Kofi Annan reminded world leaders on Tuesday of the pledge they made last year to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The question now is whether this pledge was humanitarian hypocrisy, or did they have something serious in mind?
For most of its history, the UN General Assembly has been the place where states are represented as formal equals, and where criticism of a government’s human-rights practices could be deflected with a wink and a reference to the Charter’s Article 2, which bars interference in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.
Last year, however, the United Nations traced its roots to another of its founding documents, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is to the UN Charter what the Bill of Rights is to the U.S. Constitution. At the General Assembly last year, the members of the United Nations universally endorsed a principle called the responsibility to protect.
If seriously pursued, this could be one of the most important steps the United Nations has taken in its history, placing the most basic human right—what Thomas Jefferson called the “right to life”—at the center of the international system, ahead of the right of states to do as they please. The responsibility to protect says to governments such as the regime in Khartoum: Don’t do genocide. Don’t be complicit in genocide. Fulfill your responsibility as a sovereign state to protect those who live inside your borders.
To the rest of the world it says that if a government can’t or won’t live up to its obligations, then a secondary responsibility to act falls to others.
In most cases this means a combination of sticks and carrots—diplomatic pressure and recognition, economic support and security assistance. Early diplomacy, working with rather than against a government, is always better. But force cannot be ruled out, as the UN agreed last year, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations.
That does not mean imposing democracy at the point of the gun, as detractors contend. But it also cannot mean reserving force as a last resort when there is a genuine emergency.
No country can claim to have lived up to its responsibility in response to the slow-motion ethnic cleansing in Darfur. The Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conferences have been silent or supportive of the Khartoum government in the face of Muslim on Muslim violence. China, Sudan’s largest importer of oil, has assumed the role of Khartoum’s guardian angel, blocking effective Security Council action.
Relatively speaking, Washington has acted admirably, but it’s involvement has been episodic. The administration blocked a briefing on Darfur to the Security Council last October by the secretary general’s top adviser on genocide prevention, who had just returned from a mission to the region. And the U.S. representative did not join top UN diplomats from Britain, France and China on a trip to Sudan in June.
What is needed now is for the United States to lead a genuine campaign to get Sudan to accept the enlarged peacekeeping force the Security Council authorized earlier in the month. The African Union should now consider how to encourage and pressure Sudan to change course.
Washington should also lean on Beijing to use its clout with Khartoum. In the meantime, the U.S. European Command should dust off plans to provide material and logistical support to an augmented peacekeeping force. The United Nations, with the support of the Security Council, should line up capable reinforcements now, beginning with redeployment to Darfur of some of the 9,000 troops already in Sudan monitoring the North–South agreement.
More broadly, the next UN secretary general should take the General Assembly’s endorsement of the responsibility to protect as a mandate and mission statement for the institution. Universal adoption of the responsibility to protect has begun to remove the classic excuses for doing nothing in the face of mass atrocities. What is needed now is real capacity to back it up.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.