Africa

Questions remain after London Libya conference

British PM David Cameron (L) listens to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) at the London conference (29 March 2011)
Image caption The delegates have promised to respect Libya's territorial integrity while protecting civilians

The future of Libya is not going to be resolved by one afternoon's work in London.

But has this conference brought a resolution to the Libya crisis any closer? Or, does it still leave many of the big questions unanswered?

Judged on its own terms, the public face of the conference has been a success.

After all of the wobbles in the Arab world, the misgivings about Nato assuming military command and so on, this gathering ended with a robust restatement of the coalition's aims.

According to the chairman's statement - effectively a summary of what was agreed - the participants reaffirmed the importance of a full and swift implementation of all of the restrictions and sanctions imposed by recent UN Security Council resolutions, specifically the use of "all necessary measures" to protect civilian areas from attack by Libyan government forces.

A separate meeting of the countries involved in the military operation reaffirmed their commitment to military action as long as the attacks on civilians continue.

There were pledges to maintain the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Libya. There was a restatement that there would be no occupation of any kind.

Diplomatic efforts are to be stepped up to reach a settlement and these efforts will have an increasingly UN and regional face.

The UN secretary general's special envoy is heading back to Libya for talks with both sides and the African Union looks set to play a key role in renewed efforts to reach a ceasefire.

A contact group is to be established to co-ordinate these efforts. The UN will co-ordinate on humanitarian matters.

Exit route

The London conference bolsters the current strategy while also seeking to launch a political process to begin to chart the way forward towards a democratic Libya.

So much for the public face of the proceedings. But behind the scenes there are those who believe a different approach may be needed if this crisis is not going to end in stalemate.

Col Muammar Gaddafi's future is the central issue. Italy and some of the African countries clearly wonder if one way out would be to afford the Libyan leader an exit route of some kind.

Image caption A stalemate could raise question again about arming the rebels

On the face of it, such an approach would fly in the face of the International Criminal Court, which is investigating possible war crimes charges against the colonel.

But if he can be encouraged to leave Libya, there is a feeling in some quarters that international justice can wait.

With Libyan government forces now reportedly holding the opposition advance, the next few days on the battlefield could be crucial.

Will the coalition step up its bombing of tanks, artillery and other targets? Cold the Gaddafi government still crumble from within?

There may be limited appetite for a long-term military campaign within Nato, even one restricted to air operations. All of the divisions that have been there from the outset risk resurfacing.

A stalemate on the battlefield could reopen the question of arming the rebel forces, something that many see as being banned by the UN-imposed arms embargo.

However US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in a news conference after the conference that while there was no immediate plan to arm the opposition, UN Security Council resolution 1973 might be interpreted, at least in the US view, as overriding the blanket arms embargo.

There is still a fundamental ambiguity in the international approach to the Libyan crisis.

Past history and sensitivities in the region mean that we are constantly being told, by British, French and US spokesmen, that the goal is not regime change.

But then in the next sentence we are told Col Gaddafi must go. The coalition seems to be willing the end in this crisis while not being able to will the means to achieve it.

The clarity achieved here in London only extends so far.

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