On the UN approval of a no-fly zone in Libya: A vote for humanity

The United Nations Security Council's vote for military intervention in Libya will add to the world's lessons in knowing when and how to act in a nation's crisis.

Humanity should be proud of its humanity. On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize the use of outside force in Libya, a move designed to prevent a massacre of pro-democracy rebels and civilians in the city of Benghazi.

No matter what happens in Libya over coming days, the international community has now ventured further down a long learning curve. The UN, in passing Resolution 1973 on March 17, has better defined when the world will meddle in a sovereign nation to prevent mass deaths.

Each humanitarian crisis – such as Somalia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, Congo, Kosovo, Darfur – has been different enough that the world has responded differently, or not at all. Yet each crisis provides its own lessons that help form a familiar pattern of collective behavior to better enable a global response in future crises.

In Libya’s case, the early lessons are these:

1. Wait for countries in the region to take the lead, rather than look to the US for automatic leadership.

When the Arab League of nations asked the UN last Saturday to approve a no-fly zone over Libya, other countries were then ready to act. And China and Russia had to withhold their vetoes in the Security Council votes.

2. The rapid advances in digital communications can provide a clearer picture of pending disaster – so use them.

Cellphone videos and other information from Libya provided accurate accounting of the situation around the rebel-held cities of eastern Libya – tipping off the UN on when to act.

3. Pre-position warships and warplanes long before a decision to intervene is made.

The US and its European allies were smart to send their naval forces to the shores of Tripoli days ago.

Such lessons can be added to those already compiled when the UN endorsed a resolution called “A Responsibility to Protect” in 2005. That document was a global commitment “to protect [a state’s] population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” if a state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens.

The measure was driven in large part by the world’s lack of response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which some 800,000 died.

The big point with Libya is that humanity is on an upward path to act across borders to prevent mass slaughter. The 20th century was littered with examples of what happens without such action: the Holocaust, the mass famines in Mao’s China and Stalin’s Soviet Union, and the millions killed in Africa’s wars.

Step by step, the world’s people have shown a conscience to see the welfare of others as their own, and then mustered the political will to act. Knowing when or how to intervene isn’t easy. But nonetheless progress is being made toward higher ideals of humanity. The outcome in Libya is still unknown. But for the international community so far, the initial steps are in the right direction.

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