Security Council Formally Recognizes Threat of Libya’s Missing Missiles

Even as NATO concluded the seven-month campaign that helped oust Muammar Gaddhafi, the UN Security Council has formally recognized the threat posed by the late dictator’s unsecured arms depots and the resulting proliferation of weapons, particularly small arms and man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS.

In a Russian-drafted resolution adopted unanimously yesterday afternoon, the Security Council urged Libyan authorities and the international community to address the very real problem of post-conflict arms proliferation.

Through the unanimous adoption of resolution 2017 (2011), the Council called upon Libyan authorities to take all necessary steps to ensure the proper custody of portable surface-to-air missiles, known as MANPADS (man-portable air defence systems), and all other arms and related materiel, as well as to meet Libya’s arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation obligations under international law, as well as to continue close coordination on the destruction of all stockpiles of chemical weapons with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

States in the region were called upon to take appropriate measures to prevent proliferation of those weapons as well.  Other Member States and international and regional organizations were called upon take appropriate action to assist the Libyan authorities and States in the region towards that goal.

Warnings about the threat posed by loose shoulder-launched missiles known as MANPADS have been circulating since early March. During the conflict, however, little action was taken to prevent their theft; with competent Libyan fighters at a premium and NATO engaged strictly in a sea- and air-based campaign, simple measures such as posting guards around stockpiles were not taken. As a result, in late summer, particularly after the fall of Tripoli, NGOs and journalists were able to document the missing missiles, though nobody could say definitively where the missiles had gone. Their findings shouldn’t have been surprising – arms proliferation during conflict is almost inevitable – but the lack of attention and action over the summer could have long-term consequences for Libya and for the world.

While the MANPADS may the most visible issue, as they pose a threat to civilian aircraft and are in high demand by terrorist groups, other small arms have the potential to wreak havoc throughout the region. Artillery shells, Grad rockets, and land mines could prove valuable to insurgent groups, as they could be made into improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Additionally, Gaddhafi is known to have retained chemical weapons, specifically a stash of mustard agent.

It’s encouraging that the Security Council countries agree on the importance of this issue, but the resolution stops short of addressing what the “necessary steps” are to prevent arms proliferation. Nor does it specify what “appropriate measures” regional neighbors are expected to take, leaving the door open to interpretation and potential abuse if countries choose to pursue interventionist policies under the guise of halting proliferation.

To be fair, with little knowledge of where these missiles may have ended up, the necessary next steps are not entirely clear. Libya’s National Transitional Council will need to centralize power over the brigades of fighters and document the weapons systems they control, which will be no easy task. Given a poor population in a state with porous borders and established black market arms networks familiar with the region, a buyback program may be the quickest and most efficient method of drawing loose arms out of Libya. Such a program would provide a source of cash for those in possession of these weapons without the hassle of finding a buyer, but it would be expensive and could prove hard to manage on a national scale. And depending on who has the weapons now, it could also be politically untenable to provide cash to insurgent or terrorist groups.

But regardless of methods, the international community must use this resolution to ramp up its efforts to contain the spread of weapons.