Skip to content

Controlling The Air, Controlling Threats

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

More Stories

Photo of the Capitol Building at night

High stakes for politics, SCOTUS in 2018

Photo of the crashed truck that was used in the October 31st attack in Manhattan.

Weaponizing Language: How the meaning of “allahu akbar” has been distorted

Northeastern logo

Why I love studying Spanish