Darfur is shorthand for the latest example of a recurring international problem, one that gained headlines a decade ago in Rwanda. What should the world do when a large number of people are the victims of violence originating within their own country?
Darfur itself is a region of western Sudan comprised of Arab and African Muslims. Conflict erupted early last year when rebels of the Sudan Liberation Movement attacked government troops in an effort to gain greater autonomy and resources for their region. Sudan government aircraft and government-supported troops retaliated against not only armed rebels but also against civilians deemed to be supporting them. Villages have been emptied, women raped and non -Arab men killed.
The origins of the current crisis may be in some dispute, but the costs are not. More than 50,000 men, women and children have lost their lives; more than 1.5 million have been made homeless. This is arguably genocide, a word used by the US government but by few others to describe what is going on in Darfur.
Meanwhile, world leaders are debating what, if anything, should be done. UN Security Council Resolution 1564, passed on September 18, reserves the bulk of its criticism for the government of Sudan. But the UN is not yet prepared to go beyond words. Why the hesitation?
More than anything else, it stems from an international reluctance to challenge any government over what it is doing within its own territory. This reflects a widely held view of sovereignty, one that allows governments to do essentially what they want within their own borders.
We need to embrace a contractual approach to sovereignty, one that recognises the obligations and responsibilities as well as the rights of those who enjoy it. Such an approach would essentially communicate to governments and their leaders that the rights and protections they associate with statehood are, in fact, conditional, and that governments and leaders would forfeit some or - in extreme cases - all of these rights and protections if they failed to meet their obligations.
This idea will only have an impact if the international community is prepared to go beyond voicing this principle and accept the necessary consequence: that the world at large has a right and a duty to act to protect innocent life when it is jeopardised on a large scale. There is a need for massive assistance to the displaced people of Darfur. Those who have survived conflict require help if they are not to succumb to disease and starvation. There is also every reason to renew diplomatic efforts to bring about a lasting ceasefire and, following that, a settlement that addresses the grievances that helped bring about this crisis in the first place.
It is important that the world act, not simply to save the people of Darfur, but to prevent future Darfurs. A great deal of innocent human life depends on it.
Richard Haass, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department, is president of The Council on Foreign Relations.