Libya and the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1973

The wave of protests sweeping across the Middle East in recent months has seen demands for democratic reforms and regime change in several countries, including Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain. However, Libya quickly became the focus of international attention as government forces began firing upon their own civilians with heavy weaponry, and bombing population centres from the ground and air. An overview of how the unrest evolved into a humanitarian crisis is covered in more detail in a previous post. As the world’s attention turned to condemnation, calls for UN intervention grew stronger and more insistent. Following the failure of the Libyan Government to heed the warnings issued on 26 February under UNSCR 1970, on 17 March the UN Security Council ultimately passed UNSCR 1973 authorising member states to ‘take all necessary measures’ to protect Libyan civilians. This included the declaration of a no-fly zone over Libya, but specifically excluded a UN-mandated occupying ground force. Outlined below are brief answers in response to some of the frequently asked questions on the issue.

1. What are the parameters of the no-fly zone over Libya? Which countries are enforcing it?

In response to a request from the League of Arab States on 12 March 2011 for the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libyan territory, UNSCR 1973 authorises:

... a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians (paragraph 6)
The ban does not apply

…to flights whose sole purpose is humanitarian, such as delivering or facilitating the delivery of assistance, including medical supplies, food, humanitarian workers and related assistance, or evacuating foreign nationals from the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (paragraph 7)…
but does not apply to flights authorised to enforce the no-fly zone (paragraph 7 referencing paragraph’s 4 and 5).

The Resolution explicitly authorises

Member States that have notified the Secretary-General and the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban on flights imposed by paragraph 6 above, as necessary, and requests the States concerned in cooperation with the League of Arab States to coordinate closely with the Secretary General on the measures they are taking to implement this ban (paragraph 8) ...
Among the countries to have indicated their intention to take military and/or humanitarian measures in accordance with UNSCR 1973, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Qatar, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, the UK, the Ukraine, and the US have formally notified the UN Secretary-General of their decision.

On 19 March 2011, the US President authorised US Armed Forces to commence military action in Libya in support of the Resolution. On the same day, the British Government confirmed its commitment to deploying military aircraft to Libya. Additionally the government of France has formally announced their support in enforcing the Resolution.

There is no specified timeframe for the expiration of UNSCR 1973.

2. Where have no-fly zones been used in the past?

The Balkans

During the civil war in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 781 on 9 October 1992. This resolution prohibited all military flights in the airspace over Bosnia-Herzegovina and authorised the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to monitor the ban, whilst urging member states and regional organisations to provide technical assistance. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) assisted the UN with Operation Sky Monitor to monitor the ban.

However, as military flights continued over Bosnia-Herzegovina, the UN SC passed Resolution 786 on 10 November 1992, reaffirming the ban of fixed-wing and rotating-wing aircraft, expanding the size of UNPROFOR and calling for further measures to enforce the ban. A further measure, UNSCR 861 of 31 March 1993, banned all flights over Bosnia-Herzegovina without UNPROFOR’s explicit permission, effectively authorising member states to take all necessary measures to enforce compliance with the ban. In response, NATO launched Operation Deny Flight with targeted airstrikes to support UN ground troops and enforce compliance with UNSCR 861. This mission lasted from 12 April 1993 to 20 December 1995. It appears that the no-fly zone was more effective in preventing fixed-wing aircraft flights, as there were significant difficulties with enforcing the flight ban on rotary wing aircraft.

At the end of military hostilities between NATO members and Serbia and Montenegro over Kosovo in 1999, NATO established two buffer zones. A no-fly zone was established in support of UNSCR 1244 on Kosovo for aircraft capable of carrying combat ordnance, and was gradually relaxed.


Unlike UNSCR 1973, the no-fly zones over Iraq were not explicitly authorised by the UN SC. UNSCR 688 (1991) was made in reference to Article 2 paragraph 7 of the UN Charter, not Chapter VII, and condemned ‘the repression of the Iraqi civilian population in many parts of Iraq’ and demanded ‘that Iraq, as a contribution to removing the threat to international peace and security in the region, immediately end this repression…’. The Resolution also requested the UN Secretary-General to pursue ‘humanitarian efforts in Iraq’ and appealed to ‘all Member States and to all humanitarian organizations to contribute to these humanitarian relief efforts’.

France, the United Kingdom and the United States established a no-fly zone over the north of Iraq in April 1991 and in the south in August 1992, asserting that the no-fly zones supported UNSCR 688 (1991). France withdrew in 1996.

In December 1999 during the UN SC’s deliberation of the UK’s draft resolution on Iraq, Russia and China asserted that the no-fly zones established over Iraq had never been authorised by the UN SC and were not supported under international law. The legality of the enforcement of these no-fly zones under international law has been subject to academic debate and was discussed at the UK’s Iraq Inquiry.

The no-fly zones over Iraq ceased in March 2003 with the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

3. What was the voting pattern in the UN Security Council on UNSCR 1973?

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya was adopted by the UN SC on 17 March 2011 (New York time). Of the 15 UN Security Council members, there were 10 votes in support of the Resolution, none against, and five abstentions. China, a permanent member, holds the Presidency of the UN SC for March 2011.

The 10 nations which voted for the Resolution in support of the establishment of a no-fly zone were:

  • France
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • Colombia
  • Gabon
  • Lebanon
  • Nigeria
  • Portugal
  • South Africa
Countries that voted in favour of UNSCR 1973 believed that the Resolution was necessary to prevent Gaddafi’s forces from launching further attacks against the Libyan opposition forces. These UN SC member states also considered it to be an appropriate response to the Libyan Government’s flouting of earlier Security Council decisions, including UNSCR 1970.

The five nations which abstained were:

  • Brazil
  • Germany
  • India
  • China
  • Russia
Reasons for abstention included fears of a protracted military conflict that could engulf the entire region, the possibility of large-scale civilian loss of life, the absence of unanimity in the Council, and unanswered questions about the methods that would be used to enforce the no-fly zone. Significantly, China and Russia chose not to use their veto power to prevent the Resolution from being passed.

Russia, China and India have all emphasised the need for political dialogue and political processes in resolving the conflict in Libya. Russia reiterated the need for a ceasefire in Libya, and questioned who would enforce the no-fly zone and how, and what the limits and unintended consequences of an international military engagement in Libya might be. Germany said it was necessary to tighten the international sanctions against Libya in order to starve the Gaddafi regime of funds. A Brazilian representative expressed concern that the new resolution contemplated measures which went beyond the minimum needed to stop the violence against the civilian population in Libya.

4. What has been the reaction of the Australian Government, and other political parties?

Australia fully implemented UNSCR 1970 of 26 February which first imposed sanctions on the Libyan regime. The Australian Government announced on the same date that it was imposing its own autonomous sanctions above and beyond those required by the UN SC. These included financial sanctions, travel restrictions, and an arms embargo.

As early as 25 February 2011 Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd was calling for the UN SC to ‘consider’ implementing a no-fly zone on Libya as one option to prevent the Libyan regime from targeting civilians. From 27 February, Foreign Minister Rudd began explicitly calling for a no-fly zone to be pursued by the Security Council, stating:

I think a further course of action for the United Nations Security Council and a further resolution would be embracing a no-fly-zone, so that we have an ability to restrain the Libyan Air Force from perpetrating further mass acts of violence on civilians.
The Australian Government ‘welcomed’ the adoption of UNSCR 1973 on 17 March 2011 (18 March Australian time), commenting that the UN SC had ‘taken decisive action to protect civilians in Libya.’

In terms of the military campaign to enforce the no-fly zone, Rudd stated on 20 March 2011:

The Australian Government fully supports this military action against the Libyan regime because it is necessary to do whatever is possible to protect the Libyan people and it is action which is entirely consistent with the authorisation of the UN Security Council.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith indicated that there was no ‘expectation’ or ‘intention’ that Australia would commit defence or military assets to the operation in Libya. However, Smith did indicate that Australia could make available one of its C-17 transport planes for use in a humanitarian capacity.

Australia has also contributed funds to help ameliorate the humanitarian situation facing Libyan civilians. On 2 March 2011 Foreign Minister Rudd announced that Australia would provide $6 million for emergency medical assistance and shelter, to be provided through UN agencies and partners. On 10 March 2011, while in Tunisia, Rudd declared that an additional $5 million would be provided to help ease the humanitarian crisis then unfolding in Libya. Some $4 million of this is destined for the World Food Program to deliver food aid to Libyans in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya itself, while the other $1 million is to be delivered to the International Committee of the Red Cross to provide medical assistance to those in need. On 20 March 2011, Rudd announced that a further $4 million in humanitarian assistance would be sent to those fleeing violence in Libya:

The additional $4 million will support the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration as they assist the estimated 300 000 people who have fled Libya into Tunisia and Egypt since mid-February. It brings Australia's total assistance to Libya to $15 million, making Australia the third largest donor to the crisis.
The Australian Government’s policy towards the situation in Libya has largely enjoyed bipartisan support. Following the beginning of the air campaign to implement the no-fly zone, the Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop commented:

Kevin Rudd has been consistent throughout. He made it a priority on his trip overseas to push for, particularly, a no-fly zone. He was consistent on that and I believe that while we can't kid ourselves that Australia led the way, it certainly didn't hurt to have Australia, through Kevin Rudd, advocating a push to ensure that the Libyan people could be protected.
The Greens too have voiced support for the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, with Greens MP Adam Bandt releasing a statement on 16 March arguing that ‘A no-fly zone would enable the Libyan people to have a fighting chance of ending the Gaddafi dictatorship.’

5. What has been the reaction of the Libyan Government?

On 17 March 2011, prior to the adoption of UNSCR 1973, Colonel Gaddafi said in a radio address:

You all go out and cleanse the city of Benghazi... We will track them down, and search for them, alley by alley, road by road ... Massive waves of people will be crawling out to rescue the people of Benghazi, who are calling out for help, asking us to rescue them. We should come to their rescue.
On the same day Gaddafi warned:

If the world gets crazy with us, we will get crazy too. We will respond. We will make their lives hell because they are making our lives hell. They will never have peace.
Libya swiftly condemned the Resolution once it was adopted, pledging unity of the country against the coalition forces. Gaddafi also said that he will not prevent illegal immigrants from reaching Europe’s shores, thereby increasing security concerns in Europe over the Libyan intervention and its unintended consequences.

In response to one of the conditions of the Resolution, Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Kaim announced an immediate ceasefire, stating:

Libya has decided [on] an immediate ceasefire and stoppage of all military operations.

Libya has now got knowledge of the resolution, and in accordance with article 25 of the UN charter and given that Libya is a member of the UN Security Council, Libya is committed to accept the UN Security Council resolution.
However, according to numerous media reports, the announcement of the ceasefire was not followed by a cessation of hostilities on the ground, and throughout the day (18 March) Gaddafi’s forces continued to attack rebel-held areas, most notably Benghazi.

On 20 March the Libyan Government declared a second ceasefire. British Prime Minister David Cameron was one of those who expressed his scepticism about the Libyan Government’s commitment to respecting its own ceasefire pronouncement.

It is also worth noting that since the beginning of the Libyan Government’s violent retaliation against the street protests and later, the armed rebels, support for those actions from within government circles has not been unanimous, with several high-profile defections by Libyan diplomats around the world, including Libya’s UN representative.

6. What have other Arab and Middle Eastern states said about the no-fly zone and UNSCR 1973?

According to some reports, both Syria and Algeria voted against the Arab League resolution that called on the UN SC to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. A Syrian Foreign Ministry statement on 10 March 2011 confirmed Syria’s position on possible foreign intervention in Libya:

Syria affirms its rejection of all forms of foreign interference in Libyan affairs, since that would be a violation of Libya’s sovereignty, its independence and the unity of its land.
Qatar has probably been the strongest Arab supporter of the no-fly zone, with reports suggesting that it will send four Mirage fighter jets to assist with enforcing the no-fly zone, and Qatar has officially informed the United Nations Security Council of its intention to use 'measures' to enforce UNSR 1973. The United Arab Emirates has declared that it will send humanitarian supplies through the Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Charity Foundation. Jordan, while supporting the Resolution, has also stated that it will not be committing any military assets to the enforcement of the Resolution.

Iran has condemned the military intervention in Libya, but has also condemned the Libyan Government’s crackdown. In a speech delivered on the Iranian New Year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that the international community would be better off arming the rebels, adding:

We condemn 100 percent how Gaddafi was and is dealing with the people ... the killing of civilians. But we also condemn 100 percent the entrance and interference of America and the West.
A Lebanese official to the UN, Nawar Salam, who was the only UN SC representative from the Middle East, stressed that the Resolution would not involve occupation of Libyan territory by foreign forces. He also hoped that the Resolution would have a deterrent role for the Gaddafi forces.

The foreign ministers of Jordan, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Morocco, and the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, joined representatives of Western countries and European and international institutions, in attending the Paris Summit for the Support of the Libyan People, convened by French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, on 19 March.

7. What has been the reaction of other countries?


The Communiqué issued by the Paris Summit for the Support of the Libyan People is available here. France previously recognised the Libyan National Transition Council (NTC) as the legitimate representative of the Libyan People. The summit communiqué, states, amongst other things:

We are determined to take all necessary action, including military, consistent with UNSCR 1973, to ensure compliance with all its requirements.

We assure the Libyan people of our determination to be at their side to help them realise their aspirations and build their future and institutions within a democratic framework.
Within several hours of the summit’s conclusion, France was the first country to launch aerial bombardment of Libya on 19 March, while missiles fired from US and British warships and submarines targeted Libyan air defences.

President Sarkozy’s response to the Libyan crisis has received broad public support in France, including from his political rivals. France’s policy-makers believed that France has responded in defence of its democratic values, and acted with ‘calculated risk’.


Whilst expressing Turkey’s support for the UNSCR 1973, Turkey criticised France’s role in the intervention. Defence Minister Vecdi Gönül told reporters:

We are having difficulty in understanding it acting like the enforcer of United Nations decisions…here, the goal is providing humanitarian assistance; preventing heavier conflicts inside the country via an arms embargo; and preventing conflicts via the imposition of a no-fly zone—but not to start a comprehensive war. We took pains so that there wouldn’t be signs of an operation directed at Libya which would be comprehensive and long-term, similar to those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we made suggestions to every party.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Turkey called on everybody to act responsibly by providing the necessary infrastructure to enable Libya to come out of this process stronger. Turkey, a member of NATO but not the EU, has urged a review of NATO’s operational planning for Libya, whilst blocking, thus far, a NATO-authorised military intervention.

United States

Following the adoption of UNSCR 1973, President Barack Obama rallied the support of the UK and France to coordinate the enforcement of the Resolution, and on 19 March 2011, authorised the US Armed Forces to commence military action in Libya.

Although the US has provided critical support in the intervention against Libya, President Obama, who is reportedly facing growing domestic pressures over the US intervention in Libya, said that its involvement will be limited. He also reiterated that Gaddafi ought to relinquish power.

Latin and South America

A Colombian representative to the UN, Néstor Osorio, has declared the aims of the Resolution to be essentially humanitarian. Libya’s allies in Latin America, including Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, have criticised the military strikes against Libya, calling for an immediate ceasefire by all sides.


On 18 March the Canadian Government declared that it was going to contribute six CF-18 Hornets to the assist in the enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper stating, ‘the Libyan people have shown by their sacrifices that they believe in [freedom].... Assisting them is a moral obligation upon those of us who profess this great ideal’. PM Harper also said that he would consult the Canadian Parliament about the deployment, and would seek formal legislative approval if Canadian personnel were to be deployed for longer than three months. A motion supporting Canada’s involvement in Libya was passed with the unanimous support of all parliamentarians, following a debate in the Canadian House of Commons on 21 March 2011.

United Kingdom

Within hours of the Resolution being passed, British Prime Minister David Cameron authorised RAF Tornado and Typhoon fighter jets for deployment. Canadian combat aircraft were reported to have been refuelling at bases in Scotland as early as the morning of 19 March.

Following a debate in the House of Commons on 21 March on the deployment of British military assets to Libya, 557 Members voted in favour and just 13 Members voted against the proposal. Details on the debate, including quotes from many speakers, are available here.

On 22 March, David Cameron was reported saying that there was no legal authority for regime-change in Libya. He said the UN Security Council Resolution was limited to the enforcement of a ceasefire and no-fly zones to protect civilians. He told the UK Parliament that ‘this is not going to be another Iraq’.

European Union and NATO

On 14 March it was announced that the EU had sent a fact-finding mission to Benghazi in Libya. While the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, welcomed UNSCR 1973, it has been noted that EU members are not united in their position on the Libyan intervention. The EU has announced, however, that it was ‘ready to mobilise its military and civil defence assets to protect a humanitarian mission in Libya, if the United Nations requests it’.

At a meeting on 21 March, EU foreign ministers agreed on new sanctions against the Gaddafi regime. Following the meeting, the Times of Malta reported ongoing signs of discontent within the EU:

Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said: 'When we see that three days after this intervention began, the Arab League has already criticised this intervention, I think we see we had good reasons.'
Bulgaria stood aloof, labelling military intervention in Libya an "adventure" driven by petroleum interests.

Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Italy and Spain have all provided assistance to the military efforts against Libya.

Despite the Maltese Government’s dissociation from the military intervention, the former Prime Minister of Malta, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, accused the Maltese Government of acting as ‘an accomplice in the military action being taken against Libya because it was allowing warplanes to transit its airspace’.

Norway, a member of NATO but not the EU, suspended its initial decision to send military aircraft pending a decision on command issues. Sweden and Luxembourg said they would support the intervention under a NATO umbrella.

Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said that NATO should take command of international military operations in Libya, and the country’s Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, threatened that Italy might even close off its bases unless NATO takes over command.

On 22 March 2011, NATO agreed to provide military support to UNSCR 1973 by enforcing an arms embargo against Libya. By 23 March, six NATO warships had commenced patrols in international waters off the Libyan coast under Operation Unified Protector with a further 16 ships pledged by NATO Allies to support the mission. NATO aircraft will also conduct long-range surveillance and provide an interception capacity against any ‘flights suspected of carrying weapons into Libya’.

8. What has the Arab League and African Union said on the issue of UN intervention and in particular, UNSCR 1973?

On 2 March, the Arab League suspended Libya from its meetings. The Arab League first called for a UN imposed no-fly zone on 12 March 2011, with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa announcing:

The Arab League has officially requested the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone against any military action against the Libyan people.
As noted earlier, following the adoption of UNSCR 1973, Amr Moussa also attended the Paris summit in support of the Resolution. Once air strikes began, however, Moussa was reported stating (on 21 March):

What has happened in Libya differs from the goal of imposing a no-fly zone and what we want is the protection of civilians and not bombing other civilians.
Claims arose that Moussa had been misquoted, mistranslated or misinterpreted, and he has since said that ‘we are committed to the UNSCR 1973, we have no objection to this decision, particularly as it does not call for an invasion of Libyan territory’.

Although on 10 March 2011, the African Union condemned ‘the disproportionate use of force’ by the Libyan Government, it also seemed to dismiss the idea of a no-fly zone:

The council reaffirms its firm commitment to the respect of the unity and territorial integrity of Libya, as well as its rejection of any form of foreign military intervention

[and] took note of the readiness of the government of Libya to engage in the path of political reforms.
African Union ‘condemnation’ was included in the text of UNSCR 1973. After the bombing began, the African Union’s panel on Libya called for an ‘immediate stop’ to all air attacks. While the organisation itself has opposed the air campaign against Libya, three African Union members (Nigeria, Gabon and South Africa) are currently non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, and all voted in favour of UNSCR 1973.

The Gulf Cooperation Council—a regional grouping of conservative Arab Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain)—also called for a no-fly zone to be imposed on Libya. In a statement released on 8 March 2011, the Council said that it ‘demands that the UN Security Council take all necessary measures to protect civilians, including enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya’.

It seems that support from these regional organisations assisted the passage of UNSCR 1973. Indeed, the text of the Resolution ‘recalled’ the condemnation of Libya’s actions by the Arab League and the African Union. Similarly, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said during the Paris summit on 19 March:

We have said from the start that Arab leadership and participation in this effort is crucial, and the Arab League showed that with its pivotal statements on Libya what really that meant. It changed the diplomatic landscape.
Similarly, according to the media release issued by the UN Security Council following the adoption of UNSCR 1973, one of the reasons that China decided to abstain from, rather than block, the vote was due to the Arab League’s support for a UN-mandated no-fly zone.

9. What does the future hold for UNSCR 1973?

The key objective of UNSCR 1973 is to protect Libyan civilians by disabling and destroying the capacity of the Libyan Government to inflict harm on its own population. It does not include as an objective, regime change. As former Australian Foreign Minister and president emeritus of the International Crisis Group, Gareth Evans, has argued recently, when the job of protecting civilians is done, 'the military intervention will be done'. What happens next, he says, including the possibility of regime change, is up to the Libyan people.

Compiled by the following staff of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section—Nigel Brew, Nic Brangwin, Marty Harris and Nina Markovic.


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