Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Right to protect Libyans?

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It should be clear by now the United Nations and the world's major powers just do not have the stomach for difficult decisions, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

The response to the Libyan crisis has been largely confined to hot air and lame excuses about the risks of intervention, or how difficult it is to establish no-fly zones.

It's not that the legal and moral framework for action doesn't exist -- it's called Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a code of international conduct for the 21st century approved by the UN five years ago. But so far, no one wants to talk about it, or the fact it was formulated in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when the world watched silently as 800,000 people were slaughtered because they belonged to the wrong tribe.

The problem in the past was the absence of a process that would permit a military force to violate a state's sovereignty when it was abusing or neglecting its own people.

The Nazis, for example, could have killed all of Germany's Jews with impunity if Hitler had confined his aggression to his own people. The world would have stood by and done nothing.

Despite the lessons that should have been learned following the Holocaust, however, no legal basis was established to stop a sovereign state from implementing genocidal policies against its own people, except the will and strength of moral leadership, qualities always in short supply.

The doctrine of R2P, however, permits the United Nations to authorize appropriate and proportional responses to humanitarian crises in sovereign states when the leadership of those states is incapable of helping, or where it is the perpetrator.

The doctrine also revised the meaning of sovereignty by making members of the UN responsible for the health and welfare of their people, and accountable to the world body for any abuse or neglect.

It marked the end, in theory, of an international tradition that began with the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which declared the absolute independence of states governed by a sovereign.

Following 30 years of war, the European powers had agreed to respect the sovereignty of nations and the concept of territorial integrity.

In reality, it ushered in a new era of rivalry, except when it came to a country's desire to punish Catholics, disenfranchise Jews, or commit some other outrage against people within its sovereign borders.

So why has no political leader even uttered the words "Responsibility to Protect" during the Libyan crisis? There are several possible reasons.

First, the war in Afghanistan is still fully engaged with no certainty of a good outcome. The Iraq War is over, sort of, but with nearly 40,000 American casualties alone, the stomach for more fighting is probably not very strong. Moreover, if foreign troops did land in Tripoli, how long would they have to stay before the situation sorted itself out? No one wants to get involved in a prolonged and messy occupation.

There's also the concern that armed intervention to establish safe zones or no-fly zones might also hurt the revolutionary spirit in Libya and across the Middle East by making it appear like an American-led uprising for political and economic gain.

Most revolutions in history, however, have endured third-party intervention without harmful effect. France, for example, helped the Americans in their revolt against King George III without hurting the revolutionary spirit.

The doctrine of R2P does not mean the UN must authorize armed intervention, but Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi needs to know it is a possibility, particularly if the violence escalates.

The American, British, French and even Canadian general staffs undoubtedly already have prepared plans for intervention in the event their political masters decide they have no other option.

Unfortunately, judging by the lackadaisical response so far, the bloodshed will have to get much, much worse before the world's leaders feel they can no longer look themselves in the mirror.

Intervention is controversial both when it happens and when it does not. Everyone can agree that 800,000 Rawandan victims was too many (sorry for that) but is 1,000 in Libya not enough to justify a response? R2P is not a panacea, but it is an idea that at least offers a vision of how a moral world order might work.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 4, 2011 A13

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