I was engaged in an academic debate recently. The question was “Should the International Community militarily intervene in Darfur?” For me, it was an unequivocal, “Yes!!” However, I am going to rephrase that question differently, “Never Again, or Again and Again?”
It is that time again in the journey of mankind. The one we call the “greatest humanitarian crisis”, “ a terrible mass atrocity” or some such pitiful phrase. The last century had plenty. We shook our heads. Leaders, lawyers and diplomats pontificated.
The Armenian genocide, Stalin’s forced famine, the Great War, the Holocaust…. A handful in a century shamefully filled with many more atrocities. Millions of civilians died. Most of these ended when multilateral forces intervened, as in the case of the world wars, or when one party completely routed the other, as in Rwanda, or a third party intervened as in Kosovo and Bangladesh, or sometimes, strange as it may sound, when there was almost no one left to kill.
World War II: Like Rip Van Winkle, the world awakened from its slumber, to find that too many had died. It let out that infamous expression of outrage, “Never Again!” For the first time, the world agreed that there was something more deserving of respect than a nation’s sovereignty. And that was human life and dignity.
The UN, the collective conscience of the world, was put in place. Rights were guaranteed, simply for being human. It even had the foresight that military intervention would be necessary, to protect these rights. So it drafted the rules of engagement, which despite the inhumane nature of war, promised to protect not only civilians, but also the humanity of the aggressors and prisoners. With its work done, its conscience at rest, the world went back to its slumber – just like Rip Van Winkle.
The juggernaut of atrocities plowed on ahead, killing people in Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, the Balkans, Rwanda… The international community that had pondered so long to put protection mechanisms in place, failed to transform into action what it had promised to do.
After the debacle in the Balkans and Rwanda, the international community came up with even better, brighter ideas. Systems of accountability! Expensive tribunals, the international criminal court, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – to try the ‘extraordinary’ minds, many of them too old or dead, who put to death millions of ‘ordinary’ lives. It even reinforced its promise of protecting human lives, by putting into place yet another well-crafted document – the Responsibility to Protect, adopted by the UN in 2005. But the juggernaut’s on a roll. Today, it’s crushing some ‘miserable’ African lives in Darfur.
Peacekeepers have arrived to keep the peace, but peace needs to be made before it can be kept.
Humanitarian workers have been on the ground to feed and clothe the victims. But are forced to feed and clothe the militiamen, as well. It is the negotiated price of humanitarian aid in Darfur.
By shying away from military intervention in the name of sovereignty, we not only dishonor these international mechanisms of protection, but even soldiers, for whom it is an honor to die, so that civilians can live. It was never meant for civilians to die, so that soldiers can live.
So here we are, stopped at yet another ironic juncture challenging us to make good an empty rhetoric, and redeem our pledge of protecting humanity.
Do we resort to long drawn, expensive and indecisive negotiations, when many have already failed, or engage in a quicker, cheaper and more decisive military intervention, in adherence with the Geneva Conventions and the Responsibility to Protect? Do we bandage a wound now, or amputate a limb because it festered too long? With over 2.2 million people dead or displaced, this wound has already festered too long.
The US has called it genocide. The UN has not. It doesn’t matter what the world chooses to call it – these are terms to be debated by lawyers, in extraordinary chambers, to determine the appropriate category for prosecution. But many more will have died by then, simply for being (African) humans.
All agree that these are crimes against humanity, and merit some concrete response immediately, in accordance to the various documents adopted by the UN. Even China has approved the hybrid peacekeeping force. But their record in saving lives and keeping the peace has been shabby, to say the least. With a vested interest in Sudan, and its staunch adherence to sovereignty, China will not approve an outright military intervention, and the UN, may have yet another failure to protect humanity. Like the NATO in Kosovo, this intervention will have to be external. The US troops are pre-occupied with a senseless war in Iraq. The EU is pre-occupied doing what it does best – camouflaging its hypocrisy by ducking under the UN umbrella and refusing to use its military, without the approval of the UN, while silently,and cleverly pillaging its former colonies in Africa.
This is a snapshot of the world we live. African lives mean nothing more than summits, such as the G8, and the promise of aid that promulgates dependency – without decisively responding to its immediate crisis.
Do we take a decisive action now, or let Darfur end as other atrocities have before? Do we resort to assuaging our guilt later by creating more extraordinary chambers and documents that will adjudicate over those who kill? Or should we just get honest? Either, by holding ourselves truly “responsible to protect”, or by renaming sovereignty for what it has often come to signify, namely, “the right to devastate”, or an “excuse to hibernate”? Either way, the international community will be able to end this conflict between humanity and sovereignty, and guiltlessly savor the champagne and caviar.
However, I believe that protecting humanity is the better thing to do.