Thomas G. Weiss: The UN has proved its worth in Libya and Ivory Coast

Libya may be pivotal for the evolving norm of the responsibility to protect, agreed at the 2005 World Summit

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The United Nations has demonstrated its utility in Libya and belatedly in the Ivory Coast.

The late American diplomat Richard Holbrooke quipped that blaming the UN for lousy performances was like blaming the hapless NY Knicks basketball team on their arena Madison Square Garden. Governments sometimes make quick use of the UN arena and demonstrate the political will to protect human beings, and sometimes they do not.

The installation of Mr Ouatarra and the surrender of Mr Gbagbo followed a half-year of dawdling as the disaster unfolded. Three times in March, the UN Security Council menaced the loser of the 2010 elections and repeated its authorisation to "use all necessary means to carry out its mandate to protect civilians". But UN soldiers did little until this week.

Gbagbo's intransigence and the unwillingness to apply significant armed force by UN peacekeepers facilitated the slow-moving train wreck. Was it necessary to enable war crimes and crimes against humanity, some one million refugees, and a ravaged economy?

Let's be clear: military force is not a panacea, and its use is not a cause for celebration. At the same time, the deployment of military force for human protection was largely absent from the international agenda until the action against Libya last month. Mustering the cross-cultural political will is never going to be easy, but Libya may be pivotal for the evolving norm of the responsibility to protect, agreed at the 2005 World Summit.

Security Council resolution 1973 authorised "all measures necessary" against Libya to enforce a no-fly zone and to protect civilians. Prompt, robust and effective international action shielded Libya's people from the kind of murderous harm that Muammar Gaddafi inflicted on unarmed civilians early in March and continued to menace against those "cockroaches" (his description, also used in 1994 by the murderous Rwandan government) who opposed him.

As the situations in Tripoli and elsewhere across the wider Middle East unfold, acute dilemmas for humanitarians and policymakers will remain. If the Libyan intervention goes well, it will put teeth in the fledgling responsibility to protect doctrine; and if the Libyan intervention goes badly, it will redouble international opposition and make future decisions more difficult. But for the moment, spoilers are on the defensive.

The NY Knicks have made the play-offs for the first time in years, playing in Madison Square Garden. And Libya suggests that the UN's arena in Manhattan can be used by governments to demonstrate that it is not quixotic to say no more Holocausts, Cambodias, and Rwandas – and occasionally to mean it.

The author is a Professor of International Studies at the City University of New York and is the author of 'What's Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It'

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