What Kind of Crackdown Warrants Humanitarian Intervention?

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President Obama argues that the Unites States was compelled to act in Libya because of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s brutality against civilians in his own country. Speaking in El Salvador on Tuesday, Obama blasted Gaddafi as a brutal dictator who is “threatening his people.” The President said the Unites States acted, in part, to “make sure that the changes that are sweeping through that region are occurring in a peaceful, nonviolent fashion.”

That argument has become muddied as the protests against Gaddafi have morphed into a civil war; it’s hard to determine exactly who the “civilians” are in Libya, since many of them have taken up arms.

When asked to clarify Obama’s position, the White House e-mailed TIME a series of reports on Libya from human rights groups.

The reports, from organizations like Human Rights Watch, do indeed document Gaddafi’s brutal treatment of apparently peaceful protesters last month, before civil war broke out. By February 20, Human Rights Watch said at least 233 Libyan protesters had been killed. The group documented, for example, how security forces opened fire at protesters on Feb. 19 as they chanted anti-Gaddafi slogans outside the dictator’s residence in Benghazi. A nearby hospital reportedly received the dead bodies of 23 protesters later that day.

Human Rights Watch called for Gaddafi to “stop the unlawful killing of protestors (sic).”

But the same human rights organizations have documented similar abuses by other autocratic governments in the region, including Yemen and Bahrain, and the United States has so far shown no interest in military action to defend citizens there.

On March 18, Amnesty International documented how security forces of the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, a U.S. partner in combating terrorism, carried out a “coordinated sniper attack of protestors (sic) in Sana’a” that left at least 40 people dead and more than 200 wounded. The group said government forces had killed at least 80 people there since February.

Last week, Amnesty International condemned the killing of eight protesters by Bahraini and Saudi security forces brought into Bahrain, home to a major Navy base that houses the U.S. Fifth Fleet, to help quash protests there. The group said those forces were firing at protesters using “live ammunition at close range.” Amnesty said the government used tanks and teargas against the protesters.

The White House says that military action in Libya, under broad international support, has already averted 100,000 deaths. But if one only considers the lives already claimed in autocratic crackdowns across the region, it’s hard to see a significant gap between Gaddafi’s actions and those of governments like Yemen and Bahrain that have historically been friendlier to U.S. interests.

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