Darfur is shorthand for the latest example of a recurring international problem, one that gained headlines a decade ago in Rwanda. What should the world do when a large number of people are the victims of violence originating from within their own country?
Darfur itself is a region of Western Sudan comprised of Arab and African Muslims. Conflict erupted in early last year when rebels of the Sudan Liberation Movement attacked government troops in an effort to gain greater autonomy and resources for their region. Sudan government aircraft and government-supported troops (known as janjaweed) retaliated against not only armed rebels but also against civilians deemed to be supporting them. Villages have been emptied, women raped, non-Arab men killed.
The origins of the current crisis may be in some dispute, but the costs are not.? More than 50,000 men, women and children have lost their lives; more than 1.5 million have been made homeless. This is arguably genocide, a word used by the US government but by few others to describe what is going on in Darfur.
Meanwhile, world leaders are debating what if anything should be done. UN Security Council Resolution 1564, passed on Sept. 18, reserves the bulk of its criticism for the government of Sudan. But the UN is not yet prepared to go beyond words. The resolution threatens that the Security Council will consider imposing sanctions against Sudanese leaders or against the country's important oil sector, but introduces no penalties at this time.
Why the hesitation? More than anything else it stems from international reluctance to challenge any government over what it is doing within its own territory. This reflects a widely-held view of sovereignty, one that allows governments to do essentially what they want within their own borders.
Such thinking is inadequate and outmoded. To begin with, there is a moral element. There is something wrong in looking the other way when one's fellow human being is being slaughtered. We all have some basic obligation to one another.
There are as well pragmatic considerations. In a global world, what happens within one country can all too easily affect others. For example, refugees leaving Sudan can strain the stability of neighboring Chad.
Opposition to genocide and other large-scale acts of violence against a population also reflects the established principle that citizens as well as governments have rights. This principle is enshrined in various international documents, beginning with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.? Governments ought not to be allowed to massacre their own people. And weak governments should not be allowed to permit massacres to take place on their own territory even if they are not themselves carrying out the massacre.
What all this adds up to is a requirement for a concept of state sovereignty that is less than absolute. To be precise, we need to embrace a contractual approach to sovereignty, one that recognizes the obligations and responsibilities as well as the rights of those who enjoy it.
Such an approach to sovereignty would essentially communicate to governments and their leaders that the rights and protections they associate with statehood are in fact conditional, and that governments and leaders would forfeit some or, in extreme cases, all of these rights and protections if they failed to meet their obligations.