The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, has called it ethnic cleansing. President George W. Bush has condemned the atrocities, which are displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Others are starting to use the word genocide. Whatever you want to call what is going on today in Darfur, in western Sudan, the time for forceful outside intervention is unmistakably approaching.
Since it came to power, the Khartoum regime has undertaken one scorched earth campaign after another in Sudan. In the past year, it has done so against Muslims of African descent in the west of the country, arming and supporting the Arab militias known as Janjaweed, which inflict collective punishment against the civilian populations in Darfur whom the government accuses of supporting a rebellion there. Supported by aerial bombing, Janjaweed attacks have led to wholesale destruction of villages, targeted destruction of water reserves and food stores, indiscriminate killings, looting, mass rape and huge population displacement. To date, tens of thousands have been killed, and more than one million displaced, many now living in squalid camps where they are dying from disease and malnutrition. According to the U.S. Agency of International Development, even if the war were to stop immediately, as many as 100,000 people will probably die in Darfur in the coming months because of the desperate humanitarian situation. Another 110,000 have fled across the border to Chad. At the UN commemoration last month of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Kofi Annan rightly highlighted the current situation in Sudan, demanding improved access to those in need of assistance and protection. If humanitarian workers and human rights experts were not given full access to Darfur, he said, the international community had to be prepared to take appropriate action, which may include military action.
One month after that dramatic and forceful statement, Khartoum is still preventing full access. Aid agencies can now reach some of the internally displaced, but that is far from enough. Meanwhile, the Janjaweed assaults continue, and hundreds of thousands of lives remain at risk. The case for military intervention grows with every passing day.
Resorting to collective military action, overruling the basic norm of nonintervention that must continue to govern international relations, is never an easy call. But nor is it easy to justify standing by when action is possible in practice and defensible in principle. The primary responsibility for the protection of a state’s own people must lie with the state itself. But where a population is suffering serious harm and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of nonintervention should lead to a larger principle, that of the international responsibility to protect. These are the basic principles, now quietly gaining international currency, identified in the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, of which I was co-chairman in 2001. Acknowledging, however, that coercive military action should always be an exceptional and extraordinary measure, there are some additional precautionary principles that need to be considered. The motivation must be right, aimed purely at halting the human suffering. The intervention must use the minimum force necessary. It must be guided by clear objectives, and likely to do more good than harm. And it must have a clear mandate from the right authority, always most appropriately the UN Security Council.