GENEVA – The U.N.'s top human rights official said Friday that reports of mass killings of thousands in Libya should spur the international community to "step in vigorously" to end the crackdown against anti-government protesters in the North African country.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to use all means possible to establish an independent panel to investigate the alleged abuses by Libyan security forces and hold those responsible to account.
European nations were leading the effort to condemn the crackdown ordered by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's regime, order a U.N.-led investigation into possible crimes against humanity and propose suspending Libya from the council.
"The crackdown in Libya of peaceful demonstrations is escalating alarmingly with reported mass killings, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of protesters," Pillay told the U.N.'s top human rights body. "Tanks, helicopters and military aircraft have reportedly been used indiscriminately to attack the protesters. According to some sources, thousands may have been killed or injured."
It was only last May that the former U.S. enemy was elected to the 47-nation Human Rights Council as part of a series of attempts at political rehabilitation on the world stage.
Gadhafi, who has ruled for 42 years, now appears to have lost control of large parts of the country. Pillay reminded the council that Gadhafi had urged his supporters to battle protesters and "attack them in their lairs," which she called a possible crime against humanity.
She said "any official, at any level, ordering or carrying out atrocities and attacks can be held criminally accountable."
It is the first time that the Geneva-based council has held a special session to scrutinize one of its members. Libya's ambassador did not attend.
Nigeria's ambassador, Charles Nduka Onianwa, said for the African group of council members that "it is obvious ... that the indiscriminate use of force against peaceful protesters should be condemned."
Pakistan's ambassador, Zamir Akram, said the 57 members of the Organization of The Islamic Conference "strongly condemn the excessive use of force" in Libya.
"Muslims will no longer tolerate inequalities and injustice," he told the council. "A new dawn has come. The rules of the game have changed. Those who do not embrace it will be swept away."
Gadhafi's response to the uprising in his country has been the harshest by any Arab leader in the wave of protests that has swept the Middle East recently, toppling the presidents of Libya's neighbors Egypt and Tunisia.
But observers of the Human Rights Council say African and Asian nations are wary of setting too strong a precedent that could be used against other human rights abusing regimes in future.
Suspending Libya's "rights of membership" under the rules for the council would require two-thirds approval of all the 192 countries in the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Human rights activists said they expect a strongly worded resolution to pass, though it might be watered down by efforts to achieve the broadest possible consensus.
While efforts to ostracize Libya from the council are being driven by Europe, the United States and some Latin American countries, Asian and African nations will be wary of setting a precedent that can be used against them or their allies in future, said Peter Splinter of Amnesty International.
In Brussels, NATO planned to hold an emergency meeting Friday to consider the deteriorating situation in Libya. It had received no requests to intervene and said it would only do so if it were given a United Nations mandate.
The U.N. Security Council also planned to meet later Friday in New York to consider actions against Gadhafi's regime.
French Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said France and Britain would press the Security Council for a "total embargo on weapons as well as sanctions, and also the referral of a case to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity."
The Security Council rarely does so, but ordered an investigation into crimes in Darfur in 2005.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Friday that Europe was united behind sanctions against Libya and called for swift EU and U.N. action. He laid out an initial sanctions plan that would include an embargo on weapons and goods that could be used to oppress protesters, and asset freezes and a travel embargo on Ghadafi's family.
"This regime in Libya is lashing out madly, it is waging war against its own people," he said in an interview with WDR radio Friday.
The EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also said the Security Council must "take action" and the EU bloc should consider imposing travel restrictions and asset freezes to achieve a halt to the violence there and move toward democracy.
The United States backs suspending Libya from the Human Rights Council and also is considering a larger sanctions package that might include asset freezes and travel bans on senior Libyan officials, or a ban on the sale of U.S. military equipment.
"The council's responsibility is even greater when the violator is one of its own members," the U.S. ambassador to the council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, said.
A petition released Friday signed by 63 non-governmental organizations around the world called on the General Assembly to remove Libya from the Human Rights Council. Peggy Hicks, Human Rights Watch's global advocacy director in New York, said the credibility of both U.N. bodies is at stake.