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Controlling The Air, Controlling Threats

3Qs with international affairs faculty member Kimberly Jones
April 2nd, 2011

Amid the con­flict in Libya, the United Nations Secu­rity Council approved a no-​​fly zone over the country as one of the mea­sures to quell the vio­lence. But why are no-​​fly zones used in inter­na­tional con­flicts, and what do they involve? Kim­berly Jones, a fac­ulty associate in North­eastern University’s Middle East Center for Peace, Cul­ture and Devel­op­ment, defines their role and addresses their effectiveness.

What are no-​​fly zones, and how are they estab­lished and enforced?

A no-​​fly zone in its sim­plest sense is, as it sounds, an area that des­ig­nated air­craft are not allowed to pass through. For example, mil­i­tary and com­mer­cial air­craft can be barred but human­i­tarian flights per­mitted. How­ever, con­flict and pol­i­tics are never that simple.

No-​​fly zones, as in the case of Libya, can be cre­ated through a United Nations Secu­rity Council res­o­lu­tion pur­suant to chapter VIII of the UN Charter, which deals with threats to inter­na­tional peace and secu­rity. How­ever, the UN, and the council in par­tic­ular, is a polit­ical body — one in which states act in their own per­ceived inter­ests. One of the key ques­tions for the United States leading up to the UN res­o­lu­tion was, “How is the cre­ation and enforce­ment of a no-​​fly zone over Libya in the US national interest?” Clearly we want to pro­tect civil­ians who are in harm’s way; how­ever, we reg­u­larly pick and choose our bat­tles — literally.
Related is that the no-​​fly zone could the­o­ret­i­cally begin and end with a ban on spe­cific flights. How­ever, imple­men­ta­tion and enforce­ment can involve taking out the target state’s avi­a­tion infra­struc­ture — from run­ways to air defenses to air­craft — in addi­tion to shooting down unau­tho­rized planes that vio­late that zone. Notably, the enforce­ment of no-​​fly zones is sub­ject to the laws of war, per­mit­ting tac­tical mil­i­tary tar­geting while pro­tecting civilians.

Are no-​​fly zones effec­tive mea­sures during inter­na­tional con­flicts, and why?

No- ​​fly zones are often dis­cussed in rela­tion to sit­u­a­tions such as Libya, Iraq and Bosnia, and can be imposed by an external power to change the dynamics of the con­flict. Their suc­cesses are often debated, in part, because of ques­tions about the overall goals and strate­gies of the mis­sion, whether those have been met, and how well civil­ians are protected.

How has the no-​​fly zone played a role in the con­flict in Libya?

The no-​​fly zones are only part of the pic­ture. They are part of a package of mea­sure, which includes eco­nomic sanc­tions, autho­rized by the UN Secu­rity Council. At this junc­ture it’s dif­fi­cult to say for cer­tain what role the zones will play in the long term. Thus far, Libya’s air war­fare capacity has been degraded but the battle for con­trol of the state, or key regions in it, is far from over. More­over, civil­ians are still in harm’s way — less so from air­planes, but ground forces can still do serious damage.

by Greg St. Martin


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