Libya sanctions: China's new role at the UN

The United Nations Security Council unanimously set sanctions on Libya Saturday, with China deciding to join in and punish a country for its human-rights violations. Such a move could set a new direction for China, as well as help the UN cope with other crises in the Middle East.

A swift and stern response to violence in Libya by the United Nations Security Council over the weekend could be only a warm-up exercise for the world body.

Other popular revolts against monarchs and autocrats in the Middle East are still ongoing. The UN’s governing authority will need a unity of purpose in trying to prevent more violence.

Most of all, China, as one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Council, must join Western powers in condemning human-rights abuses in other countries – despite such abuses in its own country.

On Saturday, fortunately, China backed a British-French measure to impose an asset freeze, travel ban, and arms embargo on the Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi. The 15-member Security Council passed the sanctions unanimously and quickly.

In addition, the body recommended that the International Criminal Court probe any war crimes in Libya, the first time it has referred a case to the ICC.

China seems to have little choice in backing a resolution against Mr. Qaddafi for violent treatment of his people. Hundreds of Libyans have been killed in the uprising. Some 30,000 Chinese working in Libya, mainly in the oil fields, have had to rapidly flee the violence. And many of China’s allies backed the UN action.

Beijing has long been reluctant to condemn human-rights violations in other countries, such as Zimbabwe or Burma (Myanmar). But as China has become a voracious importer of raw materials to feed its giant, fast-growing economy, it may be forced to take a more practical approach to each foreign challenge.

After South Sudan voted in January to become independent, for instance, China recognized the new state, despite its long ties to the North. The reason? Most of the oil in Sudan is in the south.

In 2009, China overtook the US as the largest trading partner of the Middle East, a function of China’s rising oil imports and the export of its inexpensive consumer goods. Like the West, Beijing may now be calculating that long-term dependency on the region’s oil could require more stability than dictators and monarchs can deliver. It may be time to back Arab democracy movements.

For several years, China has backed UN sanctions against Iran – not for the crackdown on Iranian dissidents but for that country’s nuclear program. Given China’s history of suppressing its own democracy advocates with violence – such as the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square – its officials are likely now trying to balance its internal policies with these new foreign realities.

Beijing did block a proposal in the Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent aerial attacks on Qaddafi’s opposition. (Russia joined in that move). Now the US and Europe are considering such a move on their own.

Still, in 2005, China did back a UN policy called “a responsibility to protect” that calls on the international community” to protect [a state’s] population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” if a government is unwilling or unable to protect its people.

The UN resolution on Libya invoked that “responsibility to protect” language.

President Obama, too, appears to have decided to be bolder in acting for seekers of freedom in the Middle East. He faltered during the 2009 protests in Iran and equivocated during Egypt’s recent protests. But as Libya has exploded in civil war, he is taking a firmer and more active stance against violence in the region.

If Mr. Obama and Beijing’s leaders can work closely on Libya’s tense situation, there’s hope the UN can play a constructive role in the Middle East in the days ahead.

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