How Libya Poses A Hugely Important Test for Principles of Atrocity Prevention

As pro-Qaddafi forces massed outside the gates of the rebel strong hold of Benghazi on Thursday afternoon, Human Rights Watch issued a warning that civilians in Benghazi faced grave risks.

“Libyan security forces’ possible capture of Benghazi heightens concerns of more abuses as we’ve seen elsewhere in Libya, including killings and disappearances,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The world should not ignore the serious abuses by Libyan security forces over the past month, as well as Gaddafi’s demonstrated disregard for human rights over four decades.”

Human Rights Watch had good reason to be concerned. Hours earlier, Qaddafi in urged people to show “no mercy” to “traitors” in Benghazi.  That’s more than bluster. That’s directing forces to commit a massacre.  I remain convinced that if Benghazi falls, “Benghazi” would become synonymous with Srebrenica, Rwanda, Darfur, and Sri Lanka in the lexicon of failed international responses to mass atrocity.

But that is now looking less and less likely thanks to the intervention by the Security Council.  The “all necessary measures” clause of the resolution passed Thursday evening seems gives intervening countries the legal right to intervene to protect Benghazi. Now, an international coalition is beginning its military operations, with the explicit UN-mandated goal of civilian protection. This is how humanitarian intervention is supposed to work.

People in the human rights community, UN supporters and advocates of “the responsibility to protect” have a great deal riding on the success of this intervention in Libya.  The Obama administration has basically followed the script: pursue non-military measures to deter a mass atrocity; then when those measures are exhausted use the United Nations to confer the legal and political legitimacy to the intervention; finally, assemble a coalition to keep the American footprint as light as possible.

To say nothing of the people immediately in harms’ way, this is a huge test for several of several underlying premises of those of us who believe that in some form of humanitarian intervention. Those are:

1) In rare, extraordinary circumstances military intervention ought to be used to protect vulnerable populations under the immediate threat of massacre.

2) That intervention should occur through the auspices of the United Nations Security Council.

For the sake of the people in Benghazi and for the long term project of building a world in which international humanitarian law is respected–and when not, enforced through collective action at the Security Council — let’s hope this works.