AFTER a week of military action in Libya by the US and allies to enforce United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 1973 - which provided for a "no-fly zone" and authorised UN members to take "all necessary measures" to protect civilians - African states are starting to find their voice. Most of these voices - including those of the presidents of SA and Nigeria, both of whom voted for Resolution 1973 - have been critical of the intervention. While there are arguments to be made against "humanitarian intervention" generally, and this intervention in particular, as a result of their own words and (in)action African states are precluded from making most of them.

Due to the media and political hype inevitably occasioned by such events, distinct arguments for and against intervention are generally conflated and confused. It is important to distil the arguments in order to understand and respond to them.

The first is empirical. All arguments about humanitarian intervention revolve around the question of whether there are grounds for intervention in the first place - that is, is there a humanitarian crisis? If the empirical hurdle can be overcome, arguments for or against intervention become arguments about ends or arguments about means.

Arguments against intervention based on the ends accept the empirical basis of intervention (a humanitarian crisis), but either do not accept that saving lives is a worthwhile end, or advance some other end that outweighs intervention. Traditionally the competing end advanced against intervention has been state sovereignty: a foundational norm of the international order and the basis of the principle of nonintervention.

The rise of human rights over the past 60 years and the end of the Cold War have undercut the force of sovereignty as an end. More recently, the advent of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine has recast sovereignty from being an absolute right of statehood, to entailing a "responsibility" to protect one's citizens from crimes against humanity. Under R2P, if this responsibility is flouted, the offending state becomes vulnerable to intervention from the world community. In the face of these developments arguments against intervention based on competing ends are rarely made openly. As a result, most debates about intervention are not about ends (whether intervention is morally justified), but means.

Arguments about means might accept the humanitarian crisis as a fact and accept that the end of protecting human lives outweighs all competing ends, but would posit that military intervention is not an acceptable means of achieving that end. The argument might be that in general such interventions do not save lives, or that a particular intervention does not protect human life or that there are other, better means available to achieve that end. The debate becomes heated when the means result in a high number of civilian lives being put at risk, as the means themselves begin to undermine the end.

What of the Libyan intervention? First we must debunk two fallacious arguments against humanitarian interventions. The first challenges the intervention's legitimacy on the basis of its improper motive. Regarding Libya, states have attacked the motive of the US and its allies as being about "petro- imperialism", geopolitics and anti-Islamic sentiment - and those who defend the intervention are required to defend the intervening countries' motives for doing so. Libyan lives are protected (or not) based on the effect of the intervention as a matter of fact. Even assuming allied countries may have mixed motives for intervening does not make this the wrong course of action if it succeeds in protecting human lives.

Another argument points to the historical selectivity of interventions as undermining the legitimacy of an intervention. Again, this misses the point. These are arguments for other interventions, not against this one.

So what arguments can the African Union (AU) and its members plausibly raise against the UN-sanctioned intervention in Libya?

As far as empirical arguments are concerned, there is an overwhelming acceptance from the international community that there is a humanitarian catastrophe in Libya. First, all states (including SA , Nigeria and Gabon) that accepted the need for a no-fly zone accepted first, that there is a threat to civilians emanating from Muammar Gaddafi's regime, and second, that the threat involves the use of air power against them, making it a serious one. There have to date been few arguments challenging the empirical basis for the intervention.

What, then, is the AU's underlying reasoning? As noted earlier, few arguments against intervention that involve competing ends are made explicitly. What is more, by its own standards the AU has little margin for denouncing intervention. Since its formation in 2001 the AU has tried to position itself at the forefront of the normative shift from state sovereignty to human security. Its founding charter's "humanitarian provision" - which enshrines "(t)he right of the union to intervene in a member state pursuant to a decision of the assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity" - is the most progressive of its kind.

The only arguments the AU might plausibly raise against the intervention in Libya are ones relating to means. Again the AU's own standards make arguments against intervention based on means difficult to swallow. First, Resolution 1973 means the legal arguments about intervention are not available to the AU. Thus, for the intervention to be the wrong course of action the AU must show either that it does not result in the protection of human life, or that there were other means available that better protect human life. But it seems the Libyan intervention has saved lives, at the very least those of the citizens of Benghazi. That leaves the second argument, that there were other means available that better protect human life. For example, it might be argued that some non-coercive political solution or, failing that, an intervention force that excluded the US, France and the UK - three compromised actors in the region - would have been a more appropriate means of protecting the people of Libya.

The problem is that the AU was best placed to undertake both of those courses of action and it did not. Not even the AU's founding instrument was relied upon to intervene to prevent the attacks on civilians. Notwithstanding numerous calls for regional action in respect of Libya, all the AU could muster was hand-wringing, politically finessed communiqués, and a belated and compromised five-man mediation panel.

The Libyan debacle confirms what many have suspected: that the AU's humanitarian provision is no more than a paper commitment. Even to those who argue that regional stability and solidarity are comparable to or even greater ends than protecting human lives, the AU's limp response to the crisis in Libya further undermines its credibility. African states missed the rarest of opportunities to make these ends meet: to strike a blow against perceived "petro-imperialism" and for human rights simultaneously.

- Du Plessis and Gevers are with the University of KwaZulu-Natal and, respectively, are senior research associate and consultant with the Institute for Security Studies.