Until now, the United Nations has failed to uphold the promises it has made to vulnerable people around the world by adopting the principle of the “responsibility to protect“. By passing Resolution 1973 last night, it is finally putting the principle into action.
The responsibilty to protect is to some extent a statement of the obvious: the duty of a government is to protect its citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. But the importance of this principle is that the United Nations agreed in 2006 that the international community has to acknowledge its own responsibility to protect when a government is unable or unwilling to protect its people.
This means that decisions on military intervention now have to be taken with recognition that the international community cannot now avoid blame simply by sitting on its hands. Sins of omission are equally serious as sins of commission (like intervening wrongly, as the US and UK did in Iraq). So the Russian Ambassador to the UN may be right to say that:
The responsibility for the inevitable humanitarian consequences of the excessive use of outside force in Libya will fall fair and square on the shoulders of those who might undertake such action.
But equally, the inevitable humanitarian consequences of inaction would fall on the shoulders of the international community and in particular those who blocked intervention. As Jo Swinson argued in an excellent question to David Cameron on Wednesday, doing nothing despite strong support from the Arab League and clear crimes against the Libyan people would send a very bad signal.
Since the United Nations has accepted the responsibility to protect, there must be somewhere where the buck stops. Someone, somewhere must be willing to take action to prevent and punish atrocities against civilians. My question to the 16 MPs who have signed an EDM opposing any kind of military intervention in Libya is: who do they think should enforce international law, and how, if military intervention is ruled out? Bluntly, even if intervention does go badly wrong, it is becoming difficult to see non-intervention being any better:
There are plenty of risks ahead. A well-meaning intervention can go pear-shaped, as in Afghanistan. A no-fly zone may not prevent atrocities. But the situation is so dire that some kind of intervention is needed. And it is much better that it is done legally with regional backing than if it is done unilaterally by NATO, as in the case of Kosovo.
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