WATERLOO, Ontario — The responsibility to protect (R2P) norm, embraced universally at the world summit in New York in 2005, remains operationally elusive. Calls are growing for international intervention to lift the shroud of Robert Mugabe’s ruinous reign from Zimbabwe’s body politic.

A country that was once a prosperous breadbasket has become a basket case with nearly total unemployment, stratospheric inflation, widespread brutality and a cholera epidemic. The official death toll is 500; unofficial estimates run into the thousands. With the collapse of the country’s health system, growing food scarcity and the approaching rains, the toll will climb steeply.

All this because one aging tyrant would rather rule by thuggery than give up power. Mugabe gets ever more delusional, declaring the epidemic is over while blaming it as a conspiracy hatched in London to provide the pretext to invade.

Neighboring Botswana expresses frustration. Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga is urging the African Union to authorize emergency U.N. intervention to take control of the situation and ensure humanitarian assistance.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls for intervention under the R2P norm. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is appalled at our collective inability to deal with tyrants. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown says it is time for the bloodstained regime to be ousted.

R2P holds that every state has the responsibility to protect all people inside its borders. When its failure to do so results in ethnic cleansing, war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, world leaders promised in 2005, the international community, acting through the U.N. Security Council, will take “timely and decisive action.”

The United Nations and “timely and decisive action” have an estranged relationship. Yet the secretary general has a responsibility to bring situations of international concern to the attention of the Security Council. He could do so based on advice and information from his genocide prevention adviser, human rights chief, emergency relief coordinator or chief political and peacekeeping advisers. Robust U.N. action by an independent-minded secretary general was not the uppermost qualification in former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton’s mind when he maneuvered Ban Ki Moon into the office.

The Security Council can launch investigations on its own or receive informal briefings from nongovernment organizations in the field. Unfortunately, as the Global Center for R2P notes, “the Council can never bring itself to act before a situation becomes catastrophic.”

Once atrocity crimes are being perpetrated, the Security Council has the choice of taking far more costly, complex and difficult interventions or doing nothing — and it has a grand tradition of inaction that the major powers who run it are manifestly reluctant to disturb.

The recurring cycle is to urge and follow a wait-and-see policy until the bodies pile up in the streets and waterways, are shown graphically on worldwide TV, and a general wringing of hands ensues along with repeats of “never again.”

The alternative is to launch preventive action that is robust and effective in averting man-made tragedies. In retrospect, in our original R2P report we blurred the salient moral difference between incapacity and perpetration. Where states have the will but lack the capacity — Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Nepal — prevention measures can include humanitarian relief, economic assistance, rule-of-law and security sector reforms, and democratic institutional machinery.

But when despots inflict grave harm on their people, international prevention should cross the threshold from consensual to coercive measures. In Zimbabwe it should include broad global pressure, coordinated with regional organizations like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU), in the form of targeted financial, educational and travel sanctions on all high-ranking officials and their families; their removal from all positions of authority in international institutions; arms embargoes; and the threat or actual referral of officials to the International Criminal Court.

Should these measures fail, as a last resort but only at the request and with the support of SADC and the AU, an international military intervention should be authorized. Making it time-bound and benchmarking progress will prevent it from turning into an occupying force.

Zimbabwe’s defense force is unlikely to offer formidable resistance. By refusing to sanction international intervention, African countries reinforce outside skepticism about their capacity for good governance as the key to lifting them out of conflicts, poverty and other pathologies. But without African backing an international intervention becomes a colonial enterprise.

It raises the further question of who will provide the necessary troops. Combat-capable Asians with military slack will not consider the idea without African backing. Western countries are already overstretched and domestically queasy about the existing engagements. U.S. moral leadership, having sunk in the morass of Guantanamo, the Iraq invasion, Abu Ghraib, international renditions and torture, is in no position to wage war on another country that exercises the same powers within its territorial jurisdiction.

Having failed to establish lasting good government, order and peace after a hundred years of direct colonial rule, from South Asia to the Middle East, Cyprus and Zimbabwe, Britain cannot return and solve the problems with a few quick military jabs to the same societies.

Many other Western governments too were passively complicit in the practice of rendition of captured prisoners to countries known to torture suspects. In Canada, policemen trained, tasked and armed to protect the innocent turned into killers of a lost and confused Polish visitor at Vancouver airport. The incident was captured on video and broadcast around the world, yet no one will be charged. Nor will anyone be held criminally accountable for the police killing of an innocent Brazilian in London.

Isolated incidents are not commensurate with the scale of repression in Zimbabwe. Even so, others notice the hypocrisy when we lecture them on their responsibility to protect.

Ramesh Thakur, a former U.N. assistant secretary general, was one of the international commissioners who produced the “Responsibility to Protect” report.

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