Failure to Protect: International Response to Darfur Genocide

By Reeves, Eric | Harvard International Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Failure to Protect: International Response to Darfur Genocide


Reeves, Eric, Harvard International Review


International failure in responding to genocide in Darfur should be occasion for the deepest shame. Inaction has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives and caused untold human suffering--but the catastrophe is far from over. The example of Darfur should prompt considerable reflection on whether the world community feels any "responsibility to protect" civilians endangered because of inaction, or indeed deliberate actions, on the part of their own governments and regimes. Have we reached the point in confronting atrocity crimes at which we put civilian lives ahead of expedient claims of national sovereignty? An answer in the abstract was provided by all UN member states in September 2005. At that time, countries declared themselves "prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council" when national authorities fail to "protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity."

We know--from a staggering number of human rights reports and assessments, and myriad accounts from journalists and humanitarians in the region--the relevance of this clause to events in Darfur. For almost five years, Khartoum has committed all the crimes enumerated here in an attempt to destroy the perceived non-Arab or African civilian base of support for Darfur's rebel groups. Current humanitarian conditions reveal that a grim genocide by attrition is the regime's means of sustaining this strategy, which includes continuing harassment and obstruction of aid efforts.

As this brutal counter-insurgency effort is set to enter its sixth year, hope for protection resides entirely in the success of an unwieldy, unprecedented, and inauspiciously begun UN-African Union "hybrid" peace support operation, authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1769 in July 2007. In October 2007, the force had begun deploying without adequate resources, or even land for housing its personnel, and was burdened by a crippling dependence upon African Union personnel--this at the insistence of the Khartoum regime, which is determined to control the mission as much as possible. Consequently, there is likely to be little significant near-term improvement in the acute security crisis that threatens millions of Darfuri civilians and the vast humanitarian operations on which they depend.

At the same time, the National Islamic Front (NIF), which dominates the merely notional "Government of National Unity" in Sudan, appears bent on precipitating renewed north-south conflict. The NIF has no only reneged on key terms of the January 2005 peace agreement that ended more than 20 years of unfathomably destructive north-south civil war, but has engaged in a series of provocative actions directed against both the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its military forces. In October the SPLM responded by suspending its participation in the national government. The prospects for renewed war are greater than at any time since January 2005, and the consequences of such a war would be catastrophic. Whatever Darfur cease-fire might be in place, or whatever peace process may be inching forward, would readily collapse under the weight of nation-wide civil war.

Darfur's staggering figures make the questioner international response all the more exigent: hundreds of thousands already dead; 2.5 million displaced, most losing anything; and 4.2 million human beings dependent on the world's largest and most endangered humanitarian operation.

Answers are at once numerous and complex--and bluntly obvious. There has simply never been any stomach to confront, in effective and concerted fashion, the ruthless tyranny of the NIF. The regime came to power by military coup in 1989, deposing the elected government of Sadiq el-Mahdi and deliberately aborting Sudan's most promising chance for peace since independence. Yet there have never been coordinated economic sanctions targeting the NIF leadership. …

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