As we enter the third week of U.N.-authorized military action in Libya, it behooves us to reflect on the larger implications of unfolding events there. I have been watching those events with a combination of trepidation and restrained applause -- trepidation, of course, because people are losing their lives and one of the world's most maniacal autocrats remains in power, and applause because what has happened represents a milestone in the worldwide struggle for human rights. But this applause is restrained because trying to do good almost always risks dirty hands, and we rarely know the full consequences of our soiled beneficence ahead of time.
When the United Nations was founded in 1945, it affirmed in its charter the sovereign authority of every member state and pledged that it would not interfere with how governments dealt with their own residents. The United Nations was designed to stop wars between nations, not within them.
But in 2005 the United Nations did a remarkable thing. Thanks in part to their failure to act in 1994 to stop the Rwandan genocide, the U.N. General Assembly voted to adopt the principle of the "responsibility to protect," popularly known as R2P. What R2P says is that if a government is committing mass atrocities against its own people, the international community has a responsibility, a positive moral obligation, to intervene. Such intervention must meet certain conditions: it must come as a last resort; it must not reflect ulterior motives; it must use force proportional to the humanitarian goals to be achieved -- but it must happen.
Not surprisingly, since 2005 the United Nations has repeatedly managed to ignore or give short shrift to its self-proclaimed responsibility in places like Somalia, Darfur and Congo. Moreover, the U.S. intervention in Iraq, with all its misdirection and suspect motives, effectively sidelined the country best equipped to conduct humanitarian military interventions from shouldering its duty.
But now comes Libya and -- thanks to political cover provided by the Arab League; successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt; the fact that Libya is not vital to the national interests of either Russia and China, who therefore withheld their vetoes in the Security Council; and the fact that no one on the international stage likes Muammar Gaddafi -- the United Nations has managed for the first time to act decisively to enforce R2P.
Will this set a precedent? Probably not. The international community and the United States itself are adept at figuring out reasons why R2P does not apply in places like Yemen or Bahrain or Syria. But will this Libya action be a warning to other tyrants who may be inclined to commit mass atrocities against their own people? Even if Gaddafi is not removed from power -- and, after all, it is the responsibility to protect, not to overthrow; it does not require that all governments be transformed into Norway -- Gaddafi has suffered grievous blows, to his military, to his prestige and to the aura of respectability he had worked so hard to polish. That sends a clear signal to others to think twice before following his path.
Let's put all this, then, in a larger context. Human rights do not depend upon consistent enforcement for their effectiveness, because there is no international sheriff to ensure that human rights laws are abided by. They depend upon gradually shifting values, shifting standards of what constitutes civilized behavior. Whether it is an end to slavery, the abandonment of foot-binding of girls and women, or the outlawing of child soldiers, international norms always proceed in fits and starts. But over the past five years we have seen remarkable evidence of shifts in the right direction.
In 2006, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was elected president of Liberia, one of the most grievously impoverished and conflict-prone countries in the world. She is the first woman to be a president in Africa. Last year, peaceful elections were held in Kenya, two years after vicious communal violence had marred the previous elections there. This past December, South Sudan voted to secede from Sudan, thus far with a minimum of bloodshed. With the help of the French (and, sadly, some human violations along the way), Cote d'Ivoire now has the president it elected. Kosovo is independent, having itself been subject to humanitarian intervention in 1999. The International Criminal Court is finally flexing its muscles. And demands for democracy and human rights are sweeping the Middle East. It is no wonder that dictators in China, Burma, Zimbabwe and Belarus are nervous -- they are right to be. For what all this means is that, jagged as the path may be and soiled as our hands, some things, like stealing elections and brutalizing your people, are slowly being transformed from routine behavior to the realm of the unacceptable.
At the end of the day, that is the significance of the intervention in Libya -- it is one more intentional, if imperfect, step toward the creation of world that is more respectful of human rights. Do we all wish it could have happened without warfare? Of course, and when international judicial accountability is finally in place someday, it may. But in the meantime, we can take comfort in those fits and starts -- the slow and agonizing but relentless process of what someone once called "dying the truth along."
Bill Schulz is President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA.