WATERLOO, Ontario — The responsibility to protect is the mobilizer of last resort of the world’s will to act to prevent and halt mass atrocities and mitigate the effects of sovereignty as organized hypocrisy, as Stephen Krasner famously put it.

It is our normative instrument of choice to convert a shocked international conscience into timely and decisive collective action. It navigates the treacherous shoals between the Scylla of callous indifference to the plight of victims and the Charybdis of self-righteous interference in others’ internal affairs.

Libya today is the place and time to redeem or renege on R2P’s solemn pledge. The people’s uprising against Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi is tailor-made for it. Many have already been killed and a carnage is feared.

After 42 years of autocratic rule, Gadhafi is using deadly violence to crush and kill his people in open revolt against his dictatorship. He and his son Saif have vowed to fight to the last drop of their blood and deployed air, sea and land forces. Three sets of issues are involved: military capacity, legal authority and political legitimacy.

Boots on the ground may not be wanted, helpful or even feasible. Instead, military operations would entail four activities: surveillance and monitoring, humanitarian assistance, enforcement of the arms embargo and enforcement of a no-fly zone. Only the West has the military assets and operational capability for these tasks. NATO would have been ill-advised to take any military action on its own authority.

Heeding the calls for a no-fly zone, not the least from rebels under aerial attack, the U.N. Security Council on Thursday voted 10-0 (with five abstentions) to impose it. Military analysts seem divided on its complexity and feasibility.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates initially said it would require the destruction of the Libyan air force. Others warn of anti-aircraft batteries, and still others of mission creep and the risk of being branded Western imperialists. On March 12, clarifying this earlier widely quoted remark on the risks of a no-fly zone, Gates had said the United States has the capacity to enforce it.

A no-fly zone was successfully declared and enforced over Iraq to protect the Kurds for 12 years until 2003. It did not lead to mission creep: The 2003 war was a deliberate policy choice for totally independent reasons.

The quality of Libya’s air force is suspect: “a known unknown.” The no-fly zone could tip the balance for Libyan air force officers’ motivations to bomb fellow-citizens and defect to the rebels.

The risks of mission creep and deepening quagmire leading to nation-building would arise only if ownership of the uprising was appropriated from the Libyans by the West, as would happen with ground troops. But no one was asking for this.

Legal authorization from the U.N. Security Council should be restricted to the four military tasks listed above. The usual suspects were very reluctant to support a no-fly resolution. Their opposition might have been overcome as it became clear that the Arab, Islamic and African nations, as well as the mass of defecting Libyan diplomats, support prompt and effective action to protect Libyan civilians, oust Gadhafi and promote democratic reforms.

In his speech to India’s houses of Parliament on Nov. 8, President Barack Obama endorsed India’s quest for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council, but reminded listeners that global power carries responsibility for solving global problems. For the first time ever, the Security Council includes the powerful southern heavyweights of Brazil, India and South Africa (they were weak and poor in previous decades).

All three are vibrant, even ebullient democracies. They should have been taking the lead to turn R2P from principle to actionable norm, providing the legal authority to deploy Western military capability on behalf of innocent victims. Instead, they were among the biggest foot-draggers (India and Brazil abstained from the Security Council vote on the no-fly resolution). Failing the test as stewards of world order, they have proven their critics right. They are not yet ready to join the top table as permanent members.

If the Security Council had dishonored the world’s collective responsibility to protect, limited and legitimate action by NATO would still have been possible under a clear mandate from the African Union and Arab League, backed by the Organization of Islamic Conference and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Absent that, NATO guns would have had to stay silent. The dishonor for failing to act when confronted with a mass life-threatening crisis would not have been just the West’s.

Ramesh Thakur, professor of political science, University of Waterloo, was an “R2P” commissioner and a principal author of its report. His most recent book is “The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the Use of Force in International Politics” (2011).

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