The first French missiles that streaked over Benghazi in March were more than the beginning of the end for Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi -- they were also the first real-world test of the international community's new rules for humanitarian intervention. The conflict made an instant catchphrase out of "responsibility to protect" -- and its inevitable clunky acronym, R2P -- a doctrine adopted by the United Nations in 2005 and invoked for the first time to justify the bombing. R2P was intended to be the first piece in a new international legal framework for stopping war crimes after a century of ad hoc humanitarianism. But did the removal of Qaddafi's pariah regime -- while similar atrocities were allowed to continue in Syria and elsewhere -- mark the dawn of a new era, or the same old inconsistent approach debated in a new vocabulary?
In On the Law of War and Peace, Dutch legal philosopher Hugo Grotius argues that intervening to help a people resist tyranny constitutes a just war.
Britain bans the slave trade. At the urging of abolitionists, British naval vessels patrolling the Atlantic begin interdicting other countries' slave ships -- the first example of a country enforcing human rights beyond its shores.
Polish Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin, appalled by the slaughter of more than a million ethnic Armenians by the Ottomans during World War I and by Hitler's rise, begins a crusade for international legal protection from ethnically motivated mass killings. He is rebuffed by the League of Nations, where one delegate objects that such crimes occur "too seldom to legislate." That same year, the first concentration camps open in Germany.
Twenty-four Nazis are put on trial at Nuremberg by the Allies for atrocities committed during World War II; 19 are convicted. The legal proceedings, however, focus on war crimes and so do not fully establish a precedent for prosecuting "genocide" (a term coined two years earlier by Lemkin, who lost dozens of family members in the Holocaust).
Lemkin lobbies the three-year-old United Nations relentlessly for legal protections against genocide, and on Dec. 9 the U.N. General Assembly votes unanimously to adopt the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (though the United States doesn't ratify it until 1988).
NICHOLAS MATTHEWS CONDY VIA ROYAL NAVAL MUSEUM