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Moving at lightning speed over the weekend, President Obama and members of his administration tackled the crisis in Libya with both finesse and brute force, dispelling criticism that they've been slow to respond with a series of moves that showed America had taken a definitive -- and aggressive -- position in the emergency.
But to those in the global community looking to Libya as a potential model for international action on human rights and crimes against humanity, the reality is perhaps far muddier.
Much of the administration's initial foot dragging on Libya was cautionary -- intended to buy time as the U.S. government secured the exit of several hundred Americans inside the country. Once their evacuation was complete on Friday morning, the administration moved quickly.
On Friday evening, Obama announced sanctions against Moammar Gadhafi, his government and close associates. By Saturday, the U.N. Security Council had mustered unanimous Security Council consent to refer Libya to the International Criminal Court -- a feat never before achieved, especially given China's historic resistance to ICC referrals (China holds a permanent seat on the council).
On Monday, the administration went one step further: freezing an estimated $30 billion in government assets belonging to Gadhafi and those in his family -- the largest single asset freeze in history.
An effort to establish a no-fly zone over Libya was being led by U.S. allies in Britain, U.S. warships had entered the region, and analysts had begun trumpeting the uprisings in the Middle East as a blow to al-Qaeda.
In a press conference Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney sought to claim this victory -- however indirectly: "One thing that has been abundantly clear in these last several weeks is that the unrest we've seen in the region is not inspired by al-Qaeda," he said, "but is in fact demonstrative of a movement within this region of the world that is wholly counter to everything that al-Qaeda believes in."
And the rhetoric, too, scaled up. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, in an earlier press conference, called Gadhafi "delusional," while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Geneva, called for the Libyan leader to step down immediately.
By Tuesday afternoon, Clinton announced she was considering asking the Department of Justice and FBI to look into possible criminal prosecution of Gadhafi for the 1988 bombing of a passenger plane over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 270 people.
Taken in sum, the American actions on Libya gave heart to many activists who have been frustrated by the Obama administration's relatively slow pace on human rights issues. Those who hoped Obama would put human rights on the front burner once elected have been disappointed with his reticence -- especially in dealings with powerful nations like China.
According to Mark Hanis, president of the Genocide Intervention Network, an advocacy group focused on mass atrocities, "The planets are aligning on [Libya]. The success should serve as a case study as to how quickly the U.S. and its partners can work to mount a multilateral response" in cases of government-sponsored violence.
But even Hanis -- who has worked on behalf of countries including Sudan and Burma, where oppression is no stranger -- was straightforward in his assessment about what separates Libya from other troubled hotspots. Speaking to the very visible, widespread violence, he said, "Gadhafi presents an easy narrative: This guy equals Bad. Innocent civilians equals Good. It's not alphabet soup -- as it is in Congo, where the situation is harder to define."
One human rights expert, speaking confidentially, was blunt in his assessment of Security Council actions. As the body deliberated an ICC referral and sanctions, Libya's permanent representative compared Gadhafi to Pol Pot and Hitler, proclaiming his allegiance to the revolutionaries and calling for the international body to "Save Libya."
Top Gadhafi officials had also begun to defect, and the Arab League, a powerful regional body, had condemned the Libyan leader for "the heinous crimes against unarmed citizens."
With news reports detailing violence against citizens, the expert reasoned that China had nowhere to go. As much as the Chinese had rejected ICC intervention in previous cases -- it would not stand alone as the sole supporter of a leader who had been roundly dismissed by nearly all parties involved.
With key regional support shored up -- and international consensus -- both the U.N. and the White House were free to ramp up the rhetoric and pursue aggressive measures. Though it remains to be seen what may be pursued militarily, armed forces experts have expressed skepticism that the U.S. will send combat troops into the region.
Jared Genser, president of Freedom Now, a nonprofit which seeks the release of political prisoners and counts among its clients jailed Chinese Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobao, called Libya "the perfect storm" and remains skeptical that the same force of action can -- or will -- happen as expediently in other hotspots around the globe.
In Zimbabwe, where Genser is currently representing 45 activists who have been allegedly tortured and charged with treason for watching video coverage of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the likelihood of concerted international action remains far bleaker, both for the scale of violence and the nature of the conflict.
In places like the Congo, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma, where governments have long battled resistance movements and gained certain success in dismantling them -- whether through arrest or intimidation -- the prospect of swift, multilateral action endorsed by regional bodies and government officials remains dim.
Still, according to Genser, "People are emboldened by what they see around the world. And this is a moment for the people to look at these repressive regimes."
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