Last Friday the United Nations Security Council agreed to impose a no-fly zone in Libya, after weeks of negotiations. There are fears that it may be too late to protect civilians or stop the forces of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi from crushing the armed revolt against him. Nevertheless, it does provide the authorization that external forces need to try to level the playing field against a leader who has shown no hesitation to slaughter his own people. Equally significant, it puts other tyrants on notice that they too do not enjoy immunity when they turn the power of the state against their own citizens.

There were scattered incidents in January, but protests in Libya gathered momentum in mid-February as demonstrators there took inspiration from upheavals elsewhere in the Arab world. Within days, several cities had thrown off the Tripoli government, and ranking officials, along with senior ambassadors, broke with Col. Gadhafi. A National Transition Council that sought to organize the disparate protest movements formed at the end of the month.

At first, it looked like Mr. Gadhafi would suffer the same fate as Mr. Hosni Mubarak, but there was a critical difference between the two: Whether the product of delusion or desperation, the Libyan leader refused to quit. He rallied against the rebels, and unlike other Arab leaders, was ready to use all the strength of the state against them. He has even reportedly hired mercenaries, fearing that his own troops might be reluctant to brutalize their fellow citizens.

As the tide turned, and it looked as though mass slaughter was imminent, the rebels appealed to the international community for help. They did not seek ground forces, but rather wanted the imposition of a no-fly zone to equalize the fight. After weeks of painstaking negotiations, the U.N. Security Council last Friday voted 10-0, with five abstentions, to authorize member nations to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. In plain language, that means that other nations have the green light to take military action against the Libyan government. It explicitly mentions the need to protect civilians in Benghazi, a rebel stronghold, calls to “establish a ban on all flights in the airspace” and demands an immediate ceasefire.

The resolution is significant for many reasons. First, there is its politics. No government — not even Russia or China, which zealously protects the prerogatives of national governments no matter how much they abuse the notion of “sovereignty” — voted against the resolution. Brazil and India, two other stalwarts that routinely “defend” smaller countries against pressure from the developed world, also abstained. Second, it enjoyed the backing of the Arab League: Western leaders were well aware that regional sensitivities demanded Arab countries’ approval of any action. The resolution itself specifically notes “an important role” for Arab countries in enforcing the no-fly zone. Reportedly, United States’ support for the resolution was contingent on Arab backing.

The vote puts teeth in the notion of the “responsibility to protect,” first acknowledged in 2005 by the United Nations and then explicitly affirmed by the Security Council a year later. “R2P,” as it is sometimes called, punctures the wall of absolute authority conferred by sovereignty, laying out the principle that governments have the responsibility to protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing. If they cannot do that, then the international community has the right to intervene to do so.

The vote was a test for the U.N., which has too often stood by in the past as atrocities unfolded. It did nothing when hell was unleashed in Bosnia, Darfur and Rwanda and hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered. A repeat of that performance could have fatally undermined the credibility of the U.N. and made of mockery of the defining principles of its charter.

Of course, member states must back up the words of the resolution with action. Despite the lengthy negotiations — in retrospect, the time was needed to ensure that the resolution ultimately passed — key nations moved quickly to make the resolution meaningful. World leaders met in Paris a day after the vote to launch the largest international intervention in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq. By then, French aircraft were already patrolling the skies over Benghazi and had reportedly destroyed a number of Libyan tanks and armored vehicles.

Multinational forces, which include the U.S., Britain and France, have launched waves of airstrikes since then. They must use utmost care in planning their attacks to avoid civilian casualties. After backing the resolution, Arab leaders now worry that the intervention is straying beyond its mandate — to protect civilians without intervening in Libya’s internal affairs.

For his part, Col. Gadhafi has dismissed the U.N. resolution in letters to world leaders, calling it “clear aggression” and an “uncalculated risk . . . for the Mediterranean and Europe.” It is a risk that the world must court if it is to have any credibility about its commitment to human rights.

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