It wasn’t that long ago that an African leader massacring his own people in a struggle to maintain power was not something that garnered worldwide attention. Sure, world leaders have routinely condemned the genocide to Libya’s south east and there is lots of hand wringing about the conflict in the DRC. But for the most part the international community is generally content to let those conflicts fester. Or, to put it another way, there is rarely the required political or diplomatic efforts to sustain an effective or coordinated global response to mass atrocities.

But Libya was different.  Why is that?

My best guess is that there are two reasons. The first was that the world was watching. Al Bashir and Gaddahfi both used air power and proxy armies against civilian targets to suppress a revolt in the periphery of their country.  But no one was paying much attention in 2003 and 2004 when the Darfur genocide unfolded. Because of events in Tunisia and Egypt, all eyes were on the Middle East and North Africa. So, when Gaddafi escalated his threats against his own people, the world took notice.

But “the world” is not what turned the tide against Gaddafi. Rather it was his neighbors and former allies in the Arab League. The key diplomatic moment that set into motion the chain of events that lead to today was Arab League calling for intervention in Libya. That gave cover to China and Russia to abstain from the Security Council resolution authorizing intervention; and the fact that the Security Council approved the resolution enabled key partners in NATO and the United States to convice their publics that this was a legitimate intervention. Without the Security Council resolution, NATO would not have intervened. And with out the Arab League’s ascent, the Security Council would never have approved the mission.

Key Lesson for Yemen and Syria? Regional bodies like the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council are the single most important diplomatic players. The Security Council would do well to lead from behind them.

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