05 March 2011

Watching Libya Burn

The government of Libya in the past few days has accumulated massacres that are blatantly counter to any international standard of legitimacy. I feel the situation is already an avoidable stain on the pages of human history.

The resolution to the problem seems so simple. A dictator losing his mind is using extreme violence and outright lies to keep himself in power. He has given orders to bomb and machine-gun down unarmed civilians in mass. Today his troops rushed through the town of az-Zawiyah shooting dead any person they saw. At one point the troops broke into a hospital and began executing patients in their beds. There is no need to insinuate anything, he has openly admitted that he plans on killing as many people as possible if he is forced from power. He relies on blatant lies and bribes to keep his few supporters going, but those few have incredibly powerful weaponry. Clearly the international community should step in to prevent the massacres, put Qaddafi on trial for crimes against humanity, and restore order and justice.

The condemnation from outside of Libya has been strong, but it's been little more than sharing words, freezing assets, and starting an investigation. Some countries are simply more concerned about the flow of oil than the flow of blood. China is far more concerned with quelling any internal unrest than it is with preventing a massacre in Africa (Chinese reporting about Egypt and Libya have only focused on the scared Chinese nationals fleeing the chaos). As usual, China is trying not to set a precedent for the international community to step in and prevent governments from violently suppressing protests. This almost total avoidance of military intervention in any country by a permanent member of the UN Security Council has been a drag on the effectiveness of the UN, just as the United States' total reluctance to allow condemnation of Israeli transgressions has allowed injustice to continue in Palestine far too long.

For those wondering why these countries can hold the UN hostage, the Security Council was formed with 15 members, 10 of which rotate between nations in the world, and 5 of which are permanent. The five permanent members are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China, the victors of World War II. All resolutions must be passed
without a "no" vote from any permanent member, effectively giving veto power to the five permanent members. As silly as this seems 65 years later, it was probably the only way to get everybody on board willingly. That doesn't mean the practice should continue.

The Baha'i International Community published a statement in 2005 outlining reform of the UN. With respect to the Security Council, they said, [emphasis added]

We welcome the United Nations' efforts to articulate a more comprehensive vision of collective security, based on the understanding that in our interconnected world, a threat to one is a threat to all. The Bahá'í Faith envisions a system of collective security within a framework of a global federation, a federation in which national borders have been conclusively defined, and in whose favor all the nations of the world will have willingly ceded all rights to maintain armaments except for purposes of maintaining internal order...
To address the democracy deficit and relentless politicization of the Security Council, the United Nations must in due course move towards adopting a procedure for eventually eliminating permanent membership and veto power. Alongside procedural reforms, a critical change in the attitude and conduct are needed. Member States must recognize that in holding seats on the Security Council and as signatories to the Charter of the United Nations, they have a solemn moral and legal obligation to act as trustees for the entire community of nations, not as advocates of their national interests.

Discussions of reform at the UN have been focused on increasing, not eliminating veto powers. Brazil, India, Japan, South Africa, and Germany have been proposed as new permanent members to reflect a changing world. Increasing permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council will only further paralyze its effectiveness. The insistence on clinging to veto power reflects an insecurity about control of the world.

In the United States, where opposition to the UN is a national pastime, I see three sources of contention with supporting a world federation of nations, all of which will likely disappear over the coming five to fifteen  years.

The first is religious. Many Christian fundamentalists in the US maintain a delusion that the anti-Christ is a figure who will resolve the conflict in Palestine, make himself king of the world, and unite the forces of evil against the forces of good at the battle of Armageddon. Of course, any hint of international peace and cooperation would only encourage the anti-Christ, so the faithful reject such efforts. For Baha'is, the anti-Christ (and the Christ, for that matter) already came, the description of a great battle at Har Megiddo was fulfilled during World War I, and world unity is not just possible, but inevitable. As Christianity loses ground in society, as the Baha'i Faith spreads, and as the fruits of collective security become observable, the religious aversion to international peace will fade.

The second is nationalistic. Many Americans maintain a delusion that national sovereignty exists as it did centuries ago. This is echoed by voices wanting to put an end to NAFTA, become energy independent, and close the borders to foreigners. These protectionists don't mind American companies dominating foreign markets, or the accumulation of American wealth at the expense of other nations, but when international competition gets too hot, they want America out of the action, and the US out of the UN. This tendency will also fade away as international business and communication become more commonplace. The tendency to integrate markets, currency, language, and education across national boundaries has long made the idea of national sovereignty a relic of a past age, especially when national boundaries tend to be somewhat arbitrary around the world. 

The third is maintaining the Pax Americana. Many Americans maintain a delusion that American domination of the world is good for America. This line of thinking vilifies the UN with the idea that any powers gained by the UN are powers lost by the US. In 1999 the neo-conservative group "Project for a New American Century" released a policy statement stating that US leadership is good for the world, that after winning the Cold War America has an opportunity as the sole superpower, and that it should use that position to create a new century favorable to American interests. The same people brought George W Bush to power, and America went on pulling the levers of power to implement the policies outlined by the neo-con project, which included toppling the regimes in Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. At the height of US arrogance, in 2005 Bush appointed John Bolton as US Ambassador to the UN, a man who once said, "
There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States." The world watched as from the beginning to end of Bush's presidency, America fell hard. Two failed wars, a failed economy, a crushing national debt, and the total lack of moral authority has brought the US far down from its peak of power. This process will continue over the next ten years, as the dollar will surely fail as a world reserve currency, political corruption will reach new lows, American military strength will have to be scaled down all over the world, and the inability to kick the oil addiction will drain the economy of the vitality it once had. Several scenarios are neatly laid out in Decline and Fall of the American Empire

Fareed Zakaria outlined this process in his 2008 book The Post-American World, where he describes the US as remaining the preeminent nation in the world for decades to come, but the rest of the world will be lifted up to near equal footing. He describes the US as becoming one of several regional powers, especially China and India, and he notes that while some Americans see this as a threat, it is the natural result of spreading democracy and American values around the world. Zakaria ultimately argues that it is good for the US to not dominate the world. 

But the fear remains in countless Americans that losing sovereignty to an international body will result in its domination of the US. There is a general fear of government in the American psyche. This fear has left the US out of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, even while the US encourages its jurisdiction over others. This fear has sabotaged efforts by the UN to fulfill its mandate, even while the US tries to draw Security Council support for its own legitimacy. 

In Libya, a weak military intervention would take the form of a no-fly zone, similar to the ones imposed over Iraq and Bosnia when they were misbehaving and killing innocent civilians. Attacks from the air are the greatest fear by the rebels taking over the country. On this subject there is still debate at the UN Security Council, but what is interesting about the debate is that Russia and France have clearly said that any foreign aggression must be endorsed by the Security Council. In the words of Russia's NATO ambassador, it would be, "a violation of international law" if the US unilaterally interfered in Libya, and that it "requires a resolution of the UN Security Council." Such deference to the Security Council is praiseworthy, but until its membership is reformed and its hands are untied, it cannot fulfill such an obligation.

In the cases of Libya, Sudan, Georgia, Iraq, and other conflicts, especially when one of the permanent members is involved, the Security Council must be able to make decisions without unanimous consent, and its decisions should be binding. This is collective security, and without it, the world will remain insecure.

The other need that the situation in Libya demonstrates is the need for an effective standing army. Often a point of contention in how to implement any resolution is, which military gets to enforce it? A multi-national force would not carry such baggage with it. The other need the new army would fill is the ability for immediate response, such as Libya, where each day hundreds are dying.

Potentially the worst situation in Libya is for Qaddafi to succeed. It would parallel the revolts in Iraq in the 1990s, where the international community sat by and watched the massacre of civilians trying to revolt against a ruthless dictator. Qaddafi still has the ability to perpetuate massive injustice and retain power. If he does, it will be a stain on the pages of history, and will ultimately have to be dealt with later on. Regardless, the situation thus far already demonstrates the need for specific reforms and a change in attitude.

Over the long-term, everything is self-correcting. The arc of history bends towards justice and unity, and injustice ultimately gives the impetus for creating justice. But today, while I wrote this blog, 35 tanks rolled into a Libyan town and killed hundreds of people, while military boats shelled the city with mortars. This massacre was completely avoidable.


  1. Strong argument, veto power on the Security council needs to go and international justice needs to be strengthened. Unfortunately, real progress often only comes about after the world is made sickened enough by unimaginable horror. WW2 for example.

  2. Excellent. Urgent.

  3. 99% agreement!
    so How about petitioning the UN and national
    governments through facebook and twitter?
    I cant do it because im not to computer savvy
    but i sure some Baha'i out there IS...
    the USA and China's veto
    powers are undemocratic effectively only
    allowing action if 100% vote for action
    its a BIND - no one ever agrees 100%!

    Love to all
    Thomas Baxter