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Opinion: The UN Shifts Priority from Peace to People

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The intervention of some European countries and the United States in Libya's conflict marks a turning point in international relations: The world community has shown that it values human rights over peace and that the era of the unaccountable sovereign state is over. Still, the UN's move could have unpredictable consequences.

Chaos in Libya: The international community has chosen to support human rights over peace. Zoom
REUTERS

Chaos in Libya: The international community has chosen to support human rights over peace.

Moammar Gadhafi, the tyrant of Tripoli, has threatened his people with a bloodbath and to destroy his opponents like "rats." If Gadhafi wins, says doctor and opposition spokesperson Rida Benfayed from the city of Tobruk, "then we'll all die."

Gadhafi cannot be allowed to win. Not since the end of World War II has the world community of peace-loving people responded so quickly, unanimously and hawkishly as they have with Libya. The UN Security Council's decision to safeguard human rights using "all necessary measures" -- including military means -- will go down in the history of international law as a turning point in dealing with war and peace.

In the case of Gadhafi, the Security Council set a precedent that experts in international law have been awaiting for years. In the face of an announced mass murder, the most powerful body in the world dealt with the age-old question of whether peace is more important than human rights. In this case, the answer was no.

UN Security Council Resolution 1973 makes an exception to the provision in the UN Charter forbidding violence between states. Now the bombs and missiles from foreign powers are to protect the Libyans from their despot.

A Repudiation of Tradition

The decision is also a spectacular repudiation of the traditional international law doctrine positing that all states -- whether good or bad -- have the right to solve their internal affairs by themselves, even if they oppress their own people. The doctrine of the inviolable sovereignty of states is over.

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The principle that people are left to the devices of their governments and that sovereign potentates can do as they like to their own people originated in ancient times. Since the modern state system emerged after the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, this principle has seemed irrefutable. According to this mind-set, each state is like a self-contained, free-floating vessel. No one from outside needs to be concerned about anything that goes on within another vessel. When two vessels collide, it is called war.

The United Nations was established after World War II to minimize the chances of future wars. As a general rule, its charter prohibits the use of force. As we have recently seen, exceptions need to be approved by the Security Council. But the UN's prohibition of force only forbade violence between states and not the state's violence against its own people. Murder, manslaughter, torture and expulsions were all seen as private internal matters.

Only the international acknowledgement of human rights and the spread of international criminal justice have made the fate of individual humans a part of international law. Since the massacres that happened while Yugoslavia disintegrated, it has been possible to prosecute human rights violations that took place within the context of a civil war before international courts. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is a UN creation. When established in 1993, it was meant to be an emergency measure. It was an attempt to create peace through law at a time when a majority couldn't be built in the Security Council to authorize military force in order to prevent impending massacres.

Peace or Human Rights?

The doctrine of peace had always taken precedence over human rights, and no war could be started merely to prevent bloodshed within a country. Accordingly, in 1999, when NATO moved to bomb Serbian despot Slobodan Milosevic in order to protect the Kosovars, it had to do so without the blessing of the Security Council. In terms of international law, the air strikes were viewed as an illegal assault on a foreign state.

The new millennium was marked by massacres, genocide and crimes against humanity -- in Rwanda, Congo, Bosnia and Darfur. And the UN was watching. But nothing seemed to be bad enough to justify military intervention. Pressure grew from a number of international lawyers who demanded that the club of sovereign states move to protect human rights -- not only through the international courts, but also with tanks and missiles.

This eventually resulted in a spectacular UN General Assembly resolution in 2005. Representatives of the member states very carefully formulated a resolution stating that the international community had a "responsibility to protect" (R2P). Under certain circumstances, and with the approval of the Security Council, the resolution could also be used to prevent crimes against humanity using non-peaceful means. The body limited this to a "case-by-case" basis. It didn't offer any more clarity than that.

Given this vagueness, experts started to ask whether the R2P would allow the UN to authorize a military response against those who trampled on human rights. Meanwhile, human rights advocates held their breath for six years, waiting and wondering when the R2P would be put to the test for the first time.

Gadhafi is the case that everyone has been waiting for. Given the circumstances, it's understandable that it was not only Libyan rebels who broke out in cheers after the Security Council decision in New York, but also human rights experts. And it's no surprise that Germany had been criticized as irresponsible for abstaining in the vote on this fateful issue.

Opening a Pandora's Box

At the same time, the Gadhafi case demonstrates how problematic this new doctrine of international law is. The problem is that there are two overlapping objectives involved in the coalition's engagement in Libya that are difficult to disentangle from each other: the protection of the civilian population and the elimination of the human rights abuser in Tripoli.

When we say that Gadhafi can't be allowed to win, we are also saying that we hope to save the people he threatens and possibly even help the insurgents to oust him. The second part of the plan -- to intervene in the civil war -- is not the role of the UN.

But that, of course, presents a certain dilemma: Whoever tries to permanently unseat Gadhafi from power could thereby frustrate the noble plan to safeguard the human rights of civilians.

In the worst case scenario, this could ironically lead to one of those wars the UN was actually established to prevent: a pure power struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean.

Resolution 1973 will lead us to a turning point in dealing with war and peace. And it could go either way.

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