MELBOURNE – The world has watched in horror as Libya’s Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi uses his military to attack protesters opposed to his rule, killing hundreds or possibly thousands of unarmed civilians. Many of his own men have refused to fire on their own people, instead defecting to the rebels or flying their planes to nearby Malta, so Qaddafi has called in mercenaries from neighboring countries who are more willing to obey his orders.
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.
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.