The Washington Times

Just about a year ago at the United Nations, leaders at the world summit embraced a principle that amounts to a revolution in moral consciousness, the “responsibility to protect.” Briefly, the doctrine holds that states have a responsibility to protect the persons living on their territory. In the event they are unable to fulfill this obligation, or in the event they themselves choose to violate it through such practices as genocide or ethnic cleansing, then the responsibility to protect devolves to the international community as a whole, which may take appropriate action, up to and including the use of military force, to protect the at-risk population.   

I say this is a sort of “revolution” because of two aspects of the doctrine. In the first place, it attaches an obligation to sovereign states commensurate with the privileges states presume to enjoy. States are not free to do or tolerate whatever they wish within their borders, not if this includes mass killings. They may not hide behind a cloak of sovereign right while perpetrating crimes against humanity. The person, not the state, takes his rightful place at the center of the international system. States must at a minimum serve to protect their people or else forfeit their sovereign rights insofar as the protection of those people are concerned.

Second, and relatedly, the doctrine acknowledges the rights of persons beyond the level of the state: In extreme situations, groups of individuals may seek vindication of their right to protection at a level beyond the state in which they live, from the international community as a whole. It is one thing to articulate a “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” something else to give people a cause of action against their own governments when they most need one.    

A year later, we come to the question of how much of a difference the adoption of the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” actually makes. The test case is the drastically worsening human rights situation in Darfur, Sudan.     

The dead in Darfur, mostly victims of the janjaweed militia acting at the behest of the
Khartoum government under the pretext of putting down rebel activity, number in the hundreds of thousands. More than 2 million people are in internally displaced persons camps in Sudan and hundreds of thousands more in refugee camps across the border in Chad. They can’t go home. In the first place, most no longer have homes to return to, their villages having been torched and their wells having been poisoned by the janjaweed.  The prospect of rebuilding is remote insofar as the security situation outside the refugee camps is intolerable.

Meanwhile, international relief workers are increasingly threatened. A peace treaty, laboriously arrived at in the spring thanks to the prodding of now-departed Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, could have been a turning point in the conflict but is proving to be far from adequate. An African Union peacekeeping force mandated by the U.N., though well-intended and by most accounts often courageous at the unit level, is woefully undermanned, underequipped and lacking in a mandate that allows for the protection of civilians. Moreover, the AU mission expires soon. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution August 31 that would allow for a force of adequate size and a proper mandate for protection, but it requires the Sudanese government’s assent.    

Khartoum, unsurprisingly, is resisting a robust international peacekeeping presence, even though it agreed in principle as part of the Abuja peace agreement, and in a gesture of mockery, has offered to deploy more of its own troops to Darfur for protection. In fact, the ones who have moved in so far under the terms of the Abuja accord agreement have been working with the janjaweed laying waste to civilian populations supposedly while in hot pursuit of rebels who have not signed the accord.     

The situation is bad, very, very bad. How alarmist should one be? Well, think Rwanda times two or three before it’s over.    

OK, so what does the “responsibility to protect” mean? It means that governments failing to protect their populations, as Sudan is manifestly doing and has been for years, need to be deprived of veto rights when others seek to fulfill the protection function. We need to make it clear to the government of Sudan that the mass killing is unacceptable and stops now. There will be no excusing the horror, and those responsible for it have to be held accountable.     

In Darfur, people who have very little are being deprived of even that and of their lives as well. Their government is complicit. Who will speak up for them and act to vindicate their rights as human beings? That “responsibility to protect” falls to us.