Hope in Darfur

On July 31, the UN Security Council (UNSC) passed resolution 1769 authorizing the creation of a 20,000-strong peacekeeping force to be deployed to the Darfur region of Sudan. This resolution has been hailed as a historic landmark on the way to fulfilling the “responsibility to protect” established in humanitarian law. Supporters of the resolution believe that this peacekeeping force will end the ongoing genocide, which has left 7,000 civilians dead each month.

This is not the first time the UNSC has authorized action in Sudan. One year ago, the UNSC passed a very similar resolution that authorized the deployment of 17,300 troops, none of whom actually made it to the “killing fields” of Darfur.

These UNSC resolutions are not like a government issuing an order to a national military to deploy forces. Instead, they are simply authorizations. UN peacekeeping resolutions grant permission to relevant or interested nations to construct a force up to the size authorized – meaning that the actual size could be much smaller than what was announced.

Unfortunately, there are various ways to manipulate this process of calling up peacekeepers. Sudan effectively watered down previous efforts by insisting that only African troops be deployed. If this happens again, the force deployed will be much smaller than the maximum amount authorized. The British and French governments will have to prevent Sudan from playing such games. On this issue, diplomatic rigidity, coupled with the threat of harsher measures, is the only option.

Political Will

Unlike previous UNSC actions against genocide, this time there might just be sufficient political will to stop the state-sponsored slaughter of innocents — if British Prime Minister Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy follow through on their strong words. By pushing through this resolution, both dignitaries have now achieved a significant foreign policy success, as well as distinguished themselves from their predecessors.

Whether they have the political will to maintain diplomatic pressure on Sudan and China in the long run remains to be seen. Nevertheless, their collective rhetoric as well as their desire to forge a new foreign policy, particularly for Brown, gives credence to the belief that this time, at least, the West will not back down in the face of the unrepentant destruction of an ethnic minority.

This resolution also reveals a vexing complexity in international humanitarian law and response. The UN was originally organized to preserve peace and international security, not protect innocents from genocide. Enshrined in the covenant was the principle of sovereignty – by which a state has the supreme authority to manage affairs within its boundaries. This remains one of the more highly respected principles of international law. The United States uses this principle of sovereignty to justify staying outside the International Criminal Court. Sovereignty is also often a shield that genocidal regimes hide behind to continue practices of extermination and ethnic cleansing.

Increasingly, sovereignty directly conflicts with the growing body of international law referred to as the “responsibility to protect.” Over the last 15 years, the events of Bosnia and Rwanda, among other factors, have challenged the ironclad principle of sovereignty. In Rwanda, in particular, the norm of non-intervention suggested that nations should stand by and watch as Hutus killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis with the most primitive weapons when a few thousand foreign troops tasked with ending the genocide could have saved uncountable lives with very little risk.

That situation is being replicated in Darfur, in particular with the failure to establish and enforce a no-fly zone. There’s no reason to fear the Sudanese air force, unless you are an unarmed innocent on the ground. A small contingent of British or French planes could easily enforce a no-fly zone with zero casualties if there was the will to do so. The United States maintained a no-fly zone over approximately two-thirds of Iraq for over a decade, a much riskier situation, with minimal difficulty. Depriving the Sudanese of air power over Darfur would represent a significant step toward providing security to the region’s inhabitants. But it would also infringe on Sudan’s sovereignty.

Yet Resolution 1769 reflects current political realities by explicitly stating its respect for Sudan’s sovereignty. This is a bit like telling the Nazis that they have a right to do whatever they want within their territory but they really need to stop gassing Jews. “The fallacy at the heart of our failure in Darfur until now has been the idea that you can stop genocide and ethnic cleansing with the consent of those responsible,” David Clark writes in The Guardian. “It’s almost as if Bosnia never happened.” Subverting the inviolable concept of sovereignty in favor of the “responsibility to protect” will be a long-term process with many obstacles along the way. Until the newer concept becomes enshrined in international law and practice, responding to genocide will require working with some rather unsavory nations.

Chinese Approval

A frequent criticism of the Security Council is that the Permanent 5 (the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom) impede and obstruct humanitarian action when it doesn’t suit their own interests. Followers of the Darfur crisis have repeatedly blamed China for the inaction of the Security Council. China is a major trading partner with Sudan, purchasing approximately two-thirds of its oil exports annually. In its position on the Security Council, China has threatened to veto any resolution that includes sanctions or other harsh penalties in order to protect its trade interests with Sudan.

Therefore, it is important news that China allowed this resolution to go forward. If China had continued to block UN action on Sudan, the coming 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing would have served as a lightning rod for protest and criticism. China is obsessed with its image. The Olympics as a source of pride for the nation, and China didn’t want the blight of Darfur to detract from the event.

In the end, however, China only agreed to a resolution that does not guarantee strong peacekeeping and does not represent a direct threat to the Sudanese government. The resolution doesn’t contain a threat of sanctions, so it does not jeopardize Chinese oil interests. Had the resolution been harsher, China would have likely threatened to veto. As it stands, the resolution respects Sudan’s sovereignty and is essentially toothless. There was literally no downside to Chinese support.

Still, China’s consent proves that the rest of the Security Council can work with the recalcitrant power. By involving China in this process, the rest of the UNSC can eventually ratchet up the pressure in a way such that Beijing will have no choice but to assent to stronger measures in the future (no-fly zone enforcement, arms confiscation, and/or sanctions). In the end, China’s global interests are greater than its interests in Sudan. Continued political pressure and forceful diplomacy can make them partners, however unwilling, to ending genocide.

The U.S. Role

Throughout this process, the United States has played a reserve role. Darfur isn’t currently on the Bush agenda, and, beyond election politics, there’s no reason to believe the president has taken much of a personal interest. However, the United States remains the most powerful member of the Security Council and can play a significant role in ensuring that the UN response is robust and effective.

In terms of specific responses, the United States should immediately push the Security Council to establish a no-fly zone over Darfur. As early as 2005, Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) called for a NATO enforced no-fly zone over Darfur with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and ex-senator Bob Dole adding their voices in 2006. The United Kingdom has also supported this idea. Since France has air force assets based in Chad, it would be logistically feasible to institute the no-fly zone immediately.

Failing UNSC approval, the United States could work outside the formal UN process. Given that there is significant support for the measure in Europe and a dire need on the ground, Sudanese and Chinese protests could easily be put aside. Implementing Biden’s plan to use a NATO force would be a reasonable solution to a deadlocked Security Council.

Beyond the no-fly zone, however, the United States should push to define the rules of engagement for the peacekeepers to include the direct protection of innocents with the use of lethal force. As it stands, Resolution 1769 points to a June 5 report to the UN secretary general that describes the mandate as protecting civilian populations from attacks and even the imminent threat of physical violence. With a strong U.S. push, this mandate can become even more explicit to include a statement specifically authorizing the use of force as a means to protect, providing the political cover necessary for the peacekeepers to operate without concern for prosecutions.

Additionally, the United States should use all diplomatic measures available to ensure that the Sudanese government permits peacekeepers to enter Darfur. This will not be an easy task. But by joining with the British and French around the threat of sanctions and other forms of punishment, Bush can send a signal to Khartoum that the United States is serious about backing up the Security Council and ending the conflict. This diplomatic bargaining could hold the no-fly zone in reserve as well. If peacekeepers are permitted to enter Darfur, the no-fly zone may not be necessary. Leveraging the threat of a no-fly zone could be the measure that garners full support for the peacekeeping effort in Khartoum. This strategy is likely to be more palatable to Chinese interests and could minimize obstructionism.

Finally, the United States should agree to provide financial, logistic, and diplomatic support to the peacekeeping initiative. With U.S. military forces tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, the provision of troops will not likely appear on the agenda. Moreover, direct U.S. military involvement should be avoided to mute the Sudanese claim that the United States is interested in turning Sudan into the next Iraq. However, by providing diplomatic arm-twisting to ensure that the peacekeeping force is fully staffed, funded, and authorized to defend the inhabitants of Darfur, the United States can play a vital role in ensuring that this genocide comes to a quick conclusion.

Toward a Global Monitoring System

Challenging the international political structure to respond more forcefully, effectively, and quickly to crises of genocide and ethnic cleansing is a long-term process with no easy solution. Unfortunately, many more people will die before the UN has an effective, rapid response to genocide.

The problem of response is compounded by a dearth of information about when and where genocides occur. Nations are generally a bit smarter than Nazi Germany: they don’t keep records or publicize genocidal actions. Therefore, detecting initiation and culpability, as well as prosecuting genocide after the fact, has become a more difficult challenge. As long as political leaders can hide behind the twin shields of sovereignty and plausible deniability, response to genocide will be slow to non-existent.

Ultimately, the world needs a more rigorous monitoring system to reduce response time and build political will for action. The World Health Organization has a global disease monitoring program that is more or less uncontroversial since public health risks threaten everyone. A similar system should be developed to address problems of emergent genocide. The more information there is about ongoing genocide, the easier it will be to generate an adequate response. For the world community to shoulder its new responsibility to protect, it needs new tools and capabilities.

In the end, however, no amount of information will compensate for a lack of political will. UN Resolution 1769 is a small but important step in that direction.

Stephen Heidt lives in Bogot