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Thursday 10th March 2011 | 10:06
Has Nato's Secretary General boxed himself in on the issue of a No Fly Zone for Libya?
Anders Fogh Rasmussen said yesterday: "The current UN mandate doesn't authorise the use of armed forces."
He elaborated on Sky News: "The imposition of a no-fly zone would be quite a complex undertaking and it would also require a new United Nations mandate. The current United Nations Security Council resolution does not authorise the use of armed forces so in that case we would need a new UN mandate."
I was pretty amazed by how categoric this seemed at the time.
Yet when Liam Fox was played this Rasmussen quote on the Today prog this morning, he seemed to agree. Asked if a specific UN resolution was needed to provide the "legal basis" for any NFZ, he replied:
"The Secretary General made it clear in the clip. There's a very clear understanding that we want to get a legal basis for this."
Again, Fox's remarks suggest that such a legal basis is currently absent.
But given that the Russians and Chinese look highly unlikely to agree any UNSCR approving a NFZ for Libya, this line seems to seriously restrict Nato's freedom to act.
Let's not forget that the NFZs in Iraq had no specific UN authorisation. Even though Clinton and Blair relied on previous resolutions to justify Operation Desert Fox in 1998, the UN Sec General Boutros Boutros Ghali said the NFZ was "illegal".
I have always assumed that the Foreign Office and MoD will want to keep their options open in the absence of a specific UNSCR. William Hague has studiously avoided ruling out a non-UN action.
When I asked Number 10 this week whether Hague's key condition for a NFZ - that it would require "an appropriate legal basis" - could exclude non-UN action, they ducked the issue. I asked whether such a legal basis currently existed. Again, no response. Quite rightly, the hawks would say.
As Nato meets today, the Telegraph's excellent Brussels corr Bruno Waterfield has clearly talked to a "senior US official" who has refused to rule out a non-UN NFZ.
But how can we square that with Rasmussen's remarks?
It's a good job Fox later remembered to raise the possiblity that we may not actually need a UN resolution. His full quote was this:
"I think the Secretary-General made it very clear in discussions that I've had with him and other Nato ministers have had that there is a very clear understanding that we want to get a legal basis for this and the Foreign Secretary I know has been discussing with his counterparts at the United Nations, how we might prepare for such a resolution, should we need it."
Note that key caveat "should we need it"
If the Russians use the UN to veto any military action (and we all know why that may be), we really may have to consider another Desert Fox style operation.
UPDATE: It may well be that the real behind the scenes strategy is an attempt to pass a new UN resolution condemning Gaddafi attacks on civilians - but without any explicit reference to NFZs. I'm not sure that the Russians and Chinese would allow anything they felt would be used by the UK and US to trigger military action.
1.30PM UPDATE: Sir John Major has just stressed that the UK can go ahead without a UN resolution.
The ex-PM told Sky News that a fresh mandate was not "absolutely essential"
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