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Intervention, Please: the 'No-Fly Zone' Requests You Don't Hear About

Foreign governments and peoples ask for international humanitarian interventions all the time, so why do we only pay attention to some and ignore others?

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A demonstration for UN intervention at the United Nations office in Colombo, Sri Lanka / Reuters

Last spring, the Arab League convened an emergency meeting at its headquarters in Cairo to discuss a certain government's air strikes against a certain Arab population. They called the strikes, which had reportedly killed at least a dozen civilians and suspected militants, "plotted barbaric aggression." At the conclusion of their meeting, the Arab League issued a statement demanding that UN Security Council convene "on an urgent basis" and impose a no-fly zone (NFZ) to protect those Arab civilians from future attacks. They asked for outside military force, but they were ignored.

The Arab League was advocating to protect not anti-Qaddafi fighters in Libya but Arabs in the Gaza Strip, which the Israeli Air Force was bombing in retaliation for rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel. Less than one month earlier, the Arab League had asked for a NFZ in Libya, a request that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton an event "of historic importance" that "would be quite unfortunate if the international community were to have ignored." But when the pan-Arab institution sought the same sort of international military support for the Gaza Strip, they were ignored by the U.S. and the entire international community -- or, at least, the countries with deployable air forces.

The distinction in how the world treated the force requests for the Gaza Strip and Libya are worth keeping in mind as the demands from Syrian civilians and armed opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime for intervention escalate. From Gaza to Somalia, governments and groups make far more requests for humanitarian intervention than you'll hear about in the press. Nearly all of them are summarily rejected as impractical or an inappropriate use of force. Here are just eight of the most recent examples of à la carte requests for military force with humanitarian aims, not one of which was honored or even seriously entertained:

1. In May 2010 (and again in October 2011), the East Africa security bloc Inter Governmental Authority for Development requested that the UN institute a NFZ and naval blockade in Somalia.

2. In February 2011, the Cambodian prime minister appealed to the UN to establish a buffer zone along the border between Cambodia and Thailand to prevent the escalation of skirmishes over the disputed territory near the Preah Vihear Temple.

3. In June 2011, Vice President of South Sudan Riek Machar requested that the UN Security Council establish an international buffer zone between Sudan and South Sudan to prevent military confrontations.

4. At a regional summit in September 2011, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi called on the United Nations to support Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, and the African Union Mission forces helping it, in implementing "corridors of humanitarian assistance" in Somalia.

5. In October 2011, Kenyan and Somali government officials called on "big countries and big organizations" to blockade the seaport of Kismayo, Somalia, which is controlled by al-Shabaab militants.

6. In December 2011, over 20 international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) petitioned the UN Security Council to establish a NFZ over "Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains/South Kordofan, Darfur, Abyei and also along the border between South and North Sudan," an area slightly smaller than Texas, "for protection of civilians." (About a month earlier, 66 American NGOs had made a similar request.)

7. The same month, Salva Kiir, president of South Sudan, sent a letter to the Obama administration in December 2011 that asked for the United States to impose a NFZ over the border between Sudan and South Sudan.

Presented by

Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes regularly at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action.

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