Success, vindication, satisfaction, optimism; there are many legitimate ways to characterize the so far happy events in Libya. Success, for the obvious reason that the people of a third Arab country have succeeded in wresting their future from the hands of a murderous psycho-tyrant and the brutal thugs around him.

Liberation from Moammar Gadhafi did not come easily, and seemed to take an eternity as the fighting ebbed and flowed and threatened to fall into stalemate. But in fact, it took Libyans just six months to free themselves, a comparative blink of an eye in the 42 years of repression they had suffered.

Like their kin in Tunisia and Egypt, success belongs in the first place to the citizen soldiers - the dentists and taxi drivers and office workers and students and day labourers - who put their lives on the line to overthrow a dictatorship that had no hesitation in turning its guns on its own people and hiring mercenaries to kill them. This generation of Arabs is succeeding where their parents scarcely dared.

The deposition of Gadhafi is a vindication for the international community, for the UN, for NATO, for the International Criminal Court and for American foreign policy. Gadhafi's threat of "rivers of blood" and vows of retribution were too much for the UN Security Council to ignore, even if some of its members would have liked to do so. Russia, China, India, Brazil and Germany at least stood aside and let the Council authorize member states to impose a "no-fly" zone and to protect civilians, even if only from the air. It was the least they could have done, but it was enough.

Despite the chorus of disapproval from critics on the left, who wanted more diplomacy, as if third-person notes and an escalating Thesaurus of condemnations would have persuaded Gadhafi to stop, and from critics on the right who wanted "boots on the ground," whatever the political and strategic cost, the end of Gadhafi is a vindication for NATO. But for NATO's efforts, Gadhafi would still be imposing his insane rule on Libya. As in Kosovo, NATO air power neutralized the military capability of a thug regime and led to its collapse in a matter of months.

Smarter and smarter technology has made it possible for NATO to intervene in such conflicts while reducing civilian casualties and minimizing the risks run by its own personnel.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is also vindicated in its indictment of Gadhafi, which, like its indictment of Milosevic a decade earlier, did not prolong the fighting as some feared. If the ICC can try Gadhafi for war crimes and crimes against humanity, the cause of international justice will be advanced further and the immunity of tyrants diminished.

Gadhafi's defeat also vindicates Obama's foreign policy of making the multilateral system work. Obama induced a divided Arab League to ask for help, so that the U.S. could not be accused of initiating yet another war with a Muslim country, secured UN Security Council authorization to act and, after initially employing its "unique assets," let NATO carry the fight. History will applaud this skill and judgment.

Satisfaction is what Canadians can take from this conflict because Canadian diplomacy and Canadian arms were both instrumental in bringing about the outcome. Following the Rwanda genocide and the Srebrenica slaughter in the 1990s, Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, determined to find a way of reconciling the imperatives of national sovereignty and the protection of human rights, launched the diplomatic process that culminated in the new norm of international relations, the Responsibility to Protect. Ultimately accepted personally by 150 heads of state meeting at the UN in New York in 2005, this norm holds that when a state is unable or unwilling to protect its people from grievous harm or is itself the perpetrator, as in Gadhafi's case, "the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect." In authorizing intervention in Libya, the Security Council acted for the first time in conformity with this norm.

Successful intervention takes military muscle as well as political will, and the disposition and the capacity of the Harper government to contribute militarily to the NATO effort was crucial, as has been the active diplomacy of Foreign Minister John Baird. Canadians can take special satisfaction from the professionalism with which Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard commanded the NATO operation within the constraints of the authorizing UN resolution.

Libya is a famously complicated country with numerous tribal, economic and social divisions, and precious little experience of democracy. If the aspirations of the Libyan people are to be achieved and the country is not to fall back into civil conflict, the international community, including Canada, will need to stay engaged, less as guarantors of security, although that might be necessary for a little while, but in the long, trying process of state-building. Canada - government, civil society and industry - can help with drafting a constitution, "standing up" a Libyan administration and military, advising on the creation of an inclusive, pluralistic parliamentary system, supporting human rights, and generating economic growth so that young Libyans at last have a future. This process will take decades not just years, and should become a priority of Canada's aid program. In the end, there is no guarantee that this all will work. But, in the same circumstances, who would not choose optimism over the despair of rule by a psychopath and his murderous sons?

The larger significance of the liberation of Libya is that times do change and human progress is possible. The international community has the means to level the playing field between citizens and tyrants. Next stop, Syria?

Paul Heinbecker, Canada's former ambassador to the UN, is currently with the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Laurier University in Waterloo. He is the author of Getting Back in the Game: A Foreign Policy Playbook for Canada published by Dundurn.

The deposition of Gadhafi is a vindication for the international community, for the UN, for NATO, for the International Criminal Court and for American foreign policy.
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  • With a distinguished career in Canadian diplomacy — including posts as ambassador to Germany, permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) and adviser to various prime ministers, Paul Heinbecker is one of Canada’s most experienced commentators on foreign policy and international governance. Paul is also the director of the Centre for Global Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University.