The Cable

Biden: 'When a state engages in atrocity, it forfeits its sovereignty'

Vice President Joseph Biden argued on Thursday for forceful and early international intervention to prevent governments from committing atrocities, but didn't explicitly make the case for such intervention in Libya.

"I got in trouble when I said, during the Bosnia crisis, coming back from meeting Milosevic... that when a state engages in atrocity, it forfeits its sovereignty," Biden told an audience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where he was speaking at an event honoring the late Congressman Tom Lantos.

"And it was viewed at the time as somehow being contrary to the notions of the principles of the United Nations Charter that you forfeit your sovereignty," Biden said. "I remember the first person to call me as I was being roundly criticized was Tom Lantos, [who said,] ‘Keep it up, Joe.'"

Biden lauded the Obama administration for creating a senior-level position inside the National Security Council to coordinate what he referred to as new, stronger policies on preventing, identifying, and responding to mass atrocities and genocide.

"Too often in the past, these efforts have come too late, after the best and least costly opportunities to prevent them have been missed," Biden said. "First, we must recognize early indicators of potential atrocities and respond accordingly, rather than waiting until we are confronted by massacres like those in Rwanda or in Srebrenica."

He referenced the same two examples of genocide that Anne-Marie Slaughter, former top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, referred to when calling for international intervention in Libya. Biden criticized the international community for waiting so long to stop the killing of civilians in those cases.

"It's amazing how in the Balkans it took so long," Biden said. "Our administration also believes that holding perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable is an essential component of our prevention efforts. And that's why we have to reinvigorate efforts to bring some of the worst war criminals to justice."

While Biden lamented the international community's slow response to past instances of atrocities, he didn't explicitly name Libya's Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi as a candidate for such a response or explain how the administration's atrocity prevention policy would be applied in the current Arab world crisis. Rather, he repeated the administration's message that the international community must uphold three overarching principles with regards to Libya: an end to violence, protection of universal rights, and progress toward political reform.

"The Holocaust and the legacy are not only a part of our country's history, this country's history, but they continue to inform our approach to events today. They stiffen our resolve and our conscience, God willing, in the face of atrocities wherever and whenever they occur," Biden said.

He also quoted Lantos on the issue.

"‘The veneer of civilization is paper-thin,' Lantos often said. We are the guardians, and we can never rest."

The Obama administration is considering a range of options for pressuring the Libyan regime to stop massacring civilians -- including sanctions, asset freezes, and perhaps even the establishment of an international no-fly zone. But according to a senior NSC official, armed intervention in Libya is not on the table.

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Senators and experts call on Obama to take stronger measures against Qaddafi

The calls are increasing in Washington for the Obama administration to take new, stronger measures to punish the Libyan government led by Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi for atrocities and to protect Libyan civilians.

Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) implored Obama on in a press conference to establish a no-fly zone in Libya, abandon its recognition of the Qaddafi government, transfer recognition to a transitional government formed by the rebels as soon as possible, and provide the opposition with support, including weapons.

"The government of Libya, epitomized by Muammar Qaddafi is massacring some of his people. There is very little doubt about Mr. Qaddafi's commitment to remaining in power no matter how much blood has to be shed," McCain said on behalf of both senators at a Friday press conference in Jerusalem.

"When a government massacres its own people, it loses its legitimacy. So, we should no longer recognize the existing government of Libya."

Lieberman added that the no-fly zone should be organized by NATO and he compared the ongoing killing of civilians in Libya to the genocide perpetrated by Serbia during the 1990s that eventually resulted in a NATO bombing campaign.

"I think in that sense it is very important that we not just make statements about the massacre that is occurring in Libya but that we lead an international coalition to do something," Lieberman said. "What is happening in Libya today reminds me what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. We in the United States decided that we could not simply stand by and watch a government massacre its people."

Back in Washington, Vice President Joseph Biden lamented on Thursday that NATO intervention in the Balkans didn't come sooner, when it could have saved more lives. 

"It's amazing how in the Balkans it took so long," Biden told an audience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum. "First, we must recognize early indicators of potential atrocities and respond accordingly, rather than waiting until we are confronted by massacres like those in Rwanda or in Srebrenica."

Former State Department Policy Planning Chief Anne-Marie Slaughter also compared the violence in Libya to the Balkans and the 1994 Rwandan genocide in a Thursday tweet.

"The international community cannot stand by and watch the massacre of Libyan protesters. In Rwanda we watched. In Kosovo we acted," Slaughter tweeted.

Also on Friday, a bipartisan group of senior mostly-Republican foreign policy experts penned an open letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to make good on his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, when he said, "Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later."

The experts asked Obama to call on NATO to urgently develop plans to establish an air and naval presence in Libya, freeze all Libyan government assets in the U.S. and Europe, consider halting Libyan oil imports, pledge to hold Qaddafi responsible for any atrocities, and speed humanitarian aid to the Libyan people.

"With violence spiraling to new heights, and with the apparent willingness of the Qaddafi regime to use all weapons at its disposal against the Libyan people, we may be on the threshold of a moral and humanitarian catastrophe," the experts wrote. "Inaction, or slow and inadequate measures, may not only fail to stop the slaughter in Libya but will cast doubt on the commitment of the United States and Europe to basic principles of human rights and freedoms."

The letter was signed by several senior GOP former officials, including Elliott Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, Eric Edelman, Eliot Cohen, Jamie Fly and Scott Carpenter, human rights activities David Kramer and Neil Hicks, and Clinton administration official John Shattuck.

"The United States and our European allies have a moral interest in both an end to the violence and an end to the murderous Libyan regime. There is no time for delay and indecisiveness," they wrote. "The people of Libya, the people of the Middle East, and the world require clear U.S. leadership in this time of opportunity and peril."

Full text of the letter after the jump:

The Honorable Barack Obama
President of the United States
The White House
Washington, DC

February 25, 2011

Dear Mr. President:

In your 2009 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, you rightly declared that "Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later." Today the United States and our allies in Europe must take action in response to the unfolding crisis in Libya. With violence spiraling to new heights, and with the apparent willingness of the Qaddafi regime to use all weapons at its disposal against the Libyan people, we may be on the threshold of a moral and humanitarian catastrophe. Inaction, or slow and inadequate measures, may not only fail to stop the slaughter in Libya but will cast doubt on the commitment of the United States and Europe to basic principles of human rights and freedoms.

Therefore, we recommend the United States, in conjunction with NATO allies, take the following specific actions immediately:

1) The United States should call upon NATO to develop operational plans to urgently:

-          Establish a presence in Libyan airspace to prevent the continued use of fighter jets and helicopter gunships against civilians and carry out other missions as required.

-          Move naval assets into Libyan waters to aid in evacuation efforts and prepare for possible contingencies. Establish the capability to disable Libyan naval vessels used to attack civilians.

2) Freeze all Libyan government assets in the United States and Europe.

3)   Consider temporarily halting importation of Libyan oil to the United States and Europe.

4)   Make a clear statement that Col. Qaddafi and other officials who order and participate in massacres of civilians will be held accountable for their crimes under international law.

5) Provide humanitarian aid to the Libyan people as quickly as possible.

The United States and our European allies have a moral interest in both an end to the violence and an end to the murderous Libyan regime. There is no time for delay and indecisiveness. The people of Libya, the people of the Middle East, and the world require clear U.S. leadership in this time of opportunity and peril.

Elliott Abrams

Stephen E. Biegun

Max Boot

Ellen Bork

Scott Carpenter

Eliot Cohen

Seth Cropsey

Larry Diamond

Thomas Donnelly

Eric Edelman

Jamie Fly

Reuel Marc Gerecht

John Hannah

Neil Hicks

William Inboden

Bruce Pitcairn Jackson

Robert Kagan

David Kramer

Irina Krasovskaya

William Kristol

Tod Lindberg

Michael Makovsky

Cliff May

Joshua Muravchik

Martin Peretz

Danielle Pletka

John Podhoretz

Randy Scheunemann

Dan Senor

John Shattuck

Mike Singh

Gare Smith

William Taft

Marc Thiessen

Daniel Twining

Pete Wehner

Ken Weinstein

Leon Wieseltier

Damon Wilson

Paul Wolfowitz