The façade of the United Nations headquarters building on First Avenue in New York is ripped open, so from a distance the broad skyscraper on the East River looks as though shells have been launched into a section between the 20th and 30th floors. But the holes are only the result of a long-overdue renovation.
A visitor hoping to find the Security Council meeting hall, which has moved because of the construction into a basement under the General Assembly's auditorium, now has to walk through labyrinthine catacombs, many steel doors, hallways with cables dangling from the ceiling, underground parking garages and past plywood walls to reach a lobby filled with the reassuring sky-blue of the UN.
Light-colored doors open into the Security Council's temporary home, where history has been made rapidly in recent weeks. A visitor stands a good chance of witnessing the start of a new world order. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sometimes even sounds like a hawk when he mentions "immediate action" and the overriding need to "protect the civilian population." He says an epoch of "more robust" UN policy is unfolding, a time in which the globally interconnected world is no longer willing to merely look on as dictators attack their own people.
Many signs were pointing in this direction in March and, on the evening of March 17, many old certainties came to an end.
The Libya Surprise
The main item on the agenda that Thursday was Resolution 1973, an update of Resolution 1970, adopted only three weeks before. The meeting concerned Libya, its leader Moammar Gadhafi, and most likely the effort to prevent a bloodbath in Libya's second-largest city, the rebel stronghold Benghazi, with a population of 700,000. When the 15 ambassadors at the council's horseshoe-shaped conference table had raised their hands to approve the resolution, many things were suddenly very different.
The Russians did not use their veto, though the resolution included authorization to intervene militarily. The Chinese did not block the resolution, though it involved a deep intervention into Libya's internal affairs. The Americans voted for the resolution, though the International Criminal Court in The Hague, of which they disapprove, remained in play. The Lebanese voted in favor, though it meant paving the way for attacks on a fellow Arab country. The South Africans and the Nigerians voted yes, even though their vote was a violation of African solidarity. And the Germans? They abstained. They had concerns -- not to mention state elections.
Of course, the real action at the UN and the Security Council always takes place outside the meetings -- in office towers and hotels west of the headquarters building, between First and Park Avenues, in the suites of embassies and consulates scattered throughout Midtown. Year in and year out, the world's biggest diplomatic circus unfolds in back rooms, restaurants and entire office floors in the wider vicinity of UN headquarters. These are the places anyone seeking to describe the genesis of that important second Libya resolution has to visit.
Based on leaks from UN diplomats and on assessments by delegation members from within the narrow circle of the Security Council, we can conclude that the importance of the March 17 session and its prologue can hardly be overestimated -- because it demonstrated that the United Nations, so often decried as toothless, is embarking on new and unfamiliar paths.
A Sea Change in New York?
The UN may no longer be willing to look on while civilians are victimized, and -- following the traumatic experiences in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur -- it may be willing to counter violence with military force, when necessary. No one makes these decisions lightly. On the contrary, they're difficult decisions, particularly when faced by an organization that was built on the ruins of World War II. Since then, as one UN ambassador says, the world body has felt "culturally, almost genetically" committed to peace.
During a debate on intervention, pro and con arguments are equally important. A country can be seen as guilty for getting involved as much as for standing on the sidelines, as Germany did on March 17, when it opted not to participate in the Libyan action. There were respectable reasons for Germany's decision in this particular case, but anyone who examines the course of events can also see that Germany had chosen to follow a special path -- as if it had failed to read the future.
Indeed, everything seems to indicate that the UN no longer intends to rule out embarking on its own and engaging in active military missions when -- and only when -- it comes to protecting innocent people and saving the lives of uninvolved civilians. This change of policy will inevitably lead to images of UN soldiers firing weapons. It will also present Germany with delicate decisions, again and again.
A categorical "no" to the use of armed force is not an option for the largest economic power in Europe. Germany pays the third-largest contribution to the UN, and it has long asserted that it should be given a permanent seat on the Security Council. If this ambition was not already a mirage, it was possibly "kicked into the can once and for all" on March 17, as former German Forein Minister Joschka Fischer argued in the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Even more serious than a possible end to the dream of "permanent" membership, though, is the impression that Germany abdicated responsibility at a historic moment -- instead of participating in the attempt to stop a lunatic dictator. (Some European UN ambassadors have uttered this opinion under the cloak of anonymity.)
On the day the second Libya resolution passed, rebels in Benghazi had reported that the city could only be held for another 12 hours. Gadhafi's troops were advancing; in the event that government forces captured it, the city could very well face a massacre -- the "slaughter" the dictator had promised when he shouted on TV that he would "cleanse" the country, from "house to house," of the "rats" of the opposition.
The Americans had seemed opposed to the idea of a no-fly zone and military strikes until the day of the vote, if only because they were worried about becoming mired in a third war with a Muslim country. They changed their minds, it became apparent last week, in response to the dramatic reports from Benghazi. Only two hours before the actual vote, say diplomats in New York, Washington performed an about-face and joined the supporters of the resolution.
This change of heart was also influenced by a coalition that had formed in the meantime -- after the Arab League, speaking with many voices but one resolution, had called upon the world to take action. The African Union opposed Gadhafi and was joined by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. This widespread support for the resolution also persuaded China and Russia not to use their vetoes.