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As Calls Grow for No Fly-Zone in Libya, Questions over Legality and Past Precedents Give Pause

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In Libya, troops loyal to Col. Muammar Gaddafi are locked in intense fighting with opposition forces for control of several cities and towns across the country. While the battles rage in Libya, calls are growing on the international community to impose a no-fly zone to cripple Gaddafi’s air force. We go to Libya, where Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat interviews Essam Gheriani, a field member of the February 17th Coalition, and we talk to international law professor Richard Falk. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Libya, troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi are locked in intense fighting with opposition forces for control of several cities and towns across the country. Some of the fiercest clashes are taking place in the oil city of al-Zawiyah, some 30 miles west of the capital of Tripoli. Ghaddafi’s forces have pounded the city with artillery, tanks and war planes over the last four days. Meanwhile, government forces have launched new air raids on the eastern city of Ras Lanuf, where an oil installation has gone up in flames. Gaddafi has also launched a diplomatic offensive, dispatching high-ranking envoys to Cairo, Brussels, Lisbon and Malta for talks.

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross says Libya has descended into civil war, with increasing numbers of wounded civilians arriving in hospitals in eastern cities.

AMY GOODMAN: While the battles rage in Libya, calls are growing on the international community to impose a no-fly zone to cripple Gaddafi’s air force. NATO defense ministers in talks today discussing military options related to Libya, including a proposed no-fly zone.

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress he had concerns over the strategy.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: If it’s ordered, we can do it. But the reality is — and people — there’s a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options. And let’s just call a spade a spade: a no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Tuesday, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi said in an interview on Turkish television that a no-fly zone amounted to a new colonialism.

COL. MUAMMAR GADDAFI: [translated] This will help us, because the Libyan people are in this condition and are facing it with one face, which is against this new colonialism and against imperialism. The picture is clear that it is an attack against Libya by the enemy of Libya, whose purpose is to take control of Libya’s oil, freedom, land and people. And this will make the Libyan people take up arms and fight.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And in Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke before the House of Commons and said he spoke with President Obama about imposing a no-fly zone.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: Well, first of all, what I discussed last night with President Obama is making sure we plan for every eventuality, including planning for a no-fly zone, and everyone would want, if this does become necessary, to have the widest possible backing. And that is why we are currently drafting a U.N. Security Council resolution. I think that is absolutely the right thing to do.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the issue of a no-fly zone, we go to Libya. Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat spoke to a member of the Libyan opposition in Benghazi about foreign intervention and a no-fly zone.

ESSAM GHERIANI: Well, I am Essam Gheriani. I am a field member of the Coalition of the 17th of February. We keep very close contact with the transitional — the provisional national council.

ANJALI KAMAT: Can you explain what the position of the council is on the issue of foreign intervention in Libya?

ESSAM GHERIANI: Our position, the provisional national council’s position, was made very clear through the request that we put out about five or six days ago. And it was a very logistical intervention that included a no-fly zone, imposition of no-fly zone over Libya, also the bombardment of certain locations such as the barracks where he keeps his mercenaries, his Bab al-Azizia compound and other security forces barracks that he has around Tripoli and near to Sabha and near to Tripoli, as well. We did not request, and we insist on not requesting, any land troops intervention.

ANJALI KAMAT: Do you believe that international intervention is needed in order to liberate all of Libya?

ESSAM GHERIANI: I mean, we’ve been hearing lots of the European Union and the United States and the United Nations — I wouldn’t want to say they’re taking their own sweet time in order to negotiate or to discuss the Libyan issue. What I would like to — I would like of them to realize that every day that goes on, more casualties are falling. And now, with our small armed forces, the casualties have become on both sides. As long as this thug is not dealt with internationally and directly, I think this situation could go on for a long time, because he’s got the money, which we don’t, and he’s got the military equipment that we don’t.

ANJALI KAMAT: And finally, I’ve read a lot of commentators in the West fearing that what’s happening in Libya could lead to a civil war erupting in Libya.

ESSAM GHERIANI: There is no such possibility, because civil wars needs, I mean, warring parties. OK, we don’t have any warring parties. We have the people of Libya on one side against Gaddafi and his thugs on the other side. That’s what we have.

ANJALI KAMAT: Given that the international community has long held Muammar Gaddafi to be a sort of a pariah and imposed sanctions on him previously, what impact do you think sanctions or an ICC even an arrest warrant would have on his power?

ESSAM GHERIANI: The military intervention that we had requested, we are quite confident that the moment that it is applied, that it is — that a step towards it is taken, the Gaddafi regime would fall within 48 hours. We don’t expect it to survive more than that. It’s just a matter that right now he has absorbed the first shock of the revolution over the first week. And now we know that, daily, there are mercenaries that are coming into Libya from the south, and he’s moving them towards the north.

Now, it would be a tragedy if the international community would allow him, through the use of mercenaries, to retake the country. Do they think that if he retakes over the country, is there any moral ground or ethical ground to deal with such a regime? I don’t know. I don’t think so. And I believe there isn’t. But some other politicians may look at it a different way. And I hope that they do not think that there is ever a possibility to deal with such a thug.

Time is very, very crucial. Libya is a very small population, where, I mean, even the death of one person is a big loss, let alone the death of hundreds. And today, we’re talking about more than 3,500 deaths that we can assume have taken place. This is ridiculous. This is shameful for the international community to allow such a massacre to take place and keep on taking their own sweet time to discuss whether to interfere or not to interfere. I think, morally, they’re obligated to take a quick position and save this country and put a stop or put an end to the bloodshed that we’re facing.

AMY GOODMAN: Essam Gheriani, a field member of the February 17th Coalition, speaking to Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat in Banghazi.

While calls are growing for a no-fly zone, some argue it would be a violation of international law. Richard Falk is professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, the author of more than 50 books on war, human rights and international law, now teaching at UC Santa Barbara. We were supposed to be joined by Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, who supports a no-fly zone, but were unable to reach him. We’ll try to reach him in the coming days.

Professor Falk, welcome to Democracy Now! You heard the previous speaker, one of the rebel leaders in Benghazi, who says, “We are going through a massacre. We need international help. We need a no-fly zone imposed.” Your response?

RICHARD FALK: I think is a very tragic and difficult case. But I feel that the record of intervention has been so bad, and the motivations to undertake it in a particular case and to ignore similarly tragic situations in other cases makes me very suspicious of any push for military intervention under Western auspices with no consideration of whether this kind of use of force violates international law and the U.N. Charter. None whatsoever. The only call for U.N. participation is based on the idea that it would be perceived as less Western, but it would basically be an American operation, because only the U.S., under NATO auspices, would have the logistical capabilities to do it in an effective way.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the issue that you raise of what this means about the sovereignty, in our day, and the right of sovereign states to manage their own affairs internally?

RICHARD FALK: Well, I think, as I say, it is a tragic thing to stand by while people are dying and while a tyrannical leader is using force against his own people. At the same time, I think, on balance and given the flow of history, it’s better to trust in the dynamics of self-determination than to rely on great-power intervention in order to alleviate the situation. So, in that sense, I would affirm the notion that Libya is a sovereign state at this stage and that the only exceptions to the non-intervention rule should be by way of the U.N. Security Council, where the prospect of a Russian and Chinese veto make that not politically viable.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Falk, you refer to history. What are the examples of when a no-fly zone was imposed that you think it didn’t work?

RICHARD FALK: Well, I think in Iraq, it set the stage for both the greater suffering of the Iraqi civilian population and led to a situation that eventuated in an unlawful, aggressive and terribly destructive war. It’s a relatively rare mechanism that’s been used. And, for instance, it was never even contemplated when Israel attacked Gaza at the end of 2008, where the population was completely vulnerable to a massacre from the air, on the ground and from the sea. So, it’s very selective in the way this kind of discourse is carried on internationally.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the fact the United States, already bogged down in Afghanistan, Iraq, involved in Pakistan and Yemen and, to some degree, some forces in Somalia, would still have the thought of getting involved in another military action in the region?

RICHARD FALK: Yeah, and that’s another whole dimension of why I think it’s imprudent, as well as probably unlawful, to conceive of this option. It’s a very unpredictable act of war. And it, as Gates indicated, it has to be preceded by an actual military attack to remove the threat to the planes enforcing the no-fly zone. And so, I think the U.S. is already dramatically overextended. It can’t deal with its domestic social demands. And it would be a real example of imperial overstretch to think that the U.S. is in a position to carry out a uncertain mission of this sort, which almost certainly would expand in the process of it being executed.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Falk, I want to thank you for being with us, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author of more than 50 books on war, human rights and international law, now teaching at UC Santa Barbara.

And you can go to our website at for our web exclusive: in Washington state, a former U.S. soldier with ties to a white supremacist organization was arrested Thursday for planning an attack on the Martin Luther King Day parade in Spokane earlier this year. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified Kevin William Harpham as a one-time member of the National Alliance. The arrest comes just as New York Republican Congressmember Peter King is set to open a controversial hearing today on the radicalization of the American Muslim community. Critics have described the hearings as a modern-day form of McCarthyism designed to stoke fear against American Muslims. King has refused calls to broaden the hearing to examine right-wing militias or any non-Muslim groups. We will talk at our website,, to Mark Potok, director of Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

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