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3Qs: Controlling the air, controlling threats

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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.