Nearly three years ago, when all hell was breaking loose in western Sudan, a panel on United Nations reform was methodically developing a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention called “the responsibility to protect.” Some argued that adoption of the concept would pave the way for effective UN action to stop genocide. Others thought it might restore the moral prestige of a United Nations battered by scandal. Thus, many were joyful when the UN General Assembly approved the “responsibility to protect” principle in fall 2005.
There were reasons for skepticism: Just as UN investigators declared that a “reign of terror” had engulfed Darfur, the Commission on Human Rights re-elected Sudan as a member in good standing. While tens of thousands of Sudanese villagers were being raped and killed, would-be UN reformers were meeting in comfortable European hotels to tackle such topics as “Strengthening United Nations Capacity for Crisis Management.” Since the onset of violence, hundreds of thousands of civilians have died, and perhaps 2.5 million have been displaced from their homes. Judged by today’s still deepening crisis in Darfur, the hope placed in the “responsibility to protect” doctrine looks like a sentimental illusion.
The world’s inability to stop genocide in Darfur is certainly not the fault of the “responsibility to protect” principle. Indeed, by borrowing from the just war tradition, the new doctrine offers a compelling rationale for humanitarian intervention—an international norm that mixes political prudence with moral principle. The fault, rather, lies where the doctrine is now situated: at the United Nations.
Unfortunately, the UN is unsuitable as the primary institutional vehicle to prevent crimes against humanity. This has been true for decades, of course, a truth made clearer since the end of the Cold War. But we can no longer afford to abide such a condition. In a world in which major threats to international security can arise as readily from within countries as from conflicts between them, the distinction between “humanitarian” and “strategic” crises has become blurred. It follows that if the United Nations cannot provide an effective platform to confront this critical challenge, then a new platform must be devised.
The case has been made on this and broader grounds for an alliance or concert of democracies. In this magazine, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay propose such a Concert, whose functions would include a capacity to implement the “responsibility to protect.” That project faces significant obstacles. Yet those sympathetic to the idea should consider that its realization might depend on the effective endorsement of the “responsibility to protect” principle; that the best vehicle to achieve this goal is NATO, whose members will compose the core of any democratic concert; and that the unavoidable first test case, before us right now, is Darfur.
Reviewing a Travesty
Consider what has happened in Sudan’s western region of Darfur in recent years. Without rehearsing a very tangled and ambiguous history, it is true that Darfur rebels (mainly black Africans) initiated violence in February 2003 against Sudanese government troops (mostly Arabs) in the region. But their raids followed years of competition between Arab and African tribal groups over arable land and water and Arab encroachment on the grazing areas of the Zaghawa and Furr peoples.1 Rebels also took up arms so as not to be left out of the settlement of the North-South civil war in Sudan, an ultimately successful initiative of U.S. diplomacy.
The Islamist government in Khartoum reacted to rebel incursions in the spring and summer of 2003 with a vengeance. It recruited and set loose Arab militias, the janjaweed, on a campaign of murder, rape and plunder. Several rebel groups augmented their ranks in response, and by late 2003 non-Arab civilians had increasingly become the target of a government campaign to literally eliminate them. Entire villages in areas considered disloyal were burned to the ground. By March 2004, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan Mukesh Kapila warned of an intensifying campaign against civilians. “The only difference between Rwanda and Darfur now”, he said, “is the numbers involved.” In May, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Bertrand Ramcharan reported “massive human rights violations” against civilians committed by the Sudanese government and its proxy militias. A few months later U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell accused the Islamic regime in Khartoum of genocide.
Since then, however, the United Nations has done almost nothing to stop the bloodletting. The UN Security Council passed two toothless resolutions demanding that Khartoum disarm the janjaweed. No actions followed Sudan’s failure to comply. A third resolution declined even to criticize the government for ignoring the previous resolutions. Even as the Security Council debated the crisis, Russia sold Antonov supply planes to Sudan—the aircraft used to bomb villages in Darfur.
The Security Council eventually approved the deployment of African Union (AU) peacekeepers in September 2004, but with troops, support and rules of engagement far too restricted to make much difference. Proposals to impose targeted sanctions against the regime also went nowhere as the killing continued.
President Bush, to his credit, then tried to stir up effective international action. Last February, when the United States held the rotating chair of the Security Council, it was President Bush who suggested NATO stewardship for an expanded peacekeeping mission that would have more than doubled the number of troops on the ground. Mike Gerson, former White House adviser and a strong advocate of NATO engagement, said the idea got a cool reception from most Security Council members and the European Union. “They said it would alienate the regime. They viewed it as toxic”, Gerson explained. “No one was interested except the president of the United States.”
The Administration persisted on the diplomatic track, however, eventually achieving the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA). The DPA, signed in May 2006, offered a ray of hope by getting the Sudanese government to agree on paper to disarm the janjaweed, and the rebel forces to demobilize. Signed by the government and the largest rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement, the accord also called for safe zones around refugee camps and corridors for humanitarian aid workers. It’s important to remember that the DPA came about not because of UN diplomacy, but because of intense pressure from the United States. Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Darfur, put it this way: “Without the [Bush] Administration’s relentless pushing, the peace deal . . . would have been impossible.”2 That meant navigating around recalcitrant Security Council members—China, for example, with its oil interests in the region—and taking the lead on humanitarian aid. As President Bush said on May 8, 2006, after the accord was signed: “America will not turn away from this tragedy. We will call genocide by its rightful name, and we will stand up for the innocent until the peace of Darfur is secured.”
As promising as all of this sounded, the DPA failed to end the violence. Khartoum has shown no interest in reining in its marauding militias. The other rebel groups rejected the agreement, and some began fighting with each other after the fact. Indeed, the May accord has probably accelerated the break-up of the insurgency into smaller ethnic blocs.
Worse still, the DPA evaded the question of peacekeeping operations being taken over by the United Nations. At the time, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir promised to fire on any UN troops that might be deployed. “We, under all conditions, totally reject a transition from the African Union force to a UN force”, he warned. Observers agreed that he was using the peace agreement to divert international attention while he ratcheted up the violence. “No one is disarming”, a relief worker at a Christian aid organization in Darfur told me. “The violence has gone up dramatically since the peace deal.” Exiled Darfuris estimate that 90 percent of all African villages in the region have now been destroyed.
U.S.-led efforts to enforce the DPA created more pressure on the Sudanese government to allow a UN force into Darfur. But astonishingly, at an African Union summit this past July, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan bowed to demands from the Islamist regime in Khartoum and agreed that no international force would replace the ineffective African Union troops in Darfur. With that assurance in hand, the Sudanese government then prepared and launched a major new offensive against rebel groups in the northern region and in October expelled UN envoy Jan Pronk from its territory. UN officials have declared the DPA all but dead.
In the midst of the escalating violence, the Bush Administration pushed the Security Council to adopt resolution 1706 on August 31, 2006. That resolution called for expanding the existing UN Mission in southern Sudan to allow troops into Darfur. Citing Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the resolution authorizes “all necessary means” to protect civilians and UN personnel. The catch, of course, is that Khartoum must agree to any deployment of UN forces. Thanks to objections from France, China and Russia, the resolution merely “invites the consent” of the Sudanese government, consent that al-Bashir has vowed to withhold. The regime has ignored the resolution, raised charges of colonialism, and warned that UN troops could become the target of al-Qaeda attacks.
In September, President Bush used his speech before the UN General Assembly to criticize Sudan for its failure to curb the violence and accept UN peacekeepers. “If the Sudanese government does not approve this peacekeeping force quickly”, he warned, “the United Nations must act.” Al-Bashir responded with more threats. On November 16 various media reported a change in the Sudanese government’s opposition to UN troops on the ground in Darfur. But on inspection, the announcement turned out to be just another effort to obfuscate and delay diplomatic efforts in Darfur.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation has worsened significantly. Human rights groups reported a new wave of sexual violence against women and children, who remain trapped in some 200 refugee camps. Food shortages, water-borne diseases, a lack of safe drinking water and limited medical care are conspiring to threaten thousands of lives. The Sudanese government continues to block access for relief organizations to what is one of the most remote areas of Africa. In the deteriorating security environment, aid workers have been harassed and killed, and dozens of UN and NGO vehicles ambushed or hijacked. UN officials estimate that about 3.5 million people—half the population of Darfur—are seriously affected by the conflict. Another 350,000 Darfuris are living as refugees in eastern Chad, and in the autumn of 2006 janjaweed militias crossed into Chad and killed hundreds of them.
A Just Cause
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the UN’s failure to prevent yet another humanitarian disaster represents a deep corruption of its ideals and institutions. The preamble to the UN Charter, after all, calls on member states to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights” and “unite our strength to maintain international peace and security.” The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, approved by the General Assembly in 1948, requires signatories to regard genocide as “a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” Following the UN’s General Assembly meeting last fall, New York Times columnist David Brooks declared the international system to be broken: “The world community might make declarations—on preventing Iranian and North Korean nukes, disarming Hezbollah, or preventing genocide in Darfur—but when it comes to actually uniting to take action, words and resolutions lead nowhere.”3
It was precisely this painful realization that produced the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. The UN’s “World Summit Outcome” document, approved by the General Assembly in September 2005, declares that member states have a “collective responsibility to protect” people from genocide and other human rights abuses.
The basic concept comes from a December 2001 report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). Sponsored by the Canadian government, the report argued that membership in the United Nations carries obligations: States that fail to protect their citizens, it said, should not be allowed to hide behind the doctrine of non-intervention to escape international censure—or military action. “Where a population is suffering serious harm . . . the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect”, the commissioners wrote. Annan endorsed the report’s key recommendations, as did his High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change.4 “It cannot be right, when the international community is faced with genocide or massive human rights abuses, for the United Nations to stand by and let them unfold to the end”, Annan said. “I believe that we must embrace the responsibility to protect, and, when necessary, we must act on it.”5
The UN position attempts to uphold a universal norm about the just and proper use of force to prevent genocidal violence. Its clear intent is to offer a morally binding principle for all member states of the United Nations. So why, then, does nothing happen in the face of ethnic cleansing and genocide? The reason is the profound gulf between the clarity of moral principles and the absence of any political vehicle to enforce them.
The widespread fixation on Security Council action gives off a strong whiff of utopianism. That 15-nation body is, after all, a mix of democracies and dictatorships. It grants veto power to autocratic regimes that, by definition, trample the rights of the weak. The Russian government strikes military deals with state sponsors of terrorism while intimidating internal dissent; China, which sharply curtails political and religious freedom, rejects sanctions against oil-rich countries where it has interests. Yet many liberals talk as if the verbal acceptance of a humanitarian ideal will shatter this dynamic. “Recognizing the responsibility to protect”, argues a January 2005 report by Human Rights Watch, “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.” This is a manifest fiction: Members of the Security Council who cannot now find an adequate basis to oppose genocide will not be transformed by the mere assertion of a moral principle.
That intelligent people can say such things in the face of decades’ worth of contrary evidence is truly cause for wonderment. The Security Council has proven repeatedly—in Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Burma and, yes, in Iraq—that it blinks in the face of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Given the paralysis of the Security Council in nearly any given political crisis, and the capacity of undemocratic regimes to frustrate the will of democracies trying to operate through UN agencies, it is obvious that the problem flows from the structure of the United Nations itself. Our task must be to find an effective means to rescue civilian populations from mass murder, not to waste time—and sacrifice human lives—trying to convert an organization into something it can never be.
To confront the basic problem at hand, two things must happen. First, we have to get the basic moral principle right. Second, we have to empower it practically. We are very close to the former; the responsibility to protect has won wide acceptance as a legitimate principle. The real problem is one of empowerment, but a proper understanding of the moral principle involved in the first place is the best guide to solving that aspect of the problem, as well.
The Daalder-Lindsay proposal argues that the premise of universal membership that forms the legitimating foundation for the United Nations is morally unpersuasive. They write:
The rightness or wrongness of a particular course of action ought to reside at least in part in the nature of the action itself. In the case of the use of force, for example, the justness of the cause, the proportionality of the response, the nature of the authority deciding the action and the likelihood of success constitute considerations that are at least as important in determining the legitimacy of using force as the number of states that would support it.
Without directly saying so, this argument draws on the Christian just war tradition, as well it should, for it is in this tradition that we find a potentially universal consensus on the moral and prudent use of force to protect innocents in the face of grave humanitarian need.
Indeed, the intellectual debt owed by “the responsibility to protect” to the just war tradition is immense. As a political doctrine, it begins with the God-given worth of every human life, and then insists on the state’s obligation to defend that life against harm—using lethal force if necessary. It draws from the Hebrew Bible, especially the Genesis account of man’s inherent dignity, as well as from the Christian New Testament, with its teaching of a political state empowered to restrain evil. “Just war argument and universal human rights are not only not incompatible”, Jean Bethke Elshtain writes, “they can and should be placed within the same frame.”6
To a remarkable extent, this is what the various UN documents on “the responsibility to protect” attempt to do. None mentions the just war tradition by name, fearing negative reactions from non-Christian societies. Yet its philosophical fingerprints are unmistakable, beginning with the “principles for military intervention” advanced in the ICISS report. “The principles are derived directly from the just war tradition”, Thomas Weiss told me. A professor at the City University of New York who led the commission’s research team, Weiss added that the moral tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition were “front and center in the discussion” and provided the “intellectual underpinnings” of the rationale for intervention. A supplemental research volume to the ICISS report highlights just war principles in its treatment of ethics and the use of force.7
Indeed, the UN criteria for military engagement—duplicated in nearly all subsequent UN documents—follow precisely those articulated by Christian theologians starting with Augustine: The motive must be to prevent human suffering (right intention); means short of force must be judged unlikely to stop the aggressor (last resort); the military option must be proportional to the threat (proportionality); and the consequences of action must not be worse than inaction (reasonable prospects).8 This is classic just war doctrine.
Since the United Nations has endorsed this thinking, does that mean we already have an international consensus on humanitarian intervention? No, but we do have a serious effort to link universal human rights to a morally grounded approach to the use of force. Elshtain argues that a Judeo-Christian regard for human dignity, backed up by the threat of military intervention, “is an ideal of international justice whose time has come.” John Bolton, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has endorsed the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, as did the bipartisan Congressional Task Force on the United Nations in its 2005 report.
Nonetheless, many oppose the introduction of a new universal standard of conduct. Some leaders in nations with non-Western traditions fear that agreement to a “responsibility to protect” could carry both practical and philosophical disadvantages. The Chinese government strenuously opposes the concept, most likely for fear of its future application in Tibet, Xinjiang and other non-Han areas of the country. Some believe that a Western ideal, no matter how venerable, would bring others in its train—such as gender equality and freedom of religion—that are not acceptable in many Muslim societies.
This same tension has existed over the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose essentially Western origins have created occasion for institutionalized hypocrisy ever since its adoption in 1948. At the time it was conceived, the United Nations was dominated by Western powers, and their moral authority went virtually unchallenged. The fact that the Declaration’s principles in effect contradicted the protection of sovereignty enshrined in the UN Charter went mostly unspoken. Ever since, dozens of authoritarian regimes that emerged from colonial status in the 1950s and 1960s have paid lip service to the Declaration. They have defined and deployed an abstract concept of human rights that best suits their interests, all the while rejecting in practice many of the basic principles at the Declaration’s core.
The “responsibility to protect” has other challengers, however, including American conservative realists. They warn that a “responsibility to protect” norm could drag the American military into conflicts around the globe. Others worry that it will weaken the UN’s Westphalian concept of sovereignty, whose basic logic is clear to any student of early-modern European history. And they ask, further: Who would have the authority to invoke the “responsibility to protect” principle? Once invoked, which states would be obligated to send their armies into harm’s way? And who would command such an international force? The dangers are real: Without a clear political authority or command structure, the new creed invites manipulation and abuse. Given the intensity of anti-Americanism in much of the world, it is all too easy to imagine an international court citing the UN’s responsibility to protect doctrine to indict, literally and figuratively, U.S. foreign policy and its architects.
Yet it is important to remember that conservatives made similar arguments in the 1980s when Congress debated the Convention on Genocide. They warned, for example, that the treaty could subject Americans to an international tribunal. Nevertheless, President Reagan was persuaded that failure to sign the convention would cast America in a bad light internationally. Reagan supported the convention as a fundamental principle of U.S. foreign policy, and it was ratified by the Senate on February 11, 1986—four decades after being approved by the General Assembly.
If conservatives have sometimes been slow to endorse international norms to promote human rights, liberals have the opposite problem: They embrace every so-called human rights convention that comes along, regardless of its wider implications, and remain slavishly devoted to the United Nations as the only legitimate institution to confront human rights crises. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), for example, backs the “responsibility to protect” but assumes that only the UN Security Council could authorize the protecting. In a March 16, 2006, letter to President Bush urging action in Darfur, Clinton refers to the Security Council no less than 24 times, linking the body to every meaningful step to end the killing. Likewise, the ICISS commissioners could not conceive of humanitarian action without explicit UN mandate. “There is no better or more appropriate body than the United Nations Security Council to authorize military intervention for human protection purposes”, they concluded. “The task is not to find alternatives to the Security Council as a source of authority, but to make the Security Council work better than it has.”9 Annan’s High Level Panel report, issued three years later, repeated the line verbatim.10
This will never happen in a world where great-power balancing is a fact of life, and the reason is instructive. Misplaced faith in the ability of the UN system to prevent aggression owes much to secular assumptions about the power of human reason—the idea, to simplify only a little, that diplomatic elites working exclusively through supranational institutions can peacefully resolve all disagreements and civilize the most brutal of regimes. Reinhold Niebuhr, writing when Nazi Germany had unleashed its blitzkrieg on Europe, identified this mindset as one of liberalism’s great defects:
It is full of illusions about the character of human nature, particularly collective human behavior. It imagines that there is no conflict of interest which cannot be adjudicated. It does not understand what it means to meet a resolute foe who is intent upon either your annihilation or enslavement.
Here precisely is where we need the just war tradition most. Beyond right intentions, last resort, proportionality and reasonable prospects, the Christian moral tradition demands a “right authority” to launch a just war. James Turner Johnson, a leading just war theorist, observes that the United Nations has a history of dysfunction in this regard. “The structure of the UN is such”, he writes, “that clear purpose and effective command and control are virtually unimaginable.”11 In the modern context, as Daalder and Lindsay argue, right authority resides with independent, democratic states, not a global junta unaccountable to ordinary citizens.
On this point they seem to agree with basic Christian theology, which rejects liberal illusions about the perfectibility of political institutions. Statesmen informed by this outlook are much more sober about the ambiguities of human nature and human societies; they realize that even democratic governments will not always put moral principle above narrow self-interest. “Even if every Athenian citizen had been a Socrates”, quipped James Madison, “every Athenian assembly would have been a mob.” One senses a similar humility in the words of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge: “This organization is created to keep you from going to hell. It is not created to take you to heaven.”12
A Job for NATO
If the United Nations cannot even prevent states from descending into the hell of genocide, what can take its place? The Security Council should not be ignored or made irrelevant; sometimes it can act, and when it can, the UN’s universality adds legitimacy to collective action. The point, however, is that it normally appears incapable of acting effectively to prevent crimes against humanity. As Lee Feinstein of the Council on Foreign Relations has put it, “stopping and preventing atrocities could and should be at the core of what the UN does, but relying on the UN as the exclusive option is unrealistic and, in cases of inaction, immoral.”13
In such circumstances, an alliance of states committed to defending human rights, integrated into NATO’s military command, is liable to be far more effective. Such an alliance would also go a long way toward satisfying conservative criticism of a responsibility-to-protect norm, for it could solve the democratic accountability problem and allay fears that such norms would be abused by anti-American zealots.
Any alliance of acting states would have to reflect the realities of the case at hand. Who would form such a coalition in Darfur, for example? It must include states in the African Union, upholding the principle once articulated by Winston Churchill that regional alliances are preferable to global ones. Yet any democratic coalition to defend human rights must be anchored by the world’s two most successful democracies, the United States and Great Britain. Based on their shared values, historic alliance and military capabilities, these two powers should work to expand the definition of NATO’s core missions to include implementing the responsibility to protect.
There is, of course, a precedent for working outside the UN Security Council in such cases: the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo. That intervention was controversial at the time, to be sure. But frank conversations with UN human rights officers suggest it has gained grudging approval and could be a model for future action. Even Joschka Fischer, former German foreign minister and vice chancellor and a fierce critic of U.S. policy, now defends NATO’s action. “I don’t believe that it was illegal to intervene”, he told journalists this past May. “If the Security Council is blocked, can we sit there and watch mass rape, innocent people killed and put in mass graves?”14 And that also appears to be what British Prime Minister Tony Blair had in mind in a May 26 speech at Georgetown University. “The rule book of international politics has been torn up”, he said in reference to the Kosovo intervention. “What [Sudan] needs is an empowered international actor; the capacity to intervene militarily; and a properly orchestrated humanitarian response.”
In Sudan and elsewhere, the logic of a NATO role is manifest. It would work more or less like this: A NATO-based alliance would become engaged once it was reasonably clear that genocidal violence was imminent and that the state in question lacked either the ability or the interest in stopping it. The NATO coalition would seek first to persuade the Security Council to authorize whatever measures are necessary, short of military action, to stop the killing. Its leaders would consult with the UN’s Special Advisor on Genocide and leading human rights groups to consider the best course of action. If military intervention appeared the only way to prevent massive human rights abuses, and if Security Council approval proved unobtainable, the NATO-based alliance would act militarily on the understanding that genocide is a clear breach of international peace and security under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. This is moral realism: a policy of humanitarian intervention, guided by just war doctrine, to prevent mass murder.
Those fixated on the UN will surely argue, as has UN Under-Secretary General Shashi Tharoor, that any breach of the Charter’s rules on nonintervention is an assault on international law: “It is precisely because the UN is the chief guardian of . . . these sacrosanct principles that it alone is allowed to approve derogations from them.”15 But the architects of the UN Charter, the generation that witnessed the Holocaust, could hardly have intended to create an international legalism that thwarts the purposes of collective security. As the editors of the New Republic put it, “If you are not willing to use force against genocide immediately, then you do not understand what genocide is.”16 Even editors at the European Journal of International Law, who judged the Kosovo intervention to be a violation of the Charter, admitted that “this cannot be the last word” on humanitarian intervention. “There are ‘hard cases’ involving terrible dilemmas in which imperative political and moral considerations leave no choice but to act outside the law.”17 And if Darfur does not qualify as a “hard case” for the international community, what does?
Options and Pitfalls
If NATO were to assemble an alliance to intervene in Darfur, it would be another step—after Kosovo—in legitimizing the responsibility to protect. New norms of behavior cannot be established unless they are actually enforced. Successful NATO-led action in Darfur would serve not only to uphold the moral principle, but could help galvanize a Concert of Democracies to implement it.
Of course, this will be extremely difficult. The problems are threefold: overcoming broadly political obstacles, designing an intervention that will be effective, and devising and enforcing a stable political settlement once military force has accomplished its objectives.
As to political obstacles, they come from several quarters. Some are truly maddening. Some observers support the “responsibility to protect” but nevertheless oppose any use of force against the will of the Sudanese government. “There is no doubt about the scale of the catastrophe and the international community’s responsibility to help resolve it”, writes Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group and a co-chair of the ICISS. “But coercive military force applied without Khartoum’s agreement—in effect, an invasion—would almost certainly be counterproductive.”18 NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, too, reportedly opposes NATO troops on the ground in Darfur.
It may be that Western military pressure would accelerate Sudan’s campaign of terror, assuming that these mostly camel-led attacks are not already at full gallop. But does that make it acceptable for the regime to preside, unhindered, over a continuing campaign of sexual violence and ethnic cleansing? Perhaps Mr. Evans has faith that NGOs in Darfur can effectively alleviate the suffering there. But it is also quite possible that the NGOs, by keeping the level of death within some bounds—and by salving Western consciences that “something” is being done—inadvertently enable and assist the Sudanese regime’s ultimate aim: genocide.
Still others, like Shashi Tharoor, who fear that intervention without a UN Security Council imprimatur would damage the legitimacy of the United Nations. The argument indicts itself: To put the prestige of this international body ahead of the purpose it is intended to serve reeks of intellectual laziness and moral illiteracy. The United Nations is not, after all, the most important thing, and neither is the supposed sanctity of international law. As the Hebrew prophet Daniel once warned while confronting the faithless and violent political order of his own day, there are other, more profound moral judgments at stake: “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” In history’s judgment of crimes against humanity, what matters is not what we aspire to do, but what we actually do when we have the power to act.
What, precisely, can and should a NATO-led force do? To begin with, NATO can do much more of what it already has been doing following the deployment of African Union peacekeepers. Since July 2005, NATO has assisted them with strategic airlift, the rotation of forces, operational planning, and training in peacekeeping and policing. These remain the immediate priorities for any peacemaking/peacekeeping force in Darfur, and given the intensity of anti-Western feeling in the region, there are good reasons to keep any international troop presence in Darfur an essentially African enterprise. Moreover, states such as Rwanda and Nigeria are devoted to the mission and want desperately for it to succeed. The African Union is especially sensitive about its ability to fulfill its first major military obligation on the continent.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t preclude a much more robust role for NATO, well beyond the currently conceived “African Union-Plus” scenario. A more intensive NATO commitment to training and operations could help the African Union double or even triple its troop presence (now only 7,000) and civilian police in a reasonable amount of time. This is the crucial strategic step—nothing can replace boots on the ground—but it simply has not been attempted. No other military alliance has the resources and operational experience for this task. Meanwhile, more NATO advisers should be stationed at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to help in operational management. Bridge and road repair, tactical airlift, reliable fuel supplies, aerial reconnaissance—these and other tasks are also jobs NATO does very well.
Additionally, no-fly zones must be established over refugee camp areas: If Sudanese gunships violate protected airspace, they should be shot down. Large numbers of NATO troops would not be necessary for this purpose, but the redeployment of remote intelligence assets and the deployment of military equipment will be: transport planes, helicopter gunships and armored personnel carriers. The Entebbe Airport in Uganda could be used as a base for air operations into the region. Even without the presence of UN peacekeepers, a NATO-supported AU force of this kind could help provide real security in key areas of danger for civilians.
Some observers believe that a NATO/AU intervention over the objections of the Sudanese government would be militarily ineffective. It all depends, of course, on what participating states are actually prepared to do. The goal is to provide security and safe havens for civilians, not regime change. It’s hard to imagine Sudanese forces or their proxy militia seriously challenging the world’s preeminent military alliance in this regard.
Moreover, NATO would be supporting a revived African Union, the only regional coalition that explicitly endorses the “responsibility to protect” in its founding charter. Mindful of his own nation’s descent into genocide, for example, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has vowed that his troops deployed in Sudan will intervene against the janjaweed if civilians are threatened. Thus, key AU members have moral as well as political incentives to invite greater NATO support to expand their existing mandate. The reasonable hope is that this limited intervention would persuade the Sudanese government to endorse a negotiated settlement and admit a sizeable force of UN peacekeepers. (The regime, after all, has allowed about 10,000 UN military personnel to remain in southern Sudan as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in January 2005.) Only then can the more difficult task of disarming the janjaweed and demobilizing the various rebel groups begin.
Apart from the military action contemplated here, there are other ways for NATO states to ratchet up the pressure on Sudan that have yet to be tried. Sanctions that target Khartoum’s oil revenues are the place to start, since they supply the lifeblood of the regime. This won’t be easy, since oil companies from Austria, Canada, China, India and elsewhere are all involved. But public exposure on this issue could help, coupled with a freeze on the Sudanese government’s offshore assets. NATO members should also enforce an arms embargo against the regime and pressure non-NATO states (especially Russia) to do the same.
Others will argue that Khartoum should be offered incentives or a face-saving compromise to avert sanctions or military action. NATO’s democratic leaders, in close cooperation with the African Union, could offer to bring all the various factions together at the negotiating table—but only after the prospect of a sustained NATO-backed intervention to protect civilians is made abundantly clear. The best incentive would be a pledge to host donor conferences to raise the resources needed to resettle refugees and rebuild the shattered landscape that Darfur has become. This could go a long way toward achieving the political solution that is so desperately needed.
There are real risks to a NATO-backed engagement in Sudan. We don’t know what the government of Omar al-Bashir will do in response, or how various rebel groups might try to exploit the new situation on the ground. There is a potential for moral hazard here. And even with NATO support, a greatly enhanced AU force isn’t certain to protect civilians spread out over an area the size of France. Nevertheless, the risks of maintaining the status quo seem greater: Inaction would embolden a militant Islamic regime with a history of genocidal violence. It could spark a war between Sudan and Chad, with refugees caught in the crossfire. It would signal Western weakness to the extremist Islamist allies of the regime. Most importantly, it most certainly would add tens of thousands to the death toll of innocent Darfuris, either from further violence or disease.
Neither utopianism nor cynicism—the two dominant traits of the United Nations—can help us resolve this crisis. As Kofi Annan gloomily admitted during the fall 2005 General Assembly session, the “continued spectacle” of human suffering in Darfur “makes a mockery of our claim, as an international community, to shield people from the worst abuses.” That confession points toward the adoption of new ideals and institutions: a commitment to moral realism, grounded in universal principles and embodied in a coalition of democratic states. If that is the goal we ultimately seek, we must take the first step now, in Darfur.