Sudan and the "Responsibility to Protect"

The U.N.'s Darfur Moment

A year ago this month the assembled heads of state at a United Nations summit adopted the novel concept of a collective "Responsibility to Protect" the world's citizens – even against their own government. It's time to apply it to Darfur, Mark L. Schneider argues

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan talks with African Union President Alpha Oumar Konare (photo: AP)
The African Union is already contributing a significant amount of troops to the peacekeeping mission in Darfur - According to Mark Schneider, however, a more decisive engagement of the international community is necessary in order to end the bloodshed

​​After Rwanda, Kosovo and a host of other atrocities, and with the mass killings of Darfur staring them in the face, the leaders agreed at the U.N. Millennium Plus 5 Summit that state sovereignty could not be used to justify atrocities – or to bar collective international action to protect those citizens.

"Responsibility to Protect" provides that diplomatic and other peaceful tools are tried first to bring the violations to an end, but where "national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity," the U.N. Security Council could put a Chapter VII military force on the table.

The protective cover of sovereignty

With the combination of that action and the adoption of the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court to hold individual leaders responsible, it was hoped that mass killings, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity would become relics of a violent past.

Sadly, when it comes to Darfur, we can only cringe when we ask whether the killings and the atrocities and mass rapes have come to an end. They have not. The international community, while slowly passing individual resolutions – 13 of them at last count – and seemingly agreeing on the need for a robust U.N. peacekeeping force mandated to protect civilians, has failed in its responsibility.

To some degree, the "Responsibility to Protect" concept was a natural evolution of the international concern for human rights that was present at the U.N.'s founding and manifested in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Treaty, and later in the international human rights covenants adopted in the mid-1960s. But those documents remained without effective enforcement measures when states threw up the protective cover of sovereignty.

Bolstering international human rights enforcement

During the Cold War, the ideological battle between the Soviet Union and the West stymied attempts to take action, including in the case of Saddam Hussein's atrocities against the Kurds. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it became possible to consider bolstering international human rights enforcement. After Rwanda and the Balkans, it was not only possible but clearly necessary.

The language of the Summit Document and the statements of its authors also make quite plain that the "Responsibility to Protect" is not an after-the-fact concept but one designed to prevent those atrocities before they reach the point where military force is required.

Accompanying the "Responsibility to Protect" was an emphasis on peace-building and reconciliation to hopefully prevent recurrence of state-sponsored violent conflict. There also was a start to creating mechanisms within the U.N. to develop the information and analysis to permit early interventions.

But the core of "Responsibility to Protect" remains the collective responsibility to act, using all of the tools of intervention – first and foremost diplomatic, humanitarian and economic (both positive in aid and negative in sanctions), but ultimately, if need be, collective force authorized through the Security Council.

Peacekeeping "boots on the ground"

The Bush administration has argued that it has provided the lion's share of humanitarian aid in Darfur, and it has, and that it has urged stronger resolutions, and it has.

But until a full set of sanctions are pressed against the leaders of Sudan, until the United States cooperates fully with the ICC to bring indictments against all of them, and until the U.S., France, the United Kingdom and other European countries make clear that no other interest trumps ending the atrocities – perhaps by expressing a willingness to commit significant numbers of their own military to form part of that U.N. peacekeeping force – the killing in Darfur will go on.

China and Russia will go along but only when the die is cast. And the government of Sudan will agree only when there is no other option.

What is clear, however, is that the international community cannot ignore what is occurring there based on the sovereign authority of the government of Sudan, particularly its dangerous decision to send its army troops and planes into Darfur in violation of the Darfur Peace Agreement and Security Council resolutions.

The "Responsibility to Protect" is today part of an agreed international body of norms. In fact, the latest Darfur resolution adopted on Aug. 31 by the Security Council specifically refers to that justification for U.N. action.

It would be a fitting and overdue anniversary celebration of the adoption of the "Responsibility to Protect" if members of the Security Council are able to put it into practice with peacekeeping "boots on the ground" in time to save the lives of those still at risk in the displaced persons camps of Darfur – and to prevent that conflict, which already has crossed the border in Chad, from widening further.

Mark L. Schneider

© International Crisis Group 2006

Mark L. Schneider is the senior vice president of the International Crisis Group and former director of the Peace Corps.

This article was previously published by Tompaine.com.

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