In doing so, Gaddafi puts to the test the tension which has been at the heart of the UN system since its birth. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares "the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family", including "the right to life, liberty and security of person", and yet the UN Charter, while beginning "we the peoples" is founded in the protection of these rights by sovereign states. States are certainly needed to make human rights a reality – human rights can not exist if a state fails and society descends into ethnic conflict or Hobbesian anarchy. Yet, of course, states violate human rights too. If human rights are to be real then they will have to be able to trump state sovereignty in some cases.
What is so often overlooked is how the emerging norm of the Responsibility to Protect should help us to find broad common ground in this debate, following decade-long efforts to resolve the tension at the heart of the UN system, by defining the limits to sovereignty where a state either needs support to protect its own people, or must be prevented from itself terrorising its own citizens.
These efforts began well before the Iraq war, which was not considered to be a case reflecting Responsibility to Protect principles by the independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, co-chaired by Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia, and Mohamed Sahnoun, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General.
This norm has been adopted by the United Nations in 2005. It was also a significant theme of Kofi Annan's final speech as UN Secretary-General.
It also includes our shared responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity - a responsibility solemnly accepted by all nations at last year's UN summit.
That means that respect for national sovereignty can no longer be used as a shield by governments intent on massacring their own people, or as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing when such heinous crimes are committed ... The lesson here is that high-sounding doctrines like the "responsibility to protect" will remain pure rhetoric unless and until those with the power to intervene effectively - by exerting political, economic or, in the last resort, military muscle - are prepared to take the lead.
However, it remains necessary to deepen the international consensus to both support and act upon this norm.
Yet the Responsibility to Protect idea has been almost absent from British domestic political debate, despite its relevance to the recurring debate about whether any form of "intervention" is possible after the Iraq war, even in cases of the immediate threat of widespread killing or genocide, such as took place in Rwanda (and which is distinct from a case for pre-emption against a possible future threat).
Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy has told Total Politics magazine that Labour's policy review should look at principles for intervention, as The Guardian reports:
"How do you stop one-and-a-half unpopular wars – with Iraq certainly being unpopular and Afghanistan at least partly there – creating an unpopular concept? The unpopular concept is that you have a responsibility beyond your own borders.
"We sat and watched what happened in Rwanda as an international community. Everyone said 'never again' after the previous genocide. How do you prevent people's genuine fury about Iraq stopping us from ever exercising force in the future without appearing like the 'more war' party. I don't want to let the anger about Iraq trump the shame of Rwanda."
Murphy identifies some important challenges for social democratic internationalism, and will develop his argument next month. He should seek to set out how the principles of the Responsibility to Protect can be used to develop and deepen international consensus that there are limits to sovereignty, and how that approach might provide an approach which can provide some important common ground.
I wrote in detail about the scale of this challenge of rescuing liberal internationalism after the Bush era in a Fabian Review essay The World After Bush' back in 2006, and have set out how an effective liberal multilateralism should offer its own critique of neo-conservatism, without rejecting the goals of promoting democracy and human rights, and returning to the goal of seeking to develop an effective and legitimate multilateral response. ("Any new rules will only work if we have reformed international institutions with which to apply them", as the pre-Bush Blair had argued in his Chicago speech in 1999, a proposition which would be rejected by the multilateralism-sceptics of the US right).
However, this debate often goes around in circles, not least because too many people seem primarily motivated by justifying yet again, via more recent events, the position they took over the 2003 invastion of Iraq, rather than seeking to find any common ground for the future. (Neither the neo-conservative claim that the Egyptian uprising shows that the Iraq war cracked open democratic possibilities, nor the left's argument that the fall of Mubarak shows that Saddam could have been overthrown by peaceful protests too strike me as particularly convincing).
The "responsibility to protect" is not primarily about military intervention. It might be best understood as being about the duties of sovereignty, and also about the shared international responsibility to prevent. There are a number of precautionary principles, and the responsibility to rebuild is also emphasised in cases where intervention takes place. The doctrine does identify that force may be required as a last resort in the case of egregious violations, but only when diplomatic or economic forms of coercion have been exhausted or would not work.
More immediately, events in Libya remain precarious and unpredictable. Nobody knows where else protests may escalate - or how governments might respond. The Bahrain government attacked protestors but has now withdrawn from further confrontation. Regional power and western 'ally' Saudi Arabia - whose government is trying to hide its own insecurity and nervousness - is reported by the New York Times to be concerned that the United States is no longer fully reliable all (which would be good news, if true), having themselves advised both Mubarak and the Bahrain government to stand firm against their protesting citizens.
With so much in flux, one small step to seek to deter future internal aggression on the Libyan model could be for the United States, the UK and our European Union partners, other major regional alliances and states, and the UN Secretary-General to all be clear about the scale of diplomatic isolation which will face any government which chooses to attack its own people. As citizens, we should pressing our own governments to go as far as possible in stating explicitly that any regime which launches significant attacks on unarmed protestors effectively surrenders any legitimate claim to sovereignty or any standing in the international community.
That does not necessarily mean intervening to overthrow any government which does this. It may still be necessary to extend a very limited form of recognition - for example, to reflect that a government still effectively retains de facto control of the territory - but the non-membership of the international community alongside legitimate states should be signalled through every practical and symbolic means that is possible.