The UN Comes Up to the Mark

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    Martin LeFevre,

    On March 11, I visited the little known birthplace of the United Nations–Muir Woods on the Marin Peninsula near San Francisco. This was before the Security Council passed Resolution 1973 to prevent more civilian massacres in Libya, and stop Gaddafi’s well-armed forces from overrunning the rag tag rebels in Benghazi.
    Muir Woods National Monument is named after the founder of the Sierra Club and the modern environmental movement, John Muir. Though it was a Friday the day I visited, hundreds of people from various countries had taken the hairpin drive down to the preserve to walk in hushed tones amongst the slender, stately, giant redwoods.
    On May 19, 1945, just weeks after Germany had surrendered in World War II, but before President Truman dubiously used atomic bombs to force Japan to do so, representatives from around the world gathered in Cathedral Grove to inaugurate the United Nations. Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, and the ceremony at Muir Woods, attended by delegates from 48 countries, was held there to honor him.

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    Roosevelt had wanted the incipient international organization to meet at Muir Woods, having been inspired to do so by his Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes.

    Ickes had written FDR that if the founding session of the UN was “held among the giant redwoods in Muir Woods, not only would this focus attention upon the nation’s interest in preserving these mighty trees for posterity, but in such a ‘temple of peace’ the delegates would gain a perspective and sense of time that could be obtained nowhere better than in such a forest.”

    The international community waited until the last possible hour to intervene in stopping Gaddafi’s atrocities in Libya, but it did act. For once, Roosevelt and Ickes would be proud of the organization they fought to bring into existence, and decent people the world over should be as well.

    Obviously, the underlying goal is to get rid of the clear and present evil of the terrorism-sponsoring Gaddafi, though that isn’t in the UN resolution. But in failing to stop Gaddafi early on with a no-fly zone, the international community had to choose sides in what has become a civil war.

    The world is a messy place. All we can do is get clear on basic principles, and act as best we can in accordance with them, leaving outcomes to life and the cosmic intelligence that may, most imperfectly, guide the fate of sentient beings in this universe.

    What are the key principles in this case? The UN is mandated to protect civilians and prevent genocide. It has failed miserably in that mission in the last 20 years–with Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Though the Libyan case is different, the stated and acted upon threat of an evil regime—to show no mercy to those that oppose it—demanded action.

    Though the United States had to be dragged into the intervention, using its huge military for good rather than evil, as it and the UK did in invading Iraq in 2003, it’s fitting that military operations began on the same date that that illegal and immoral war began, March 19th.

    It is also fitting that the new Prime Minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, should speak in the clearest terms of any leader about the international intervention in Libya, calling it “necessary, legal, and right.”

    Hypocritically, Russia’s autocrat-in-waiting Vladimir Putin, sitting on what’s left of the world’s untapped oil reserves, egregiously said, “the UN resolution…resembles medieval calls for crusades.” The easy, cynical view is that the United States and its Western allies are after Libyan oil, and that’s what drove the intervention.

    The intentional intellectual sloppiness in many quarters, which conflates humanitarian intervention with war, must be challenged. Intent matters, as does legal authority.

    Even so, the motivations of governments aren’t primary; what’s first is that the people of the world get governments to do the right thing, as they did in this case.

    Let’s be clear. What began in Libya as a peaceful uprising, along Egyptian lines, to oust one of the world’s worst tyrants, quickly turned into a civil war as Gaddafi threw every bit of partly Western purchased military hardware he had at unarmed protesters.

    Humanitarian interventions don’t necessarily coincide with national interests. Indeed, they usually run counter to them.

    But they are the crucial test of a nation’s humanity. For if all nations act only in their national interests, conflict and ecological destruction will continue to lay waste to this planet.

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