Darfur and the Responsibility to Protect
Darfur and the Responsibility to Protect
Sudan: A Year of War (with Comfort Ero)
Sudan: A Year of War (with Comfort Ero)
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

Darfur and the Responsibility to Protect

Once again, as in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo through the 1990s, the world is facing a man-made, conscience-shocking, humanitarian catastrophe, and having a great deal of difficulty finding the collective will to do anything to stop it.

This time it’s in Darfur, the area of western Sudan as big as France, where - as I write in early July - up to 30,000 have already been massacred outright, over one million internally displaced and left homeless, another 200,000 have fled across the border to neighbouring Chad, and 300,000, perhaps many more, face death by disease and starvation by the end of this year unless a massive, completely unrestricted international relief operation is immediately set in place.

With the aid of the Khartoum government, which has armed them and often supported their attacks with aerial bombardments, the Arab "Janjaweed" militias have conducted over the past eighteen months what one UN official has rightly called a "reign of terror" against the local populations of African descent. Massively overreacting to a local insurrection, the Janjaweed have burned hundreds of villages, destroyed food stocks, and deliberately contaminated water supplies. Hundreds of thousands of people have ended up in concentration camps, "guarded" by the very Janjaweed soldiers who attacked them and, in many cases, continue to harass and rape them in the camps.

The recent visits to Darfur by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, following an intense NGO campaign led by the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and relief groups like Medecins Sans Frontieres, were important and welcome steps in pushing Khartoum to end the violence and ensure the immediate delivery of urgently needed relief supplies.

The Government of Sudan now has to simply fulfil the explicit commitments it made during and just after those visits to cease all military attacks in Darfur, disarm and neutralise the Janjaweed, protect civilians, including those internally displaced, cooperate fully with all humanitarian relief organisations, provide them unrestricted and sustained access for the provision of humanitarian relief, and begin investigations into violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

But as we have learned over and over again, in twenty years of experience with the hugely destructive north-south conflict – now mercifully close to resolution –  relying on Khartoum's promises almost never proves enough. What is needed is a tough, sustained international pressure, with the full weight of the UN Security Council behind it.

The immediate need is for a resolution demanding that Khartoum meet its commitments and making clear the consequences if it does not. It is not just a matter of targeting Janjaweed leaders and relevant Sudanese government officials with personal sanctions and making clear the accountability of those who have authorised or carried out war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Should the Sudanese continue to ignore  or footdrag  its responsibilities, the Security Council must be prepared to take further action to help those in need, authorising a multinational intervention force, most likely a coalition of the willing with a strong African Union component, to protect those at risk and enable desperately urgent humanitarian assistance to be delivered.

Two specific forms of military intervention may become necessary in Sudan. If government bombing of civilians in Darfur continues, the Security Council should authorise a no-fly zone over the region, on the useful precedent of the cover given to the Kurdish areas of Iraq in the 1990s.  And if violence continues against those trapped in the IDP camps, and relief efforts to them continue to be obstructed, effectively protected secure areas must be created concentrations of the internally displaced, so that aid can be provided to them without hindrance.

But as I write even the first of these steps is proving a bridge too far for the Security Council, most of whose members are all too happy to ‘wait and see’, giving Khartoum utterly undeserved benefit of the doubt. The same old arguments that plagued us during the 1990s have surfaced again  – between those advocating military intervention in extreme cases of internal threat, and those (now reinforced by the misuse of humanitarian intervention arguments to justify the debacle in Iraq)  taking a more or less absolute view of the inviolability of sovereign states.   

So Darfur is becoming a real test case for the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ principles outlined in the 2001 report of that name by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which I co-chaired with the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Africa, Mohamed Sahnoun. The crucial argument there was that while the primary responsibility to protect its own people properly lies with the sovereign state, if that responsibility is abdicated, through ill-will or incapacity, then it shifts to the international community collectively – who should respond with force if large scale killing or ethnic cleansing is involved, and that is the only way to halt or avert the tragedy.

It is getting a little harder than it used to be for governments to avoid taking effective action when conscience-shocking situations explode. International NGOs like our own are putting them under more pressure. And the concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ is gaining a real conceptual toehold, much harder for the sovereignty-at-all-costs brigade to resist than ‘the right to intervene’. But the instinct, and capacity, to avoid doing the right thing is still depressingly alive and well. We have a long way to go.

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