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 from within their own country?
Darfur itself is a region of Western Sudan comprised of Arab and African Muslims. Conflict erupted in early 2003 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 (known as jangaweed) retaliated against not only armed rebels but also against civilians deemed to be supporting them. Villages have been emptied, women raped, 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 U.S. 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 18 September 2004, reserves the bulk of its criticism for the government of Sudan. But the UN is not yet prepared to go beyond words. The resolution threatens that the Security Council will consider imposing sanctions against Sudanese leaders or against the country's important oil sector, but introduces no penalties at this time.
Why the hesitation? More than anything else it stems from 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.
Such thinking is inadequate and outmoded. To begin with, there is a moral element. There is something wrong in looking the other way when one's fellow human being is being slaughtered. We all have some basic obligation to one another.
There are as well pragmatic considerations. In a global world, what happens within one country can all too easily affect others. For example, refugees leaving Sudan can strain the stability of neighboring Chad.
Opposition to genocide and other large-scale acts of violence against a population also reflects the established principle that citizens as well as governments have rights. This principle is enshrined in various international documents, beginning with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Governments ought not to be allowed to massacre their own people. And weak governments should not be allowed to permit massacres to take place on their own territory even if they are not themselves carrying out the massacre.
What all this adds up to is a requirement for a concept of state sovereignty that is less than absolute. To be precise, we need to embrace a contractual approach to sovereignty, one that recognizes the obligations and responsibilities as well as the rights of those who enjoy it. Such an approach to sovereignty 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 other states and the world at large have a right and a duty to act to protect innocent life when it is jeopardized on a large scale.
Some movement in just this direction was suggested by widespread international support for the humanitarian interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and East Timor. Another sign of change is the basic document ("Constitutive Act") of the African Union, the regional organization launched in July 2000 to replace the ineffective Organization of African Unity. After citing the principle of non-interference by one member state in the internal affairs of another, the document goes on to declare "the right of the Union to intervene in a member state pursuant to a decision of the assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity." Intervention in such circumstances can take any number of forms, from public rhetoric and private diplomacy to economic and political sanctions to armed intervention.
All of which brings us back to Darfur. What needs doing? 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 cease-fire and, following that, a settlement that addresses the grievances that helped bring about this crisis in the first place.
Two other points require highlighting, though. First, and consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 1564, countries should provide the African Union with the logistical, material, and financial help it has asked for. With such support, AU-authorized troops could guard the refugee camps and, over time, protect villages so that men, women and children could return home in safety.
Second, the UN ought to make good on its threat and impose sanctions against the Sudanese government unless it stops using its aircraft to destroy villages and unless it stops supporting the jangaweed. Criminal indictments for war crimes ought to be issued against specific officials who do not comply.
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.