The Monitor's View

The world's responsibility to protect Libyans

The gross atrocities committed by the Qaddafi regime against protesters in Libya are of a kind demanding outside intervention. The Arab revolt for democracy now also needs protection from war crimes.

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The brutal killing of hundreds of protesters in Libya has shifted the debate about the democracy movement in the Middle East.

Now instead of simply siding with Arabs or Iranians seeking freedom, the world must also try to deter cornered dictators from committing mass atrocities.

In Libya, Muammar Qaddafi reacted far more harshly than his counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt did to the popular Arab demands for liberty. He unleashed fighter jets and machine guns against his opponents.

It was an excessive use of violence leading to the kind of mass slaughter seen in 1975 Cambodia, 1989 China, 1994 Rwanda, 1995 Bosnia, 1999 Kosovo, and 2003 Darfur.

Several of Mr. Qaddafi’s own ambassadors quit in disgust, warning of genocide and triggering the United Nations Security Council to weigh taking action. And indeed, if the Arab revolt continues in many Middle East countries, the world must be prepared to prevent extreme violence. It should take a decisive stand now in the case of the extreme cruelty committed in Libya.

More than democracy is at stake. The world must also act against crimes against humanity. And words of condemnation are not enough.

In fact, outside military intervention could be necessary, as was the case in Kosovo and Bosnia by NATO forces. In 2005, the UN General Assembly endorsed the idea of an international “responsibility to protect” innocent people from great harm within a sovereign country. That principle was elevated by the UN in large part because of its failure to intervene in the Rwanda genocide.

Failure to protect Libyan protesters, or any peaceful uprising in the Middle East, would only prove that the international community has yet to learn from past mistakes in not upholding international human rights laws, such as the Genocide Convention.

It is a difficult task for the UN or NATO to decide whether to break a state’s sovereignty if massacres are taking place. It’s even more difficult to find countries willing to make the sacrifice to send in their forces.

But the killings in Libya have been atrocious enough to provide moral clarity. On Tuesday, Qaddafi promised to hunt down protesters “house by house,” a day after his son warned that streets will “run with blood” if the protests continue.

This regime, in power for more than four decades, has been the most despotic of Arab autocrats, ranking alongside North Korea in its human rights violations. Now it has shown its true colors, and Libyans by the thousands are asking for outside help.

If ever a “responsibility to protect” was made clear, it is now in Libya, where terror has been unleashed on its people.

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