World leaders were quick to condemn Qaddafi’s actions. On February 26, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose an arms embargo on Libya, urge member nations to freeze assets owned by Qaddafi and his family, and refer the regime’s violence to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution of those responsible.Exactly. Years from now we'll look back smugly on the situation and, with no small degree of self-righteous outrage, complain about how we stood around and did nothing. We are aware right now in this very moment that something needs to be done, but we lack the resolve. And worse, we lack the pity and compassion required to act.
This is the first time that the Security Council has unanimously referred a situation involving human rights violations to the International Criminal Court, and it is remarkable that countries that are not members of the Court – including the United States, Russia, and China – nevertheless supported the referral. The resolution can thus be seen as another incremental step towards the establishment of a global system of justice able to punish those who commit gross violations of human rights, regardless of their political or legal status in their own country.
Yet, in another way, the Security Council resolution was a disappointment. The situation in Libya became a test of how seriously the international community takes the idea of a responsibility to protect people from their rulers. The idea is an old one, but its modern form is rooted in the tragic failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. A subsequent UN inquiry concluded that as few as 2,500 properly trained military personnel could have prevented the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis.
Respecting a country's sovereignty is a cop-out, an excuse for inaction. We in the West are supposed to be in support of liberal democracies. It's not acceptable to allow a country to hide behind the sovereignty shield, particularly when it's run by a maniacal dictator.
At the time of writing, it is arguable that other sanctions or threats, short of military intervention, would be sufficient to deter more widespread bloodshed. Perhaps the rebels and the sanctions can overthrow Qaddafi unaided, without great loss of life. It is also unclear whether military intervention would cause more deaths than it prevented.
But these are questions that the international community needs to ask, and that the Security Council should have been discussing, so that the principle of the responsibility to protect – and its possible implications for military action – become part of our understanding of the requirements of international law and global ethics.