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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 communitys
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 years 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 resolutionsand 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 worlds 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
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-Generals
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
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 governments 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 Councils 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
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.