Rupert Cornwell: Don't expect the UN to hurry its response

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The Independent Online

Despite complaints to the contrary, the United Nations is addressing the increasingly bloody crisis in Libya, but in its own measured way.

Yesterday, the Security Council, the UN's most powerful body, was meeting in New York to consider sanctions against the Gaddafi regime, while in Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council called on the body's General Assembly to consider an unprecedented move to suspend a member country.

But anyone who expects the world body to intervene speedily to end the civil war in the North African country will be disappointed. That is not how the UN works.

As one previous global emergency after another has shown, the UN is no more than the sum of its parts, in other words of its most powerful member countries, most notably the five permanent members of the Security Council, who have veto powers. Few would regard South Korea's Ban ki-Moon as a particularly imposing figure, despite his condemnation of the situation in Libya as "totally unacceptable". But he is only the latest in a line of UN secretary-generals to be criticised for an inadequate response to a crisis generating international outrage.

In Geneva, the language of Navi Pillay, the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights was even harsher. The world, he warned, had to "step in vigorously" to end at once the Gaddafi regime's savage crackdown on anti-government protesters, in which thousands may have been killed and wounded.

But, despite the world-wide clamour, there was no guarantee the motion to temporarily expel Libya from the 47-nation group would succeed. China and Nigeria, for example, spoke out against the violence, but opposed calls for Tripoli to be ejected. As for the sanctions debate in New York, any decision is unlikely before Monday.

If the past is any guide, the resolution that does emerge will have been watered down to secure the widest possible support and avoid any veto – especially from China, which is particularly wary of intervening in the internal affairs of other countries, not least because of its fear it might one day be similarly called to account. Russia, another veto-wielding power, has often shown similar reservations. For this reason, there is no prospect of the UN Security Council ordering military action against Gaddafi – a step it has taken only twice in its history.

The first was in 1950 over Korea, at a moment when the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN and so did not use its veto, and when China was officially represented on the Council by the government of Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan.

In late 1990, the Security Council again authorised the use of force, this time to evict the Iraqi army from Kuwait, after Saddam Hussein had violated the guarantee of the territorial integrity and independence of member states contained in the UN charter. But try as the US and Britain did, they never secured specific Security Council authorisation for the 2003 invasion.

In reality, any decision to bring outside force to bear on the Libyan crisis would come from Nato. Nato conducted the air campaign against Slobodan Milosevic over Kosovo in 1999, an operation not sanctioned by the UN. Similarly it is Nato (or its leading members) which might impose a no-fly zone in Libya akin to those in Iraq before 2003. If the UN were to send forces to the North African country, it would only be in a humanitarian role, as in several other hotspots in Africa and the Middle East. But that would depend on future events in Libya.