Nicolas Kristof captures a central point in his New York Times column today:
Just because we allowed Rwandans or Darfuris to be massacred, does it really follow that to be consistent we should allow Libyans to be massacred as well? Isn’t it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?
Kristof is also right that, rather contrary to the usual implication, that invoking the Responsbility to Protect will often lead over time to stronger pressure for effective international engagement in other crises.
The Ivory Coast is a case in point, as the political and humanitarian crisis in that country deteriotated sharply over the last week.
The Independent* had an unimpressive editorial on a fairly standard 'whataboutery' ticket. However, the complaint about an "international shrug of indifference" towards Ivory Coast was badly undermined by an extremely loose grasp of the basic facts, such as placing as "last month" the elections which were held in October and November, leading to last December's dispute over whether the result.
*[Correction: The Saturday 2nd April editorial was incorrectly attributed to The Independent on Sunday]
A divided country; a leader who refuses to recognise the writing on the wall; an opposition movement backed by global opinion; the threat of a massacre of civilians: the similarities between the situation in Libya and Ivory Coast are striking. And yet the former has dominated the world's attention and prompted a humanitarian intervention, while the latter has elicited nothing more than an international shrug of indifference.
There are, of course, differences as well as similarities between the two emergencies. In Libya, it was the illegitimate despot, Gaddafi, who last month was threatening a massacre. In Ivory Coast the danger comes as a consequence of the United Nations-recognised opposition's push to take control of the Abidjan stronghold of Laurent Gbagbo, who lost last month's election but refuses to step down.
The international community has been rather more engaged in attempting to secure Gbagbo's departure than the IoS acknowledges - and it is unfair to imply that France has been disengaged - though the failure to secure the transition to power the elected President is all the more striking after several months.
With the country's civil war having been reopened, there is a very good case that the Security Council should have given the 9000-strong UN peacekeeping forces a stronger mandate, as Ecowas argued last month, having suspended Gbago last Demcember. France and Nigeria have also been pursuing this at the UN, but with Russia reported to be sceptical about more intervention.
The International Crisis Group backed the Ecowas call, arguing that the UN authorising Ecowas-led military intervention would be justified and essential if Gbago refused a final call to leave, given the human cost of the conflict. The destabilising effect of massive refugee flows on regional peace and security are also important.
This is a clear case where Hurdesque assumptions of a moral equivalence between the two sides in a civil war are unjustified. The International Crisis Group have argued that Gbagbo had primary responsibility for the crisis. Ian Birrell argues in tomorrow's Guardian, almost all the blame for the chaos can be laid at Gbagbo's feet", while making political criticisms of Ouattara's need to reach out to domestic opponents
There are now reports and allegations of potentially significant human rights abuses on both sides - and the democratic election can not justify these on the part of the frustrated "winners". LibDemVoice highlights the BBC's reporting of this.
The objectives for the international community - led by the west African and African Union multilateral bodies, with support from other nations and the UN - ought to be fairly straightforward.
* To ensure the democratic election result is upheld, and to expedite this, including tougher measures against the illegitimate government.
* To investigate human rights abuses, and to refer these to the ICC, from whichever source.
* To promote preventive measures to protect human rights, including external support for domestically-led reconciliation moves where appropriate.
There are certainly differences in the context between Libya and the Ivory Coast, but it would be consistent to support what multilateral action is necessary to protect civilians from the immediate threat of massacre, and to support efforts to promote internal political reconstruction.
But can a concern with the Ivory Coast really strengthen a case for staying out of Libya?
If those making 'whatabout' arguments want to oppose all forms of foreign pressure and engagement, I struggle to see how the scale or nature of what they wish to ignore in Ivory Coast has much if any bearing on what they propose to ignore in Libya. (Others might support diplomatic pressure and sanctions on Gbago, but prefer not to support military measures if these fail, even if African-led).
Those who want to see a stepping up of the multilateral intervention in Ivory Coast have made a strong case. I imagine that would be supported by most of those who support the the Responsibility to Protect and the Libyan intervention - though it will be natural for a different coalition to take the lead in this specific case.
But I imagine this would also probably be opposed by many or most of those who oppose the Libyan intervention.
So it would be interesting to hear more from opponents of the Libyan intervention, about what they believe should happen in the Ivory Coast. Might it yet be the 'whatabouters' who face the charge of inconsistency?