, in ending war in Sierra Leone and pushing Milosevic out of Kosovo. But it led to an expensive and lethal quagmire in Iraq and British and US troops are still being killed in Afghanistan. An invasion of Libya could suck foreign troops into a civil war. There is also the danger of seeming to add credibility to Gaddafi's warnings that the West is engaged in an imperial plot to appropriate the country's oil reserves.

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