In September 1999, in the aftermath of the brutal ethnic cleansing that Serbian forces had perpetrated on the civilian population of Kosovo, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the General Assembly on the subject of humanitarian intervention. The struggle over the appropriate response to the atrocities, Annan said, had "revealed the core challenge to the Security Council and to the United Nations as a whole in the next century: to forge unity behind the principle that massive and systematic violations of human rights -- wherever they may take place -- should not be allowed to stand." Annan's speech was greeted rapturously in the West -- but not in the developing world. Answering Annan in the General Assembly, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria said bluntly that "interference in internal affairs may take place only with the consent of the state in question."
The debate over intervention has gone around and around the same circle ever since. Western leaders and Western thinkers -- including Annan, whose views were shaped far more by decades of international service than by his boyhood in Ghana -- have argued for the moral imperative of intervention in various forms to prevent or stop atrocities. The ex-colonial countries of the developing world, meanwhile, have invoked the sanctity of state sovereignty. The universal adoption in 2005 of the principle of "the responsibility to protect" has blunted that divide somewhat by shifting the emphasis from the right of outsiders to intervene to the obligation of all states to prevent atrocities. But the debates over action in Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere were dominated by the same threadbare claims of sovereignty. Effective action was impossible so long as the neighbors insisted on protecting the abusive tyrant.
Until now. In the debate over intervention in Libya, Russian diplomats have contented themselves with the usual boilerplate on sovereignty, but Arab states, remarkably, have not. The same Arab leaders who protect murderous despots like Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir have called on the West to take forceful action to oust Libya's leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. In recent days, the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as the leaders of the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, have called for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya. Soon after Qaddafi began his attacks on unarmed civilians, the Qatari foreign ministry, which maintains equable relations with virtually all parties to Middle East conflicts, issued a statement criticizing "the silence of the international community over the bloody events in Libya."
Of course, the fact that Libya's neighbors are calling for a no-fly zone doesn't, by itself, make it a good idea. After all, they're not proposing to do anything but vote on it; the actual work would most likely have to be done by the United States and NATO, which in practice means the United States, which has the air assets in the region. And Russia or China could still block Security Council authorization for further action. But in this case, the legitimacy of Arab bodies counts for much more than the council's authorization. Qaddafi will, of course, try to portray himself as the victim of a Western crusade. That would be a lot harder if both Libya's rebels and Arab leaders publicly call for the action, and stand by it (which is, of course, far from a certainty). Arab endorsement removes the single greatest political obstacle to action.