The full membership of the United Nations has suspended Libya from the UN Human Rights Council.

The UN General Assembly today voted by consensus on the council’s recommendation to suspend Libya’s rights of council membership for committing “gross and systematic violations of human rights.”

It is also expressing “deep concern” about the human rights situation in Libya.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned that Libya is at risk of collapsing into a “protracted civil war” amid increasingly violent clashes between government forces and those opposed to leader Muammar Gaddafi.

“In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy, or it could face protracted civil war,” she told the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representatives. “The stakes are high.”

She told Congress that the US must lead an international response to the crisis, including expanding already tough financial and travel sanctions against Gaddafi, his family and confidants and possibly imposing a no-fly zone over Libya.

“The United States continues to look at every single lever it can use against the Gadhafi regime,” she said.

She spoke as Gaddafi and forces still loyal to him sought to protect their remaining strongholds in and around the capital of Tripoli and take back rebel-held areas in the east.

She said US officials were aware that defecting military officers were attempting to organise fighters to defend areas they hold and “even try to take Tripoli away from Col. Gaddafi.”

But while Clinton said that protective military air cover in Libya is a possibility, she and the top US military commander in the Middle East said it would be challenging and there would be drawbacks. “There are arguments that would favour it, questions that would be raised about it, but it is under active consideration,” Clinton said.

Testifying before a separate panel, Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of US Central Command, said the military would have to take out Libyan air defences in order to establish a no-fly zone there.

He said a no-fly zone above the African nation would deter any attempt by Gaddafi to launch bombing raids on his own citizens as they mass for anti-government protests. But Mattis said it would require military action to establish the no-fly zone, which he acknowledged would be difficult.

International partners the United States would need for such patrols are divided about the idea, and while the US probably would be the main participant in any such network, no US official is known to have fully endorsed it.

Aside from logistical worries, Clinton said outside military intervention might also compromise Gaddafi’s opponents who do not want to be seen as serving outside forces.

“We are also very conscious of the desire by the Libyan opposition forces that they be seen as doing this by themselves on behalf of the Libyan people, that there not be outside intervention by any external force, because they want this to have been their accomplishment,” Clinton told the committee. “We respect that.”

Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that ships have been dispatched through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea, to be ready for any assistance or other actions President Barack Obama should order.

He added that it is too early to say how the uprisings will turn out.

“We don’t want to see this change slide into a new form of authoritarianism,” Mattis said. “So while there is both opportunity and danger, it requires unrelenting engagement by our nation. The central challenge for us, I believe, is how to make common cause with our friends throughout the region.”

Republican Sen. John McCain said the unrest rocking countries across the Middle East provides an unprecedented opportunity to support the people there in shaping a new order that is more consistent with US interests and values.

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