February 23, 2011

How not to prevent mass murder in Libya

Some well-meaning human rights advocates, among them supporters of Israel, are responding to Qaddafi's mounting campaign against his own people with calls to investigate human rights practices in Libya. This reminds me of the evangelist sporting a sandwich board with the words "Repent Now," as an asteroid is about to obliterate New York City.

There were some noble and tactical efforts to expose Qaddafi's human rights violations over the years, especially while Libya has been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. But right at this moment, the actual and potential loss of life in Libya is staggering. Auditing tax returns and dispatching a special rapporteur -- even expelling Libya from the Council -- will have zero impact on how many thousands Qaddafi massacres in a desperate bid to preserve his rule or exact revenge.

Had the international community come together years ago to insist on basic standards of human dignity, instead of grasping at any excuse to resume trade and investment with the North African oil giant, there might have been an impact. But then, despite his colorful statements and costumes, Muammar Qaddafi, is not even the most brutal autocrat in Africa. He just happens to be caught in the middle of a democracy tsunami (or better, scirocco), and the world is suddenly paying attention. So much for consistency...

This is not the time to score some cheap rhetorical points with jaded diplomats from 192 governments. Only a few Western diplomats are truly interested in seeing an effective Human Rights Council, anyway. The "developing" world sees human rights as a commodity to be hurled against former colonial powers as justification for their own excesses. Too often, pro-Israel advocates trumpet human rights to highlight or distract from the UN's obsessive focus on Israeli practices, real or alleged. The right-wingers among Israel's friends don't think much of human rights when the U.S. war on terrorism is on trial, and Libya is a perfect opportunity to showcase the powerlessness of human rights mechanisms to stop the perfect storm, even when many countries are ready to try.

Yes, Israel is unfairly singled out for unwarranted criticism and condemnation at the UN, all the time. We get it. Now can we please talk about putting some boots on the ground to save Libyans?

Just about everyone plays games with human rights at the UN. Now is not the time for such games, by anyone. Under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, military intervention may be authorized by the Security Council. Yesterday's teach-in at UN Headquarters will have zero impact, and may even encourage Qaddafi with a false sense of the world's impotence. The only hope of preventing tens of thousands of deaths over the coming days would be an immediate resolution authorizing an international force. Anything less is scorekeeping, score-settling, or political posturing.

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