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U.S.’s Shifting Stance on Arming Rebels: Once ‘Illegal,’ But What Now?

As the Obama administration grapples with whether to arm the Libyan rebels, it has several things to consider—not least of which is the question of if doing so would be legal.

The State Department had been pretty clear about the matter earlier this month, with then-spokesman P.J. Crowley telling reporters that the United Nations' arms embargo on Libya makes it “a violation for any country to provide arms to anyone in Libya.” Here’s what Crowley said on March 7:

MR. CROWLEY: It would be illegal for the United States to do that.

QUESTION: So that you’re eliminating that as an option?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, it’s not a legal option.

Asked about the issue again the next day, Crowley qualified his previous remarks: “There’s always the option to go before the sanctions committee and ask for a waiver,” he said. “We have a number of options available to us, but as a practical matter, as of this moment, we could not arm anyone within Libya today.”

The White House and the Secretary of State have since said that arming the rebels would be legal, arguing that the UN resolution authorizing military intervention in Libya “amended or overrode” the earlier arms embargo.

Some experts in international law are disputing the administration’s interpretation. Here’s one of several cited by the UK’s Guardian:

Professor Nicholas Grief, director of legal studies at the University of Kent, said that to him the 17 March resolution in fact appeared to strengthen the arms embargo by calling for its "strict implementation" by member states.

"I don't see how they can say that reading them together means they can circumvent the arms embargo," he said. "The resolution makes clear it is for the security council to decide whether to strengthen, suspend or lift the arms embargo, not for member states to act unilaterally."

The New York Times also reported this week that “any outside supply of arms to the opposition would have to be covert” because of the arms embargo.

Britain and France have both said they’re open to arming the rebels, but NATO—which the United States has made a big show of handing over leadership to—stated on Monday, “We are not in Libya to arm people.”

No decision has yet been made, though the Times reports today that it’s still a topic of fierce debate in Washington. On NBC Nightly News last night, President Obama was noncommittal: “I’m not ruling it out,” he said, “But I’m also not ruling it in.”

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