Colum Lynch

Lynch Colum

Colum Lynch is a staff writer for the Washington Post, where he covers the United Nations. He writes Foreign Policy Magazine’s Turtle Bay blog, the 2011 National Magazine Award winner for best news reporting in digital media.


The Libyan intervention was largely considered a success by a lot of people, at least from an American perspective; would you agree with that assessment or not?

Well, I would agree that it’s viewed as a great success by the U.S. in terms of the way it played out. It was a very swift, determined action; there was a decisive outcome; it lead to the overthrow of Qaddafi’s regime. The long-term effects of it are going to be richly debated and are more or less sort of clear in terms of situations where you have the outbreak of instability in neighboring near by Mali. The question of whether there are spillover effects, whether there are questions of the spread of weapons in the regions as a result of the conflict there.

It has also created enormous tension within the international community, in the Security Council. It’s been a very divisive issue. You had the Europeans and the United States seeing it as a clear-cut victory for the UN. The Russians, the Chinese, the South Africans – even though the South Africans supported intervention – the Brazilians, and the Indians have been much less supportive of the whole outcome; they have seen it as sort of a violation of the principle of Responsibility to Protect.

This was supposed to be an intervention to protect civilians, but it only protected civilians who were opposed to the government with the opposition. That it was used as sort of cover for a military, you know, overthrow, and that wasn’t the account they signed on to in council. So it’s been quite divisive and it’s played out into the whole debate that’s followed that in Syria with Russia resisting any efforts that would give the West any kind of green light for military action in Syria.

Is there a possibility that an intervention like this could ever take place again after that experience, especially in the Security Council?

You know, if you were to ask me whether the intervention into Libya could have occurred after the experience of the Iraq war; where Russia and others on the Council were quite upset about the Americans sort of use of a long-standing UN resolution that dated back more than a decade which was used as the sort of the legal trigger for military action in Iraq in 2003. If you were to ask me whether the Council could get behind a new military intervention in Libya, I would’ve said that you’re crazy. I mean, the difference and what that tells you is that at moments of political crisis, all things are possible. And so, what you saw was an extraordinary realignment of the geopolitical universe.

You had African states kind of turning on Qaddafi. You had the Arab League very strongly calling for some military action against a member of their own sort of group, which couldn’t have been imagined. That changed the dynamics in the Security Council. Countries like Russia, which had been extremely resistant to allowing any kind of military authorization in places like North Korea, Iran, any kind of possibility that might happen, all of a sudden they were forced to reconsider this because all of the regional players were now pushing for some sort of decisive action and so China, which I think would traditionally would’ve been reluctant to ever sign on to anything like this was in the position of having to go up against the regional players, the African Union, the Arab League. And so that completely altered the dynamics.

Also you had these extraordinarily dramatic sort of scenes in the Security Council, where you had the Deputy Ambassador of the Libyan government essentially saying, “Qaddafi is massacring people.” His own diplomats were saying, “We need to take action to stop this guy.” So, that’s not something that happens everyday. It sort of changed the whole dynamics of the council, made something that seemed impossible, possible.

So it came in a year in which you also had a UN backed military campaign supported by the Security Council, even though there were some disquiets, some divisions about whether this was a justifiable action. But there was an effort to overthrow a sort of president who lost an election in the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, who had resisted, refused to accept the vote, and challenged it. And you had French and UN attack helicopters going in and taking him down. So, those were things that were hard to imagine happening and they happened.

However, what you’re seeing now this year, in Syria, is you’re seeing a real backlash against the Libya operation. So Russia has refused to allow any kind of sort of broad sweeping what you would call an enforcement resolution at the Security Council – a chapter seven resolution, which had traditionally been used to justify and authorize the imposition of economic sanctions and the use of military force. And so Russia, with some support from South Africa and India, has argued that the West abused the authority that was given to it by the Council to protect civilians in Libya and used it to over throw a kind of legally recognized government or, a member state of the United Nations, and we’re not going allow that happen in Syria. The Russians, in particular, who have their own particular interests in Syria —- they have a naval base on the Mediterranean port in Syria and they have deep intelligence military ties with the Syrian government, and so, they’ve kind of drawn a line in the sand and said “We’re not going to let you do this again.”

Theoretically and philosophically, why are Russia and China opposed to intervention?

I think if you look at the period since the end of the Cold War, you see that the West tends to use military intervention as one of its options when it has a diplomatic problem. It has this certain sort of pattern, and it often involves going in militarily, and it often ends up overthrowing a regime that the Americans have a problem with. So, we’ve seen Qaddafi going down in Libya; you’ve seen Saddam Hussein going down in Iraq.

I think if you’re in Russia and China, you think about the region more broadly, you think, “We have pretty good relations with Syria and we also have pretty good relations with Iran.” They’re very important energy relations developing between China and Iran, and so they see this as part of a domino f theory. Is the West sort of using the Security Council to expand its writ over the globe? I mean, it’s kind of interesting the debate that takes place goes on in the United States and Europe is one in which, you know, is the U.S. in decline.

In Moscow and Beijing, I think that they are very concerned about the kind of onward march of Western power and kind of encroaching on their spheres of influence. And so they see this as a sort of challenge to their; well, for the Russians, kind of regional interests and to the Chinese, global interests. And so, they probably see this as something of a challenge to their interests, and they feel if we give you Syria, you know, you’re going to come knocking on the door, you know, in a couple of months asking for Iran.
And, you know, for the Chinese, Iran is becoming very, very important to them. They’re a major importer of Iranian crude, and I see, think they see Iran as a key part of their long-term energy security strategy. So I think they do have interests, and they see these interests challenged by this onward march of humanitarian intervention.

I want to ask about the impact of the Libya operation on the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) doctrine that’s emerging in the UN; has it helped it or hurt it?

It’s sort of interesting because in 2005, all the world leaders got together and  they had a summit in New York, and they passed this document, the Declaration of Intent. And in that they endorsed this notion that governments have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from mass crimes, genocide,  and massive crimes against humanity. There’s no kind of mechanism for enforcing this, but essentially the agreement that came out was this notion that you would do two things.

One is that the world would kind of help governments where there were human rights problems; find ways to address these threats to their own people, so it was not necessarily all about military intervention, it was about supporting the ability of countries to improve their ability to address violations of human rights. And so, it would involve things like capacity building, helping countries deal with their legal norms of addressing human rights abuses. But when confronted with an ongoing or eminent genocide, there’s also this notion that if a country has not met its own responsibility to protect its own people, that the international community more broadly has an obligation.
And so, Libya became a test of this, and the discussions within the council were discussions that took into account this doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, but this Security Council makes its own decisions and its laws, and Responsibility to Protect is this idea that’s out there that doesn’t have legal force and its up to the Council to decide and interpret how this document is put into action.

And so, it seems evident to me, and the U.S. government I don’t think accepts this, that this went far beyond Responsibility to Protect. I think it’s also a bit naïve to think that if you use military force in the name of Responsibility to Protect, that you can somehow limit what a military does to the letter of the law. In the sense that you send the military force in, and militaries are trained to achieve decisive military objectives and, in this case, it quickly developed to this kind of defensive mode to ensure that Qaddafi’s forces could not wipe out civilians in Bengazi, to more of a kind of broader strategy to ensure that the government will never be able to do this kind of thing anywhere.

And that meant going after military targets, going after hitting family members, chasing down Qaddafi and trying to kill him himself. And so these are things that go beyond what most people would’ve thought Responsibility to Protect entailed. It might be that it doesn’t mean that they didn’t have a good reason to sort of pursue this in a decisive way and overthrow the government. I mean, whether the question is, “Was it a good idea to overthrow Qaddafi or not?” To me, that’s a different issue, and to me, they did overreach. They may have been right to overreach, but it has implications in terns of what comes next in the Security Council.

You followed the UN sanctions discussions and Security Council decisions regarding Iran; what are some of the major points on this timeline?

I mean, this whole process starts largely after the Iraq war, and you have an effort by the European powers – the three European powers: France, Britain, and Germany – to try and; I mean, there were discoveries of enrichment plants and a whole discloser by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Western intelligence, and Iranian opposition figures, where they uncovered evidence that Iran was developing secrete enrichment facilities. So, it created enormous alarm, it triggered this whole diplomatic process by the Europeans to reach some sort of agreement with the Iranians to open up their secret programs to greater international scrutiny through the International Atomic Energy Agency, and to try and sort of come up with some sort of bargain, which would give the outside world confidence that all of the nuclear activities that were under way in Iran were aimed towards a peaceful energy program and weren’t being diverted to military uses.

And so, that played out. It reached its limit, it looked like there was a possibility of agreements for a while. The Iranians, when those were playing out, suspended their enrichment program, but those talks eventually broke down. There was a movement for the first time back to the Security Council, and there have been several years of efforts to try to impose economic sanctions on Iran by essentially demands that Iran sort of frees its suspension of, suspend its enrichment activities. Iran has refused to do it.

There has been a gradual escalation of economic pressure. A combination of UN measures aimed more at Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear power, to undercut their ability to procure stuff that might be used for a nuclear weapons program, and there has been an effort targeting their ballistic missile program because of the concern that that could potentially be used to deliver a nuclear weapon. And there has been broad agreement on those limited measures, which are sort of focused on nonproliferation experts – the Chinese, the Russians bought into this. But there has been less agreement on extending those sanctions.

What you’ve see are the Europeans and the Americans going outside the Security Council, posing their own sanctions trying to strangle, you know, essentially Iran’s ability to develop it’s oil industry; trying to place constraints on its financial industry, so it doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to develop a nuclear program if it intended to do so.

The problem is this is beginning to have a broader impact on the society, which over time is going to be more difficult politically to sustain. You know, the rhetoric and the position of the U.S. has been, “We need to do this and this is all targeted at the Iranian regime.” But, there are signs that people don’t share the view that the people in power are starting to endure hardships as a result of the sanctions. So this is kind of, kind of been playing out.

In your opinion, if the U.S. decides to act unilaterally, or Israel decides to act unilaterally, to take out Iran’s potential weapons program, what would the reaction be at a place like the Security Council?

There would be no reaction by the Security Council because the United States has veto power. There would be a lot of protest, there would be a lot of complaints by a number of governments – it would not be popular at the UN. But it certainly wouldn’t affect action at the Security Council because the Americans have the power to veto anything going through the Security Council. There would be, you know, there would be a lot of protests, but there wouldn’t be a lot of tough action.

There might be in the General Assembly, and it would reflect broad international disagreement and protest over military action. Unless, the pretext that was used for military action; if there was some incident that justified a military response, that might be different. But if they just moved inexorably towards military action and there was no trigger that was sufficiently outrageous to generate broad international support for military action, then it would probably be received very negatively.

Where should security experts and where should the U.S. be looking to carry out counter-terrorism campaigns in different hot spots around the world?

Well, I don’t know. At the UN, what is happening is that the focus is starting to become more diffused. I mean, the focus is not just on al Qaeda and Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is in some way an effort to try and restore a working relationship in Afghanistan with the Taliban. And so, there has been an effort to, both by the United Nations Secretariat and also by the Council, to separate out the Taliban from al Qaeda.

So they’ve done things sort of institutionally; they have been negotiating efforts to lift sanctions on some of the Taliban to encourage them to pursue a peace process. And so the focus has been shifting outside the focus of Afghanistan, Pakistan. You’re starting to see al Qaeda making extraordinary gains in places like Yemen, Mali, and, more recently, there’s a lot of concern about activities in Syria. So they seem to continue to pose a very serious threat, and when there’s a sense that there’s progress in one part of the world, they seem to pop up somewhere else.

I mean, what’s interesting in a place like Yemen is that al Qaeda has been developing a more complicated strategy that’s had quite a degree of success, which is combining some of their more extremist, violent activities with support for public programs, particularly in rural Yemen, taking over large swaths of territory. I mean, governing parts of Yemen, and that’s something that I think has really caused people by surprise.

I mean, there have been a lot of briefings by Gemal Benimar in the Security Council where he is, saying that it’s kind startling of the degree of the inroads that they have made. I mean, it almost reminds you more of some of the groups in Lebanon and Gaza, where you have groups like Hezbollah and they have very, very highly developed both the military strategy and a highly developed humanitarian social strategy. And it seems like they’re applying that in a place like Yemen. And they’re making inroads into Mali. The extent of their activities in Syria aren’t clear, but clearly that’s becoming a place that’s making a lot of policy makers in the West and at the UN very uneasy.

What is China’s role in Africa; in as perceived by the Security Council?

Well, it’s really interesting because what you find is, that China’s work through the UN, certainly, in dealing with security issues in Africa, is really changing the way China has projected its role in the world. So, it’s been focused very much on its commercial interests and natural resources, but also in developing those relations; it has to take into consideration the views of the local governments and what they want. And so, here is a country like China which has been very, very suspicious about any interventionist policies, and if you go back a few years in Somalia, it was China within the Security Council that was taking the lead in pushing for some sort of UN supported African intervention in Somalia. I mean, China of all countries!

And they were largely doing it because their partners in Africa wanted this. And so, you know, here’s a country that’s always resisted this sort of activities in the past. China’s role in peacekeeping is increasing dramatically. And their if not the largest of the P5 members, I’m not sure now if it’s France or China, but their one of the largest contributors of peacekeepers. You have to remember, if you go back in history to the Korean War that was a UN authorized sort of intervention by the U.S., and you know, China fought American troops on the border.

And so, this is their initial kind of experience with United Nations peacekeeping. So there would be years before China, even when it was a member of the Security Council, would contribute to peacekeeping and would support it in any way. That’s been changing. If you look at who is the face of UN peacekeeping, it’s not American peacekeepers, it’s not British peacekeepers, it’s not even Canadian peacekeepers – it’s Chinese. And it’s Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis. But it gives you a sense that, that the way the UN sort of projects its image in the world, it’s no longer you know, the face of the West. It’s, more the face of China and many of these, and many of, these other countries.

Another really interesting sort of dimension is that along with China’s commercial activities, is they have a much larger role as a military exporter. And this is both globally and in Africa.  China used to be a net importer of weapons, and that’s changing. It’s challenging some of the dominant players; certainly in Africa. The Russians – it’s surpassed the Russians, and they have sort of very big sort of role in providing mostly ammunition. I mean, they’re not providing the most advanced equipment; they’re not providing attack helicopters and that sort of thing.

It’s mostly ammunition and smaller caliber; assault rifles and that sort of thing. But what you find is that it’s colliding with some of China’s responsibilities as a global power. So on the Security Council, China and all the other Security Council members are responsible for ensuring that arms embargoes that are passed by the Security Council are enforced. So then you go to places like Darfur, and there’s an exchange between the rebels and the Sudanese authorities. And all of a sudden, all of these Chinese brand new shells are found in these battle places, and it’s a total violation of the sanctions.

And China’s probably not selling them to the rebels; it’s probably not intentionally violating the sanctions. But it sells all this stuff to the government in Khartoum, and once you do that, this stuff spreads all over the place. It’s proving extremely awkward for the Chinese and they don’t quite know how to deal with it, and so they’ve tended to over react and they’ve tended to try and constrain the power of these sanctions panels. There was a fascinating episode where there was a German munitions expert that was part of the panel in Darfur, and got into a fight with the Chinese expert in the Security Council.

And the Chinese expert was saying, “You have no evidence; you have no evidence that we are violating the sanctions.” And he pulled out a bunch of shells out of his pocket and he threw them on the table and he was out of a job in a month and a half. And so it showed you that the kind of tension that one sees in the developing countries; China is developing as a responsible global power and you see this in many ways where it’s contributing to peacekeeping. But there’s another side where they’re sort of a presence in the area, which sometimes is not entirely positive.

In engaging with African countries it’s also winning allies particularly in the General Assembly, is that something you’ve seen occurring, is that one of the motivators behind Chinese engagement?

Well, China has always invested a lot of energy in making sure that it has good relations with the developing world. It’s not just the group of 77; it’s the group of 77 and China. So in a way, they’ve been effective in many cases in developing those relations and turning them into sort of a negotiating block. But if you see certain issues, like how well they’ve done say on Syria where they’ve blocked Syria to the hilt along with Russia, in that case they’ve been extremely isolated.

If you look at General Assembly resolutions on Syria condemning Syria’s human right’s record; if you look at the Human Rights Council, China and Russia and are very isolated. I mean the big blocks, the Arab League and the African Union, are particularly since the Arab Spring are taking a much harder line against countries on sort of issues involving human rights abuses. And China and Russia are not there. And so the one thing about the UN, you would find that one day you’ve got the whole world behind you, and the next you’re isolated. And you see that a lot with the United States, and you see it with China and Russia.

And so I think this reflects the fact that they are truly becoming a global power, and their interests are extremely complicated, and China does not like to be isolated on issues, and they often are not. But they have put greater interest and investment in their relationship with maintaining a close tie and a bond with Russia and the Security Council, which is the organ they care most about. And they jealously guard their power in the Security Council more, they prize it more than anything else. And so, they see maintaining agreement with the Russians is in some way more important than maintaining this broader alliance with the developing world on an issue like Syria.