Prime Minister Stephen Harper has ordered sanctions to be prepared against the Libyan regime following its crackdown on anti-government protests.

"The actions by the Libyan regime... are absolutely unacceptable," Harper said Friday from the foyer of the House of Commons.

While Harper said the government's current priority is getting Canadians out of Libya, he added that it is preparing to bring in sanctions unilaterally and in co-operation with the international community.

"No option has been ruled out," Harper said.

"Canada fully supports the United Nations Security Council on a resolution that could include an embargo on arms, individual sanctions against key players in the regime, as well as an asset freeze," the prime minister said.

He called for Libya to be immediately suspended from the UN Human Rights Council, and suggested the international court could, at some point, get involved.

In the wake of Harper's comments, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said more needs to be done than just sanctions. He said a "no-fly" zone over Libyan airspace needs to be considered in order to protect civilians.

In Washington earlier Friday, the White House said Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi had lost the confidence of his people and announced the United States would move toward implementing unilateral sanctions against Libya.

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Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Friday the UN 'responsibility to protect' principle has 'lost its lustre.' ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

Earlier Friday in Ottawa, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Canada will "stand united with like-minded peaceful nations" in addressing the crisis in Libya, but backed away from a military commitment under the UN's "responsibility to protect" principle.

"Our government and the Canadian Forces stand ready to assist, of course," MacKay told the Conference of Defence Association's annual meeting in Ottawa Friday.

"The country and the region at large deserve peace and stability. Simply put, the outrageous and insidious abuse of government power in Libya must stop and we, Canada, stand united with like-minded peaceful nations in support of a legitimate aspirations of the people of Libya."

Before it's too late

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Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie

Retired Canadian Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, interviewed on CBC's Power & Politics with Evan Solomon talks about what the United Nations can and cannot do in Libya:

They didn’t do anything about Darfur. They didn’t do anything about Zimbabwe. There are all kinds of problems that have risen … under the protocol of the right to protect for the international community, led by the UN, authorized by the UN, to intervene. It hasn’t happened. It’s not going to happen this time around. Because all it takes (on the Security Council) is one veto of the five. Of the five permanent members, one guy [says] no, or nyet, and the whole thing falls flat .…

But once again, there are other alternatives. There are abilities to intervene, as they did contrary to my opinion, anyway, in Kosovo, for example. There was not a UN resolution for that. And a coalition of the willing was put together, and they intervened .…

Imagination a lead … presumably a nation in relatively close proximity, so they can organize it. France falls into that category. They can use air bases inside Italy, for example. And other countries would then join in. I would hope that Canada would, too, but we’ll be there behind everybody else, because we’ve got the Atlantic Ocean in between. It’s a logistic challenge, not impossible. We’ve done it before into the Gulf region. But there’s going to be a lot of talking about this over the next week, and then it’s too late.

But when asked about "responsibility to protect," a UN principle that allows action if the Security Council decides a country isn't doing enough to protect its population, MacKay said the UN must be careful not to raise expectations.

"As we've seen in places like Darfur, [the resolution has] lost its lustre," MacKay told reporters in Ottawa, pointing to the Sudanese conflict that's seen hundreds of thousands die of violence or starvation because of the war.

Don't 'over-extend'

"We've also come to understand the enormity of the undertaking of a mission as complex as Afghanistan. The investment of blood and treasure to achieve the results that are still tenuous. So I think the corollary to the 'responsibility to protect' is not to overextend. And not to raise expectations that can't be met.

"I'd frankly like to see the United Nations become a little more adept in their assessments and a little bit more active, quite frankly, in their support of some of the ongoing missions that we have in the world today," MacKay said.

Former prime minister Paul Martin said on Power & Politics with Evan Solomon earlier this week that the point of the responsibility to protect was to let the UN act quickly.

"The 'responsibility to protect' is a United Nations resolution. And it really means the United Nations and the countries that make up the United Nations are the ones that should take this kind of action," Martin told Solomon on Wednesday.

"This is going to have to go before the Security Council. I must say, I really do regret more than ever now the fact that Canada is not part of the Security Council," Martin added, referring to Canada's withdrawal from the selection process late last year when it failed to gain enough support for a seat.

The UN Security Council is meeting in New York to consider actions against Gadhafi's regime.

U.S. steps up pressure

Obama spokesman Jay Carney stopped short of calling for Gadhafi to step down at a press briefing at the White House Friday. But he said it's clear that Gadhafi's legitimacy has been "reduced to zero."

The strong words were a shift for the White House, which has thus far refrained from naming Gadhafi personally. The ramped up rhetoric came as the last U.S. citizens in Libya were evacuated Friday.

The U.S. also announced Friday that it was suspending embassy operations in Tripoli and moving forward on plans to implement sanctions against Libya. 

UN Human Rights Council

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon will attend meetings on Libya at the 16th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sunday and Monday. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will address the session and will hold consultations on Libya and recent events in the Middle East.

Canada is an observer to the council after serving a two-year term that ended last year.

Navy Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said Friday she was alarmed by recent developments in Libya.

"The crackdown in Libya of peaceful demonstrations is escalating alarmingly with reported mass killings, arbitrary arrests, detention and torture of protesters," Pillay told the UN'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."

There is no word on exactly how many people have been killed and injured in the protests, which began Feb. 18.

Pillay implored the UN 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 Gadhafi's regime, order a UN-led investigation into possible crimes against humanity and propose suspending Libya from the council.

In Brussels, NATO plans 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.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also said he would meet with EU defence ministers to discuss how to help those in need and limit the consequences of what's happening in Libya.

"I will not go into specifics at this time, but clearly priority must be given to evacuation and possibly, also, humanitarian assistance," Rasmussen said in Budapest Friday.

"It's a bit premature to go into specifics, but it’s well known that NATO has assets that can be used in a situation like this and NATO can act as an enabler and co-ordinator, if and when, individual member states want to take action."

With files from The Associated Press