The Washington Times

In a speech Thursday in anticipation of this week’s G8 summit in Scotland, President Bush laid out an agenda for greater U.S. engagement in what remains the single greatest challenge to a sense of common humanity: stopping the killing, stopping the dying, and starting in earnest a process that will bring the benefits of the modernized, developed world to the people of Africa.

Murderous governments and militias, deadly disease and malnutrition, the worst imaginable poverty, dysfunctional governments unable or unwilling to do anything effectual for their own people – this is not the whole story of Africa, but it is the story of far too much for anyone of conscience to rest easy. I certainly do not share the neo-Marxist view that the poverty of Africa is somehow a by-product of the prosperity of the developed world, and that therefore “our” gains are ill-gotten. But to reject this ill-founded and crudely redistributionist logic is hardly to settle the moral question of what one ought to do.

Indifference is often accompanied by assertions that the problems are hopeless, anyway. Although this view appears to be just a more refined excuse for turning away, in fact, it constitutes a first step in the direction of humanity. Implicit in the statement is the view that if a problem is not, after all, hopeless, then perhaps one ought to do something about it. And, of course, a defense of inaction based on supposed futility or impossibility would only be justifiable after all possibilities had been explored. Therefore, and this is the point, let us get busy exploring the possibilities.

There is a hierarchy of need in Africa of a sort that is easy to lose sight of in most other places, political and social circumstances having ascended above its lowest rungs. For starters, about that “right to life” that the U.S. Declaration of Independence mentions first among the rights with which all people “have been endowed by their Creator”: in the western Sudan and in Congo today, as in Rwanda a decade ago, that right is very much in need of protection.

The first obligation of government is the responsibility to protect the lives of the people living within its jurisdiction from genocide, mass killing and major human rights abuses such as ethnic cleansing. Any sovereign right a government enjoys to conduct its internal affairs as it sees fit has to be contingent on the fulfillment of this responsibility to protect.

To view matters otherwise is to assert that a government’s assertions about “reasons of state” trump the inalienable rights of the people. In the worst circumstances, that leaves people utterly defenseless: they have rights they are unable to defend on their own against the power of the state or its agents, and the very government that is supposed to protect them asserts that its sovereign rights prevent any others from acting to protect them. This is morally unacceptable.

This view of the “responsibility to protect” has been gaining strength internationally. Most recently, support for it is a centerpiece of the recent bipartisan report of the Gingrich-Mitchell task force on U.N. reform under the auspices of the U.S. Institute of Peace (on which I did work for which I was compensated). The report urges the U.S. government to “affirm that every sovereign government has a ‘responsibility to protect’ its citizens and those within its jurisdiction from genocide, mass killing, and massive and sustained human rights abuses” and to call on the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly to do the same.

This is not merely an idle declaration: It calls for real-world consequences, including a moral imperative for others to take action to protect those whose are not being protected. As the report notes: “In certain circumstances, a government’s abnegation of its responsibilities to its own people is so severe that the collective responsibility of nations to take action cannot be denied.”

I hope that’s the spirit in which the Bush administration and future administrations will approach this most basic step on the hierarchy of human needs. Mr. Bush rightly spoke of the need for “more troops … to protect the innocent” in Darfur. His statement would have been stronger if he had called the Sudanese government to account not only for the failure to exercise its responsibility to protect its people – thus providing the grounds for outside intervention in Darfur and a moral imperative for others to take action – but worse, for Khartoum’s direct complicity in what Mr. Bush rightly called genocide. As the Gingrich-Mitchell report notes of Darfur, “A solution can only come in the form of a regime in Sudan that respects the human rights of all Sudanese.”

The next rung of the ladder after the protection of people from violent death is the protection of people from death by preventable disease. Beyond that is the establishment of social, political and economic conditions in which people can rise up from the worst sort of poverty.

The needs here are clear. And no one is entitled to say they are impossible to meet until we try.