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Preventing Future Darfurs

Over the past two decades, countless reports and studies have declared the need to develop more effective early warning and conflict prevention mechanisms. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, for example, recently declared that “prevention is the single most important dimension of the duty to protect.” Yet, while the last decade has seen many initiatives in this area, the atrocities in Darfur provide stark evidence that the international community has not yet found a way to translate theories of preventive action into effective practices.

Justice is the most powerful deterrent to future injustice.  Justice requires holding the perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable and ensuring that the effects of their injustice are reversed. 

In the case of Darfur, the Sudanese government’s brutal counterinsurgency tactics—including promoting ethnic militias, scorched earth warfare, aerial bombardment, massive forced displacement, and the blocking of humanitarian aid to the victims—are the same tactics it used to combat rebels in other parts of the country. If the international community had held Sudanese government officials and the militia leaders it backed in its other counterinsurgency wars accountable for the abuses they committed in those earlier campaigns, Khartoum might have been deterred from unleashing the Janjaweed in Darfur. But the gross abuses in southern Sudan’s twenty-one year war never made it onto the Security Council agenda. These abuses are almost entirely ignored in the draft North-South peace accords. Similarly, if the international community had taken steps to ensure that previous exercises in ethnic cleansing were reversed, Khartoum would have had less reason to believe that it would succeed in using force to effect lasting changes in the map of Darfur.

It is for these reasons that the results of the U.N. commission of inquiry’s investigations will be very important. By documenting the crimes that have been committed, identifying perpetrators, and recommending the best means to ensure that the perpetrators are prosecuted, the commission of inquiry can help not just to bring justice to Darfur, but also to deter future Darfurs. But it will be equally important for the international community to ensure that the victims’ of Khartoum’s ethnic cleansing strategy are returned to their lands and provided help to re-establish their lives. Their villages must be restored. Their cattle and property must be returned or replaced. And they must be compensated for their loss of family members. 

Early action to protect civilian populations against emerging threats is an equally important international imperative. As the Commission on International Intervention and State Sovereignty noted, preventing conflicts from escalating and endangering civilian populations requires three things: early warning, a preventive action toolbox, and political will. In the case of Darfur, all three were lacking, but especially the last two.

There were early warning signs in Darfur. But mere warnings, even if combined with reports of scattered attacks on civilian populations, are rarely enough to prompt the international community to act. The problem is two-fold. Global policymakers are reluctant to intervene in “internal matters” unless and until localized conflicts escalate beyond some indeterminable magic threshold that makes them obviously legitimate matters of international concern; and the global public seldom begins to demand action until it is presented with graphic evidence of large-scale suffering. Therefore, even if the ravaging of a few villages by government forces and ethnic militias is recognized as an early warning sign, it is almost never sufficient to set in motion early preventive actions.

The real key to preventing future Darfurs, as noted above, is legitimizing the idea of early action to protect civilian populations, and then creating the tools necessary to provide protection. That will require efforts by both the international institutions and national governments. Paradoxically, inviting and facilitating early small-scale civilian protection efforts is the best option a government has to avoid the possibility of later, much more threatening, calls for international sanctions and intervention. If, for example, instead of attacking African villages in Darfur, the government of Sudan had quickly engaged the international community in efforts to protect villagers from the effects of fighting between the government and rebels, it would have almost certainly gained substantial international credibility. This would have obviated the need for international recriminations and threats against the government—and, at the same time, it would have almost certainly enhanced Khartoum’s bargaining position in negotiations with the Darfur rebels.

The continuing failure of national governments facing the prospect of deadly domestic conflicts to accept the need for early action to protect civilian populations presents the international community with a difficult choice. When conflicts begin to unfold, it can continue, as in Darfur, to wait for civilian suffering to become so widespread and evident that global outrage makes international action unavoidable. Alternatively, it can embrace the idea of an international responsibility to protect—and begin to develop the means necessary to act on that responsibility before its only options are after-the-fact sanctions and military intervention.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2005