UN sends mixed signals on civilian deaths in Libya
The United Nations has been sending mixed signals lately about NATO’s record with civilian casualties in the alliance’s sixth month of air strikes against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s troops and military sites. U.N. officials and diplomats said it was hardly surprising that different senior officials at the world body are finding it hard to keep a consistent line on the conflict, which, back in March, most of them had hoped would be over in a few weeks.
But it has dragged on. Now Gaddafi’s government is complaining about what it says are mounting civilian casualties caused by NATO bombs, many of them children. Diplomats from alliance members acknowledge that there have been some civilian casualties, which they regret. But they question some of the figures that have been coming out of Tripoli. Libya’s state television, which was targeted by NATO late last month, regularly broadcasts gory images of blood-soaked bodies it says are civilians being pulled from rubble after NATO bomb attacks.
Last week the head of the U.N. cultural and scientific agency UNESCO, Irina Bokova, issued an unusually sharp rebuke of the alliance for its July 30 air strikes against Libyan state television, which she said killed several “media workers.”
“I deplore the NATO strike on Al-Jamahiriya and its installations,” Bokova said in a statement. “Media outlets should not be targeted in military actions.”
Several U.N. diplomats from NATO member states privately expressed surprise at the statement from Bokova, herself a citizen of NATO member Bulgaria. Asked about her criticism, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s deputy spokesman Farhan Haq suggested that Ban was not overly concerned with the performance of NATO in Libya.
“In terms of that, we would need further details about what the operations were that were conducted. But certainly, the Secretary-General believes that resolution 1973 has been used properly in order to protect civilians in Libya and he has continually emphasized the need, as this proceeds, to make sure that civilians in Libya will be protected.”
NATO defended the attack on Libyan television and said it had no evidence that anyone was killed during the strikes.
With Ban’s backing, NATO began launching air strikes against Gaddafi’s forces in March on the basis of Security Council resolution 1973. That resolution authorized U.N. member states to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians short of occupying the country.
Russia, China, Brazil, South Africa and India — the so-called BRICS developing countries — seized on Bokova’s statement and brought it up during a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council this week. One senior council diplomat said it was clearly a coordinated and pre-planned effort on the part of the BRICS to launch a surprise assault on Britain, France, the United States and other members of the NATO alliance that have been attacking forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi since March.
Two days after expressing Ban’s satisfaction with the protection of civilians in Libya, the U.N. press office issued a statement with a very different tone: “The Secretary-General is deeply concerned by reports of the unacceptably large number of civilian casualties as a result of the conflict in Libya.”
Although it did not explicitly blame NATO, diplomats and U.N. officials said the statement was clearly referring to the alliance. Diplomats said that Ban’s team of close advisers received several phone calls from Western diplomats who took offense at Ban’s statement. One envoy said of it: “It’s what the Russians would call a balanced statement.” They said it was certain to win praise from the disgruntled BRICS nations, four of which abstained from the March 17 vote on resolution 1973, allowing it to pass while making clear they had reservations about it. (South Africa, whose delegation in New York is now one of the most vocal critics of NATO operations in Libya, was the only BRICS nation to vote for 1973.)
The following day Haq issued a clarification of Ban’s statement, saying that Ban “of course recognizes and appreciates NATO efforts to avoid civilian casualties.”