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Biden: ‘When a state engages in atrocity, it forfeits its sovereignty’

Vice President Joseph Biden argued on Thursday for forceful and early international intervention to prevent governments from committing atrocities, but didn’t explicitly make the case for such intervention in Libya. "I got in trouble when I said, during the Bosnia crisis, coming back from meeting Milosevic… that when a state engages in atrocity, it forfeits ...

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Vice President Joseph Biden argued on Thursday for forceful and early international intervention to prevent governments from committing atrocities, but didn’t explicitly make the case for such intervention in Libya.

"I got in trouble when I said, during the Bosnia crisis, coming back from meeting Milosevic… that when a state engages in atrocity, it forfeits its sovereignty," Biden told an audience at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where he was speaking at an event honoring the late Congressman Tom Lantos.

"And it was viewed at the time as somehow being contrary to the notions of the principles of the United Nations Charter that you forfeit your sovereignty," Biden said. "I remember the first person to call me as I was being roundly criticized was Tom Lantos, [who said,] ‘Keep it up, Joe.’"

Biden lauded the Obama administration for creating a senior-level position inside the National Security Council to coordinate what he referred to as new, stronger policies on preventing, identifying, and responding to mass atrocities and genocide.

"Too often in the past, these efforts have come too late, after the best and least costly opportunities to prevent them have been missed," Biden said. "First, we must recognize early indicators of potential atrocities and respond accordingly, rather than waiting until we are confronted by massacres like those in Rwanda or in Srebrenica."

He referenced the same two examples of genocide that Anne-Marie Slaughter, former top aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, referred to when calling for international intervention in Libya. Biden criticized the international community for waiting so long to stop the killing of civilians in those cases.

"It’s amazing how in the Balkans it took so long," Biden said. "Our administration also believes that holding perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable is an essential component of our prevention efforts. And that’s why we have to reinvigorate efforts to bring some of the worst war criminals to justice."

While Biden lamented the international community’s slow response to past instances of atrocities, he didn’t explicitly name Libya’s Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi as a candidate for such a response or explain how the administration’s atrocity prevention policy would be applied in the current Arab world crisis. Rather, he repeated the administration’s message that the international community must uphold three overarching principles with regards to Libya: an end to violence, protection of universal rights, and progress toward political reform.

"The Holocaust and the legacy are not only a part of our country’s history, this country’s history, but they continue to inform our approach to events today. They stiffen our resolve and our conscience, God willing, in the face of atrocities wherever and whenever they occur," Biden said.

He also quoted Lantos on the issue.

"‘The veneer of civilization is paper-thin,’ Lantos often said. We are the guardians, and we can never rest."

The Obama administration is considering a range of options for pressuring the Libyan regime to stop massacring civilians — including sanctions, asset freezes, and perhaps even the establishment of an international no-fly zone. But according to a senior NSC official, armed intervention in Libya is not on the table.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin