It looks like Muammar El Qaddafi is preparing for what could be his last stand. Increasingly abandoned by his cabinet, diplomatic corps, and military, Qaddafi has turned to a desperate measure in order to shore up his regime: bringing in foreign mercenaries to fight his opponents.
According to human rights organizations, these freelance fighters have already contributed to many deaths. And, with the number of protesters taking to the streets and the number of mercenaries entering the country growing simultaneously, an even more horrific collision could be in the making. The soldiers-for-hire could very well be the determining factor of Libya’s future.
On Friday, the United Nations Human Rights Council met in Geneva and unanimously voted to suspend Libya’s membership in the council (which the General Assembly must approve); later the same day, the U.N. Security Council met in New York to discuss how to stem the violence. So far, however, there has been little discussion of one option the U.N. has its disposal: invoking a little known resolution in order to deter the mercenaries themselves.
In 1989, the U.N. General Assembly passed non-binding Resolution 44/34, which declares, “States Parties shall not … use … mercenaries for the purpose of opposing the legitimate exercise of the inalienable right of peoples to self-determination, as recognized by international law.” By categorizing such offenses as prosecutable crimes, the international community created a norm against exactly what Qaddafi is now doing.
But this norm, like all U.N. non-binding resolutions, is not enforceable unless there’s an executing mechanism—and that’s what’s needed now for Libya. To help forestall the coming bloodshed, the Security Council should pass a binding resolution that, echoing 44/34, declares the use of mercenaries against the citizens of Libya an act of aggression and threat to the peace. This would let the mercenaries know that, after this conflict is over, they face the threat of prosecution in an international court.
Would this make a difference? Obviously it wouldn’t dissuade Qaddafi from employing mercenaries. And it’s hard to imagine that mercenaries are paying close attention to the goings on at U.N. headquarters. On the other hand, whatever else mercenaries are, they’re at some level rational actors. And so, it seems at least plausible that signaling the international community’s intention to hold them criminally liable following the conflict might make some difference in changing their current calculations. It’s not the solution to the Libya situation. But it might help, and it certainly couldn’t hurt.
Louis Klarevas is a member of the clinical faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, where he also serves as coordinator of graduate transnational security studies. You can follow him on twitter at: twitter.com/NYUProf.