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The United Nations and Darfur

For more than a year, from early 2003 until mid-2004, while the conflict in Darfur was escalating, the U.N. Security Council’s priority in Sudan was negotiations in Naivasha, Kenya to end the north-south civil war. Initially, false optimism that those negotiations would lead to a quick settlement that would change the overall political situation in Sudan may have caused some member states to discount the warning signs of a growing crisis in Darfur. Later, as it became increasingly impossible to ignore the evidence of serious violence and human rights abuse, the Security Council may have tried to keep Darfur off of its agenda out of fear that a discussion of Darfur would cause the government in Khartoum to pull out of the Naivasha talks. As a result, even in June 2004, when the Security Council passed Resolution 1547, which established a U.N. mission in Sudan to prepare to monitor implementation of a final agreement between the government of Sudan and the SPLM/A, Darfur was barely mentioned.  

Before late July 2004, the Security Council’s only action on Darfur was a May 25, 2004 statement by the Council president calling on the government of Sudan to disarm the Janjaweed militias. This statement came after the council was briefed on the findings of two U.N. missions of massive human rights violations and grave humanitarian need, and after months of insisting that Darfur was not “on its agenda.” Two months later, after repeated appeals by a growing number of humanitarian and human rights groups, and visits to Darfur by Secretary-General Annan and many foreign ministers from Europe and the United States, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1556, which demanded that the Sudanese government disarm the Janjaweed and bring to justice those leaders who had incited and carried out human rights abuses. The Security Council threatened to consider further sanctions if the government failed to comply. It also endorsed the deployment of an African Union force to monitor the April 2004 ceasefire agreement between the government and the rebels, which was already underway; and imposed a ban on the sale of arms to all “non-governmental entities and individuals” in Darfur—in other words the rebels and the Janjaweed militias, but not the government that organizes, finances, directs, and supplies the Janjaweed. Resolution 1556 was approved by a 13-0 vote, with China and Pakistan abstaining.

For the Security Council, Resolution 1556, despite its obvious weaknesses, was a significant step forward. In the eyes of most observers, however, it was yet another example of the council’s abrogation of its responsibilities. By the time the resolution was passed, the gravity of the human rights abuses then still occurring in Darfur was already widely acknowledged. In late June, for example, Secretary-General Annan told reporters, “We all agree that serious crimes are being committed.”Moreover, there were also already numerous, well documented reports of direct Sudanese government involvement in the perpetration of massive human rights violations in Darfur, including eyewitness accounts of joint ground attacks on civilians by government troops and the Janjaweed, and official documents containing orders for additional recruitment and military supply of ethnic militia groups. By July 2004, stronger measures directed at the government were justified and necessary, but they weren’t adopted because at least one permanent member—China—and possibly another—Russia—presumably would have vetoed any resolution that included sanctions against the government or authorized direct U.N. intervention.

On September 18, 2004, after nearly two more months in which security and humanitarian conditions worsened and the government failed to protect civilians or fulfill its commitment to disarm the Janjaweed and prosecute perpetrators, the Security Council passed Resolution 1564. Declaring its “grave concern” that the government of Sudan had not fully met its obligations, the Security Council reiterated its call for the government “to end the climate of impunity in Darfur” by identifying and bringing to justice those responsible for the widespread human rights abuses. In addition, it called for an expansion of the African Union monitoring mission in Darfur and established a commission of inquiry to investigate reports of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law and to determine also whether or not acts of genocide had occurred. Finally, it threatened, if the government failed to comply with this resolution and Resolution 1556, additional measures, “such as actions to affect Sudan’s petroleum sector and the Government of Sudan or individual members of the Government of Sudan.” Resolution 1564 passed by an 11-0 vote, with Algeria, China, Pakistan, and Russia abstaining. Thus, five months after receiving substantial evidence of government commission of massive human rights abuses, Security Council action was still largely limited to entreaties, investigations, veiled threats, and support for an A.U. force.

On November 18-19, 2004 the United Nations Security Council held a special session on Sudan in Nairobi, Kenya. The main purpose of the session was to put pressure on the government of Sudan and the SPLA/M to finalize the Naivasha agreement. In the process of trying to promote a north-south settlement, the Security Council watered down its earlier commitment to end the suffering of civilians in Darfur. Resolution 1574, which passed unanimously, failed to include any specific criticism of the government of Sudan for failing to meet the demands to disarm and bring to justice the Janjaweed, which were in the Resolution 1556 and 1564, and it replaced the mild threats of sanctions in those resolutions with a vague warning that, in the future, it might consider taking “appropriate action against any party failing to fulfill its commitments.” In addition, it called on the U.N. and the World Bank to provide development aid, including debt relief to a government which, just months earlier, had been labeled genocidal by the United States and others.

Despite enormous developments in the institutions, standards, and policies that set out to protect civilians in conflict, the United Nations is still an association of sovereign states committed to traditional principles of international order and constrained by the ability of the five permanent members of the Security Council to veto collective action.  As the Security Council reaffirmed in all three of the resolutions on Darfur, the U.N. is committed to preserving the sovereignty, unity, independence, and territorial unity of its member states. In fact, for the majority of U.N. members, when there is a conflict, the principle of state sovereignty still trumps all other principles and norms. The continuing force of this traditional principle was affirmed by the recent report of the High Level Panel on Threats, which declared that the starting point for any “new security consensus” must be an understanding “that the front-line actors in dealing with all the threats we face, new and old, continue to be individual sovereign States, whose role and responsibilities, and right to be respected, are fully recognized in the Charter of the United Nations.”

The norm of non-intervention in the “internal affairs” of a sovereign state flows directly from the principle of state sovereignty—and few norms are more fiercely defended by most U.N. member states than this norm. Many governments, especially those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, understandably regard it as one of their few defenses against threats and pressures from wealthier and more powerful international actors seeking to promote their own economic and political interests. But the non-interference norm has also been used by barely legitimate governments to block international efforts to end gross abuses of their citizenry. That is what happened in the case of Darfur: Khartoum used sovereignty, first, as a veil to hide its brutal campaign against African villagers; and, later, as a shield to fend off calls for international action to protect its victims.

In addition, the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council gives those five countries—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China—a unique power to protect and promote their national interests at the expense of global interests. In the case of Darfur, the main impediment to stronger action by the Security Council has been China, which owns a 40 percent share of Sudan’s main oil producing field. At the council’s special November 2004 session in Nairobi, China, and possibly Russia, which is thought to be the main arms supplier to the Sudanese government, used the threat of a veto to pressure other members to water down Resolution 1574. But, as discussed below, even without the threat of a Chinese veto, it is doubtful that the council would have passed a resolution containing a serious threat of sanctions against Khartoum.

Thus even in the shadow of Rwanda, the Security Council in 2004 failed to muster the collective will necessary to act quickly and decisively to end the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur and hold accountable those who are responsible for creating it. This is not likely to change unless and until the United Nations accepts the principle, as recommended by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty and the High Level Panel on Threats, that all states have a “responsibility to protect” civilians faced with avoidable catastrophes, including mass murder and rape, ethnic cleansing by forcible expulsion and terror, and deliberate starvation and exposure to disease. Recognizing the responsibility to protect would provide the Security Council with the basis it needs to act in the face of a determined refusal by a sovereign state to protect its own citizens.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005