The International Criminal Court’s issuance of arrest warrants for Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi constitutes a rare recent instance in which Western nations have found common ground with China and Russia in efforts to stop brutal crackdowns on anti-government protesters in the Middle East and North Africa.
The warrants for Mr. Qaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi and the head of Libyan military intelligence, Abdullah Senussi, are based on a case involving charges of crimes against humanity, including murder and persecution, that was referred to the court by the United Nations Security Council with the consent of the United States and Europe as well as Russia and China.
The referral stands in stark contrast to Russian and Chinese denunciations of US and European interpretations of a Security Council resolution endorsing the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya that both countries allowed to be adopted by not employing their power of veto.
Russia and China feel betrayed by US and Western interpretations of the resolution as a license to kill Mr. Qaddafi rather than only to protect civilians from assaults by Qaddafi loyalists. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on a visit to London on Monday insisted on finding a diplomatic solution to the Libyan crisis.
“We hope that the issue of Libya will be resolved through political, peaceful means, to reduce the humanitarian harm and in particular the harm of innocent civilians,” Mr. Wen said.
The agreement to refer Mr. Qaddafi to the court and the court’s rapid issuance of the warrants is unlikely to signal a narrowing of differences over how to solve the Libyan conundrum or find a way to end the bloodshed in Syria where President Bashar Al Assad is brutally cracking down on his detractors. Russia and China continue to oppose a resolution in the Security Council drafted by Western nations that would call for a halt to the violence in Syria.
Given that enforcing the arrest warrants is likely to prove as difficult, if not even more difficult than killing Mr. Qaddafi, both the Western nations and Russia and China hope that this added nail in the Libyan leader’s coffin may persuade him to more vigorously pursue a negotiated solution to the crisis in Libya that would remove him from power.
Tunisian media reported that Libyan Foreign Minister Abdelati al-Obeidi has been in Tunisia in recent days together with Health Minister Mohammed Hijazi and Social Affairs Minister Ibrahim Sherif for talks with unidentified foreign parties.
Western nations could interpret the Security Council resolution to include the arrest of the three wanted men, but that would involve having to expand air and sea operations to include the putting of troops on Libyan soil.
Ground troops would not only be opposed by Russia and China but also aggravate already existing differences within NATO and spark a public outcry in the United States and Europe where support for the imposition of the no-fly zone has waned.
The Libyan government this weekend renewed its offer to hold a vote on whether Mr. Qaddafi should stay in power.
The issuance of the arrests warrants is however likely to reinforce rebel rejection of the offer and spark more intense fighting between rebels and Qaddafi loyalists.
The court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, hopes the Security Council will help him ensure that the arrest warrant isn’t just another piece of paper with at best moral value. That may be wishful thinking even if Council members were scheduled to discuss the situation in Libya, including the arrest warrants, on Monday.
Council members are more likely to feel that an unenforced arrest warrant is more valuable because its serves as an incentive for more Qaddafi loyalists to defect and as leverage to nudge Mr. Qaddafi toward negotiations.
That is, however. a tall order with rebels demanding nothing short of Mr. Qaddafi’s removal from office while the Libyan leader has dismissed any possibility of going into exile. Mr. Qaddafi’s refusal could be reinforced by the fear that there is no country where he can feel safe with an arrest warrant dangling like a sword of Damocles over his head.
As a result, by endorsing referral of Mr. Qaddafi to the International Criminal Court, Russia and China may have effectively left NATO little choice but to intensify efforts to take the Libyan leader out even if that was not their intention.
Witnesses in the Libyan capital Tripoli said they had heard two loud explosions and could see smoke rising from the area near Mr. Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound hours after the warrants were issued.
No doubt, Mr. Qaddafi feels the heat. But as the killing of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden shows, successfully targeting a wanted leader can take a very long time. That may well be what Mr. Qaddafi is counting on.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)