Editor's note: Fred Abrahams is a special adviser at Human Rights Watch specializing in human rights crises and armed conflict. He visited Libya three times for the organization and wrote or co-authored three reports on Libya.
(CNN) -- Libya's fate lies in the hands of its citizens and a ruler intent on keeping power at whatever the cost in the blood of protesters. But the United Nations, the United States and other governments can help protect those protesters from Gadhafi's guns and encourage a democratic result. To do so, they should quickly replace catch-phrase condemnations with resolute steps.
To start, Washington and European capitals should name Gadhafi as the perpetrator. The U.S. and others have strongly condemned Libyan authorities and officials for their use of lethal force against protesters, including apparent helicopter fire Monday in Tripoli. But official statements fail to mention the "Brother Leader" by name.
There are no "Libyan authorities" or "Libyan officials" in a position to act with independence. Libya has only one authority and one official who matters: Gadhafi, the man who has ruled the country for more than 41 years. Washington and other governments should understand that this revolt is precisely about him. And the mounting deaths come from his refusal to tolerate dissent.
Second, Washington and European capitals should stop deferring to Gadhafi, viewing him as necessary for business and security ties, or fearing that strong action might prompt him to behave worse.
Precisely the absence of strong steps now gives Gadhafi a green light to behave worse, as he has shown with the air attacks on protesters launched Monday.
The U.S., U.N. and others should articulate concrete consequences that Gadhafi will face if he employs further unlawful force. These can range from asset freezes and an arms embargo to criminal prosecution of Gadhafi and his senior lieutenants for indiscriminate shootings and large-scale unlawful killings. Gadhafi must know that for grievous human rights violations he will be held to account.
Third, the U.S. and European Union countries, which take most of Libya's oil output, should implement the consequences in a uniform manner, so Gadhafi understands that he faces a common front. Too often in recent years Gadhafi has played countries off of one another, dangling lucrative contracts as divisive bait.
The U.S. and other Western governments successfully isolated Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in the past for his terrorist attacks on Westerners. They should do no less for the terror he is inflicting on Libyans today.
Washington and European capitals should also urge Arab and African states to come on board, so decisive action is not seen as a Western assault. Together, governments should demand that Libya is urgently discussed in an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council. And the Security Council should consider referring the situation to the International Criminal Court.
The Gadhafi family understands exactly how important the U.S. position will be. That's why the so-called reformer son, Saif al-Islam, gave a much publicized television address at 1 a.m. Monday in Tripoli -- prime time in the United States. And he geared his message for the West: Ongoing fighting will lead to chaos that threatens stability and business. You must, Saif al-Islam implied, continue to support the family.
Washington and others should not indulge that line. The protesters are Libyan citizens who are fed up with four decades of nepotism and violence. They are tired of the Gadhafi family's unaccountable rule.
By pressuring Gadhafi, the U.S. and other governments will engender immense support among a wide swath of Libyans in the country and abroad. A swift and consistent position will encourage the Libyan diplomats, military commanders and tribal chiefs who are joining the protesters day by day. And it will give strength to the tens of thousands of Libyans who have courageously risen up.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fred Abrahams.