NATO's military intervention in Libya was initiated under the principle of the "responsibility to protect," a concept born from the ashes of the Rwandan genocide: that the world should not stand by while mass atrocities go on within a sovereign state.
Though morally self-evident, this concept was slow to gain acceptance in the international community, particularly among developing countries, many of which saw it as a ploy by Western powers to meddle in the internal affairs of weaker countries.
After much lobbying, the principle was finally enshrined by the 2005 World Summit and successfully used to resolve dangerous crises in Kenya and Guinea. But never, until Libya, had its most controversial aspect — the use of force as a last resort — been put to the test.
In the eyes of many countries, NATO has failed that test.
In March, as Moammar Kadafi prepared to crush the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, the U.N. Security Council authorized military action in Libya. But it made clear that the point of the action was to protect the Libyan people.
Many countries that opposed the Security Council's action, and even at least one that supported it, now believe the Western operation has gone far beyond merely protecting Libyans, and it is now widely seen as an action intended from the start to get rid of the Libyan ruler.
However unpopular Kadafi might be, the idea that NATO's warplanes were trying to kill him has struck a nerve among countries allergic to regime change and already suspicious of the responsibility-to-protect concept, known in diplomatic circles as R2P.
"Libya has given R2P a bad name," India's U.N. ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri, said recently. Diplomats from South Africa, which unlike India supported U.N. Resolution 1973, have expressed similar concerns, saying they feel used and are indignant that the West ignored calls by the African Union for a cease-fire.
One could argue that when a leader is bent on committing mass atrocities against his population, the only effective way to protect civilians is to bring down the tyrant. Yet no NATO state has made this case openly; instead its members have gone to great lengths to assert their neutrality.
The Libya operation has strengthened the case of those questioning the concept that the world has a responsibility to protect citizens from their rulers, and the backlash is already contributing to tragic consequences.
In Syria, where security forces have killed more than 2,000 protesters and arbitrarily arrested and tortured thousands, including children, people are clearly in need of protection. If the Security Council were to take its responsibility to protect seriously, it would have long ago used the many nonmilitary tools at its disposal to put pressure on Bashar Assad's regime. It could have passed a resolution demanding an end to the violence, the creation of a commission of inquiry, an arms embargo or an array of sanctions targeting the leadership of the government or the oil sector.
There are many reasons for this disturbing failure to act: the opposition of veto-wielding Russia and China, the silence of the Arab League, the presence in the Security Council of Lebanon, which is a virtual hostage of Syria. But a crucial factor against action has been that key votes in the council — India, South Africa and Brazil — are missing. Behind closed doors, their diplomats have explained that they are reluctant to go down the Libya road again. Of course, nothing in a draft resolution initially offered by the Europeans even hinted at military action or regime change. But for India, South Africa and Brazil, it's payback time. The Syrian people are paying the price for what some countries see as NATO's overreaching in Libya.
So here we are, once again, with the Security Council standing virtually idle while mass atrocities are being committed, the very situation the responsibility-to-protect concept was designed to avoid.
We will never know how many civilian lives would have been lost had NATO not intervened in Libya. What we do know is what happens when the international community takes a back seat in the face of mass atrocities. Up to 40,000 civilians, for example, were killed during the final months of war in Sri Lanka, while the best the Security Council could muster was holding an informal hand-wringing session in a U.N. basement, because of Russian and Chinese obstructionism, with too little protest from Western powers.
Countries that waged war in Libya under the banner of the responsibility to protect have a duty to explain themselves and accept a sober and critical look at their actions. They should not be seen as brandishing responsibility-to-protect when it's politically expedient and ignoring it when it's not. They should address the complaints of countries that genuinely supported action to protect civilians but felt alienated by the way military operations were conducted. It's the only way to ensure that Libya's legacy brings us closer to a world that does not tolerate mass atrocities ever again.
Philippe Bolopion is U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.