The United Nations is often criticised for failing to protect civilians from belligerent leaders, but current interventions in Libya and Ivory Coast suggest the world body is starting to shoulder its responsibility to protect
The world's 'responsibility to protect' is tested
The United Nations is often criticised for failing to protect civilians from belligerent leaders, but current interventions in Libya and Ivory Coast suggest the world body is starting to shoulder its responsibility to protect.
Unusual scenes have unfolded in the UN Security Council in recent weeks, from the tearful defection of Libya's ambassador in New York to rare agreements within the 15-nation body to authorise the use of force in internal conflicts.
The real-world results are clear: coalition jets attacking forces of Libyan leader Col Muammar Qaddafi and UN and French helicopters hitting the military hardware of Laurent Gbagbo, and finally capturing the president of Ivory Coast who refused to accept his election defeat.
Security Council resolutions allowing the use of "all necessary measures" to protect civilians are a historic development in the perennial debate about whether countries are obliged to stop the violence done by foreign tyrants.
Envoys to UN headquarters describe resolution 1973 on enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya as a seminal moment in world affairs, laying the groundwork for this week's UN air strikes in Ivory Coast that helped to topple Mr Gbagbo.
Humans Rights Watch, an advocacy group, said action in Ivory Coast was "important, if overdue" but also noted that the Security Council's recent behaviour showed the members have "defied expectations and risen to the occasion".
For years, diplomats have debated whether state sovereignty is more important than the "liberal interventionist" desire to prevent mass-slaughters - and whether the latter is merely a cover for western neo-imperialism.
Interventionism gained currency after world powers stood idly by as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in Rwanda in 1994, followed by the killing of thousands of Muslims in Srebrenica, Bosnia, the following year.
But the cause was clouded by the United States' push to invade Iraq in 2003, which it claimed was a partly humanitarian venture, and disagreement over whether bloodshed in Darfur amounted to genocide.
The result was agreement in 2005 on a doctrine called the Responsibility to Protect, which stated that the international community should be ready to prevent atrocities by authorising the use of force in the UN Security Council.
Implementing the idea has not been simple. In 2008, Russia and China jointly vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have slapped sanctions on Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, against a backdrop of political violence.
But recently-adopted resolutions on Libya and Ivory Coast feature language about the "responsibility to protect", also known as R2P. While these are only letters on a page, they are a watershed in the carefully-worded realm of diplomacy.
The results are far from perfect. World leaders scratched their heads for too long waiting to see whether Mr Gbagbo would cede power to his rival Alassane Ouattara, and many innocent lives were lost in the ensuing violence.
The coalition of western and Arab nations only managed to secure a UN mandate to protect Libyan civilians on March 17 as Col Qaddafi's forces advanced to the rebel stronghold, narrowly averting a bloodbath in Benghazi.
Intervention in Libya is a litmus test for R2P. It remains unclear whether the coalition of air forces that was rapidly assembled by France and Britain will secure Col Qaddafi's downfall or fuel a protracted and bloody civil war.
The future of interventionism rests on the outcome in Libya. As one UN diplomat privately remarked on the "fog of war": a bomb landing on Col Qaddafi would be one ending. A missile hitting a kindergarten could yield a very different conclusion.
Although western diplomatic muscle pushed resolution 1973 through the top UN body, it is important to remember that agreement was far from universal and to take note of the five countries that abstained from the vote.
The council's traditional noninterventionists, Russia and China, were joined by India and Brazil, two populous nations with growing clout in the global architecture and desirous of permanent Security Council seats.
With the outcome of Libya hanging in the balance, there is no guarantee that the western desire to prevent atrocities will emerge as a prevailing doctrine to deter the future tyrants of the 21st Century.
James Reinl is The National's correspondent at the United Nations in New York