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Darfur: Whose Responsibility to Protect?
by Michael Clough*

In early 2004, mounting evidence of massive human rights abuses in the Darfur region of Sudan tested anew the international community’s will and capacity to halt ethnic cleansing and protect civilians. The United Nations and member states responded with a flurry of missions, humanitarian assistance, calls for negotiations, demands for action by the government of Sudan, veiled threats of sanctions, support for African Union (A.U.) peacekeepers, and a commission of inquiry. By year’s end, however, the pallid steps taken by the U.N. Security Council at a special session on Sudan held in Nairobi, Kenya, had called into question the commitment of Security Council members to follow through on their earlier resolutions—and no end to the catastrophic suffering of the people of Darfur was in sight.

The final act in the tragedy of Darfur is yet to be written. But enough of the story has already unfolded to conclude that the world’s political leaders have failed to deliver on the promises made in the wake of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 that they would “never again” dither in the face of a possible genocide.

In the decade after Hutu genocidaires slaughtered eight hundred thousand in Rwanda, the United Nations, governments, think tanks, and other groups around the world undertook a host of initiatives such as the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty to identify ways to prevent armed conflict, strengthen U.N. peacekeeping, and protect civilians, especially children. The result has been a plethora of new principles, U.N. resolutions, recommendations, proposals, commitments, and the development of the “human security agenda.” In December 2004, the U.N. Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (High Level Panel on Threats) acknowledged the failure of the U.N. to prevent atrocities against civilians and recommended reforms to enhance the U.N.’s capacity to carry out its collective security mandate. The High Level Panel also strongly endorsed the emerging norm that there is an international responsibility to protect civilians in situations where governments are powerless or unwilling to do so. So far, however, these initiatives have afforded no protection to the people of Darfur.

Between early 2003 and late 2004, the Sudanese government and government-backed Arab militias destroyed hundreds of African villages, killed and raped thousands of their inhabitants, and displaced more than a million and a half others. By December 2004, more than 70,000 people had died directly or indirectly as a result of the government’s military campaign, hundreds of thousands more were at risk of death from starvation and disease, and security conditions throughout the countryside were still deteriorating.

To understand and learn from the still unfolding tragedy of Darfur, the international community must go beyond “never again” rhetoric and ask hard questions about why the U.N. has been unable to translate its post-Rwanda commitments into effective practice. International policymakers must confront the assumptions and interests that hobble the Security Council’s ability to respond quickly and decisively to human rights crises in Africa and elsewhere. The United Nations must find ways to deter potential human rights abusers and act on early warning signs to protect civilians before the death toll begins to mount. Security Council members must address the yawning gap that exists between the peacekeeping challenge that they are asking the African Union to assume in Darfur and the capacity of that nascent organization to meet that challenge.

[*] Michael Clough is currently serving as Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. Africa Division colleagues Georgette Gagnon, Leslie Lefkow, and Jemera Rone contributed to the preparation of this essay, as did Iain Levine, program director at Human Rights Watch.

index  |  next>>January 2005