A New Commitment to “the Responsibility to Protect”: Humanitarian Intervention and the Darfur Crisis

The promise of “never again,” first made in the wake of the Holocaust, reached a new level of urgency as it became increasingly clear that the international community failed to prevent Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. In March 1998, a remorseful President Clinton apologized to a crowd in Kigali for the fact that “all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” Indeed, the legacy of Rwanda deservedly cast a long shadow over the final decade of the millennium, while the world waited anxiously for the first significant test of a purportedly reinvigorated international resolve to act to protect civilian populations, even in geopolitically peripheral areas.

In early 2003, as the scale of targeted, government-sponsored violence in Sudan’s Darfur region escalated, it appeared that a defining moment had finally arrived. Sadly, the international community was slow to recognize the severity of the situation and only put together a clumsy and ineffective response after the magnitude of the disaster became evident. In July 2007, a new draft United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution was circulating to replace the current African Union force, numbering just 7,000, with a joint AU-UN force of 26,000 peacekeepers—surprisingly, with the “nominal consent” of the government in Khartoum. Thus, today there is growing indication that the international community may intervene to an extent that might prevent the massacre of innocent civilians, whether by marauding Janjaweed militias or from a more gradual government-facilitated campaign. Still, this resolution is only in draft form, and comes a full year after the UNSC passed a similar resolution, and yet the government of Sudan has not felt sufficiently compelled to rein in the militias. Moreover, the inability of rebel groups in the Darfur region to establish a united front in negotiations has only prolonged the crisis and given the Sudanese government a plausible excuse for stalling.

In light of this disappointing response, must we conclude that little has changed about the international community’s attitude toward massive human rights violations in strategically marginal countries. Has the norm of humanitarian intervention, a doctrine widely debated through the 1990s, been definitively rejected? The argument here is that the symbols and language of humanitarian intervention have gained widespread acceptance in the past decade and have indeed proliferated in the international community. As the Darfur case makes clear, however, this acceptance has not yet translated into concrete action, and in some instances lofty rhetoric has impeded efforts aimed at stopping violence and bringing its perpetrators to account.

Background to the Crisis

Darfur, the westernmost region of Sudan, has long been environmentally vulnerable and politically marginal. Despite systematic neglect of the area by the Khartoum elite, manifested in a near-total lack of government services, these provinces have played host to regional power struggles since decolonization. Gerard Prunier offers a concise description of the typical Cold-War-era attitude toward the region: “Darfur did not seem to matter enough to be taken seriously at the level of good governance, but it certainly mattered enough to become an increasingly radicalized battleground between Khartoum, Tripoli, and N’djamena.” One tragic manifestation of this pattern of rule was a major famine in 1984 that killed an estimated 95,000 people and was exacerbated by Khartoum’s indifference and manipulation of food aid. This indifference continued after the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile, tensions steadily mounted between Arab pastoralists and black agriculturalists, especially in the last two decades, as a consequence of the central government’s Arab supremacist ideology, regional desertification, and the calculated mobilization of group identity by a long succession of opportunistic politicians.

The spillover effects of the government’s war with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in the south exacerbated inter-group tensions, motivated Khartoum to tighten its grip over the country, and provided a model for discontented Darfuris. Moreover, SPLM/A offensives aimed at capturing Darfur spurred the creation of government-supported Arab militias, groups that would later ruthlessly carry out Khartoum’s counterinsurgency policy. In fact, it was the SPLM/A’s abortive push northwest in 2001 that finally brought leaders in the north and south to the table for the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-sponsored Naivasha peace process.

The start of north-south peace negotiations triggered a new escalation of the low-level guerilla warfare that persisted in Darfur throughout the 1990s. The prospect of peace with the SPLM/A aroused fears that Darfur would be further marginalized and locked out of any resulting power-sharing arrangement. Out of this fear emerged two loosely allied rebel movements, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA, not connected to the SPLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The rebels staged several successful attacks against army installations in Darfur and eventually signed a Chad-brokered ceasefire agreement with the government in September 2003. The ceasefire completely collapsed by December of that year, at which point Khartoum determined that the best course of action was a military solution to the insurrection. The ensuing counter-insurgency campaign was marked by air raids that unambiguously targeted civilians with crude bombs, dropped on villages from Antonov supply planes. After the air strikes, Janjaweed militiamen conducted mop-up operations, perpetrating human-rights atrocities that sparked massive population displacements as victims desperately attempted to flee to safety. One analyst described this campaign as a shift “from ethnic cleansing on the installment plan to the full blast of the real thing.” This policy of government-supported mass murder continued for almost a full year with scarcely any condemnation from the international community.

Defining Humanitarian Intervention

Humanitarian intervention is the threat or use of force across state borders by a state (or group of states) aimed at preventing or ending widespread and grave violations of the fundamental human rights of individuals other than its own citizens, without the permission of the state within whose territory force is applied.

Another important component of the norm of humanitarian intervention is that the threat or actual use of force does not serve any identifiable national interest. In practice, however, limited resources and capabilities, strategic imperatives, and potential political fallout from intervention play an important role in determining whether the necessary political will can be mobilized in support of military action.

In order to understand the complex origins of the humanitarian intervention norm, as well as the ongoing debate surrounding its legitimacy, it is important to note two of the most powerful norms in the post-World War II international system: the protection of human rights and the principle of sovereignty. The former is enshrined in Article 1 of the United Nations Charter, which sets forth the promotion of human rights as a core purpose of the UN. The latter is addressed in Article 2, which upholds sovereignty and the nation-state as fundamental principles of the international system. These two norms are not mutually exclusive; indeed, given the disastrous consequences of Hitler’s disdain for both human rights and the sovereignty of Germany’s neighbors, it is understandable that the UN Charter’s drafters did not see any inherent contradiction between them. However, in the post-Cold War world, most instances of armed conflict are civil wars with the potential for cross-border spillover, and the vast majority of large-scale human rights abuses are committed by governments against individuals within their own borders. As a result, there is an ever-increasing tension between these two foundational principles, a conflict that, to a large degree, fuels the controversy over humanitarian intervention.

Specific language in Article 2 of the UN Charter underlines this tension, particularly in the context of an emerging norm of humanitarian intervention. Section 2(3) requires that states resolve disputes peacefully, and Section 2(4) calls on states to refrain from threats of violence. The use of force is allowed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, but that chapter does not explicitly address intervention in a civil conflict. In the aftermath of Rwanda, a great deal of energy has been expended attempting to clarify this ambiguity in the Charter.

A report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), entitled “The Responsibility to Protect,” set forth the most widely cited articulation of the doctrine of multilateral humanitarian intervention. This report attempted to reconcile the tension between human rights and sovereignty by arguing that “state sovereignty implies responsibility, and the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies with the state itself.” Therefore, humanitarian intervention does not violate the principle of sovereignty when a state abdicates this responsibility and is either unable or unwilling to protect individuals within its borders. If this is the case, and the international community has exhausted all prevention strategies, one can justify multilateral military intervention, ideally mandated by the UN Security Council. It is telling that the peacekeeping operations envisioned in the current draft resolution would fall under the auspices of Chapter VII.

The following discussion relies on the formal definition of humanitarian intervention, but it is also informed by the practical limitations of the doctrine, the tension it reveals in the UN Charter, and the new language of responsibility that has emerged in Rwanda’s aftermath.

Theoretical Considerations

The “norm cycle” provides a useful framework within which to examine the evolution of the concept of humanitarian intervention and the role that the Darfur crisis might play in this process. Martha Finnemore, a noted scholar of ethics in international affairs, argues that states are embedded within an international social structure in which “intersubjective” understandings between actors, also known as norms, are constructed. Norms, in turn, comprise a context in which calculations of national interest are made; unlike realist or liberal perspectives, this argument endogenizes interests and provides an explanation for why the strategic considerations and state behavior change over time.

In later work with her colleague Kathryn Sikkink, Finnemore specifies a theory of norm development that involves three distinct stages: norm emergence, norm cascade, and norm internalization. In the first stage, “norm entrepreneurs” frame and promote an issue with the aim of affecting the behavioral calculus of influential states. These entrepreneurs behave strategically and employ a number of techniques, including leveraging, symbolism, and accountability politics, to raise the profile of their issue, with the emergence of a new norm the desired outcome. Eventually, a tipping point is reached that triggers a “norm cascade,” characterized by a rapid acceptance of the norm by a broad cross-section of states. Finally, the norm develops a “taken for granted quality,” is incorporated (“internalized”) into the standard operating procedures of international politics, and ceases to be an object of controversy.

It is important to recognize that humanitarian intervention is a particular kind of norm: it is permissive rather than determinative. That is, the norm may exist, but it will not necessarily be acted upon in each conceivable instance where grounds for its use exist. This is not meant to be a catch-all qualification, but rather to recognize the agency of international actors, whose actual behavior is constrained by the normative context, not determined by it.

As the analysis below will attempt to show, at present, the norm of humanitarian intervention is most likely located somewhere near the end of stage one of the norm cycle, just before the norm cascade; indeed, current trends suggest the norm cascade may be beginning now. The language and symbolism that surround this doctrine are widely recognized and largely accepted as rhetorically legitimate. In practice, however, the international community is far from universally sanctioning humanitarian intervention as acceptable behavior, and this newly-emergent norm remains in conflict with older, more internalized norms. Attempts to overcome this apparent contradiction with the highly-internalized norm of sovereignty by recasting the debate in terms of the “responsibility to protect” framework demonstrate the feedback effects of the norm cycle: norms already institutionalized have a major impact on the substance of emerging norms like humanitarian intervention. Finally, a crucial lesson from the Darfur case is that the norm cycle does not necessarily proceed in a smooth and sequential manner. Different actors draw upon norms for different purposes and in different foreign policy contexts, yielding different results. These particularities help determine the success or failure of a norm, and in some cases contextual dynamics might be more important than the norm’s inherent substance.

The International Response

Although the Darfur situation remains in flux, norms entrepreneurs who advocate the use of humanitarian intervention to halt gross human rights violations—such as ethnic cleansing—can justifiably say that the concrete steps taken thus far by the international community are less than encouraging. By the end of 2003, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the International Crisis Group (ICG) and Amnesty International had published damning reports describing the gravity of the situation in Darfur, and Jan Egeland, the UN’s outgoing humanitarian programs director, had drawn comparisons between Darfur and Rwanda. Despite this information, the international community did not focus its energies on the region until April 2004, the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Although a high-profile public debate has ensued over the content of an effective response, the international community has put little concrete political pressure on the Sudanese government. Moreover, Khartoum has proven very adept at mollifying international outrage just enough to prevent the cohesive mobilization of states critical of its policy of ethnic cleansing.

So far, the locus of the international community’s action has been in its response to the humanitarian issues the conflict triggered in western Sudan and neighboring Chad. Refugee and internally-displaced person (IDP) camps in government-held territory are administered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and money is pouring in from donor governments to the NGOs that staff and supply the camps. While this has been an admirable effort to mitigate the effects of ethnic cleansing, it should not be confused with an effective strategy to stop it. The ICG noted that governments have increasingly preferred to provide humanitarian assistance and “protection by presence” instead of a more robust and realistic approach to preventing atrocities. A recent Congressional Research Service report highlighted this tendency by pointing to the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid pledged to address Darfur’s human rights situation. Despite such large relief contributions, recent estimates put the death toll in Darfur between 200,000 and 300,000. Clearly, the humanitarian relief response has not been enough.

Action in the UN Security Council has thus far been slow and lackluster. The most significant Security Council Resolution on Darfur, 1556, was passed on July 30, 2004 and demanded that the government of Sudan allow unrestricted humanitarian access to the area, improve regional security, investigate human rights abuses, and disarm the Janjaweed within thirty days (later extended to sixty). The resolution threatened consequences for noncompliance; yet thus far no punishment has been imposed, despite the government’s continued intransigence. The resolution was followed by UNSCR 1590 (March 24, 2005), specifically connected to implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between northern and southern Sudan but expanded by UNSCR 1706 (August 31, 2006), which extended the UN’s role to Darfur. Subsequent efforts to pass a resolution strongly denouncing the government’s role in the crisis and prescribing effective penalties for non-cooperation have been stymied, at least until recently, by Sudanese activism in the UN, the subdued diplomatic approach of EU member states, and opposition by China and Russia in the UN Security Council.

In the area of conflict resolution, the international community, led by the African Union (AU), has facilitated numerous rounds of peace negotiations between the government and rebel forces, first in N’djamena, Chad, and later in Abuja, Nigeria. Thus far, the negotiations have resulted in a number of ceasefire agreements, which the parties have systematically violated. Prospects for improvement in the near future are grim. The most recent accord, the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), was signed by a single faction of the SLA led by Minni Minnawi, leaving important groups outside of the agreement, with the potential to act as spoilers. The signing of the accord, paradoxically yet perhaps not unexpectedly, sparked an escalation of violence in the region.

As part of the April 2004 N’djamena agreement, an initial group of twenty-five AU Mission in Sudan (AMIS) personnel deployed to Darfur. The force was later strengthened to 7,000 troops, who were mandated to monitor the nonexistent ceasefire, protect civilians, and escort humanitarian convoys throughout Darfur. Although the Mission has received significant support from the EU, the potential success of AMIS has been hampered by delayed troop mobilization, a limited mandate, scarce resources, and the slow arrival of equipment and money. One commentator bluntly remarked that as the Darfur crisis developed, the phrase “African solutions to African problems” had become the West’s politically correct way of saying, “we do not really care.”

A consensus has emerged around an AU/UN hybrid force with a proposed troop strength of 20,000, the subject of the current draft resolution. A number of advocacy NGOs, including ICG and Human Rights Watch, have expressed concerns about the likely capacity of such a force, but at present, a hybrid appears to be the most politically feasible option. The Sudanese regime under President Omar al-Bashir accepted this force “in principle,” but given Bashir’s skillful manipulation of the international community throughout the Darfur crisis, there is reason for skepticism. Whatever the government’s machinations, the time has come for the countries most loudly decrying the injustices in Darfur to back their rhetoric with firm and decisive action.

The UN Security Council referred the human rights atrocities carried out in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on March 30, 2005 for investigation and possible prosecution. This was a landmark event, as this was the first high-profile case involving genocide to be referred to the ICC, which was explicitly created to provide an on-call infrastructure that could prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes in a timely fashion. The ICC referral provides some hope that guilty parties will be brought to justice eventually, but success depends on the cooperation of member states. Given the gravity of the crisis in Darfur, this is a rather limited victory for proponents of strong international action.

As indicated above, the substance of the international response to the Darfur crisis has been very weak. What contextual events might explain this? Can we conclude from this lack of decisive action that there is no norm of humanitarian intervention?

Humanitarian Intervention in Darfur

The biggest humanitarian disaster of the 1990s has loomed large in the background of the Darfur crisis. At every turn, actors have responded to developments in Darfur from a perspective shaped by the legacy of the Rwandan genocide. The parallels with Rwanda—ethnic groups divided along pastoral-agricultural lines, extremist ethnic militias tenuously directed by the government, peace talks distracting attention from looming disaster, a debate over whether or not genocide was occurring—are too striking to ignore. The situation in Darfur caused many to become increasingly uncomfortable as the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide approached. Nevertheless, political will on the Darfur question did not gather momentum until a litany of commemorative events in April 2004 made the international community’s hypocrisy glaringly apparent. After this point, strongly-worded public statements condemning Khartoum and the Janjaweed proliferated, and hope for a decisive international response grew.

The tragic consequences of global paralysis during the Rwandan genocide have certainly impacted international consciousness, inhibiting the world’s recourse to denial in the face of grave crimes against humanity. Most relevant actors, with the exception of the Sudanese government, have acknowledged the extent of death and destruction in Darfur and have laid blame squarely on the guilty parties throughout the crisis. This contrasts sharply with the international response to Rwanda and especially with the machinations of the UN Security Council during the earlier genocide. Generally speaking, the experience in Rwanda has resulted in an increased willingness to acknowledge the scale of devastation in Darfur and to engage in a more transparent debate to define the substance of an appropriate response. This transparency has been enhanced by the work of large human rights NGOs, who have subjected key actors to unrelenting scrutiny and forcefully reminded governments of their shortcomings a decade ago.

Despite the aggressive efforts of transnational advocacy networks on behalf of persecuted Darfuris, the massive scale of death and destruction during the Rwandan genocide may well have desensitized the public to the point where anything short of the near-total elimination of an ethnic group fails to evoke a meaningful international outcry. The role of the media as a “conscience-trigger” is crucial in this regard. Unfortunately, just as an international consensus began to form around the magnitude of the human rights abuses in Darfur, the media’s attention was diverted, particularly when a devastating tsunami hit Asia in late December 2004. The cognitive dissonance that norm entrepreneurs exploited to create pressure for action on Darfur was counteracted, however, by the appalling benchmark of death set by Rwanda—which the Darfur crisis is nowhere near exceeding—and the media’s limited attention span, especially when discussing complex civil conflict in Africa.

A related problem involved much of the initial focus of international attention toward Darfur on the question of whether or not the killings constituted “genocide.” This debate affected the speed of the international community’s mobilization against government atrocities and the stature of the Genocide Convention of 1948, which obliges signatories to act when faced with evidence of genocide. Many commentators have noted that the semantic debate over genocide in Darfur is a distraction that has stalled international action, when the use of the term was initially expected (and legally mandated) to precipitate a strong response. The Genocide Convention calls for international action in the face of “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical (sic), racial, or religious group,” a broad definition that has been interpreted in widely divergent ways, especially in light of paradigmatic cases like Rwanda and the Holocaust. NGOs quickly recognized that “this indeterminacy makes genocide a difficult term around which to mobilize an international coalition for intervention” and urged the international community to act to stop the killings, whether they constituted an airtight case of genocide or not.

Despite this tactical shift, the damage is done. During the Rwandan genocide, officials engaged in embarrassing linguistic gymnastics to avoid using the term, a step they apparently believed would force the U.S. into action. In the case of Darfur, however, the United States specifically employed the term “genocide,” yet failed to push any substantive response through the UN Security Council and appeared unwilling to “go it alone” to act decisively in Darfur. As a result, the force of the Genocide Convention has been seriously compromised. Indeed, one of the most significant legacies of the Darfur conflict may be the fatal weakening of the Genocide Convention, a treaty that has not been acted upon since its ratification more than fifty years ago. While the norm for humanitarian assistance progresses, the Genocide Convention today has little influence as international law.

The genocide debate points to a broader challenge that norms entrepreneurs have met with varying success: that of framing the Darfur conflict in a manner that effectively elicits sustained international attention and, ultimately, a robust response. Again, this challenge echoes the Rwandan case. The transnational advocacy network for Darfur is dealing with competing perspectives, alternative interpretations that reflect Khartoum’s diplomatic skill and have found sympathetic audiences. First is the “chaos theory,” which frames ethnic conflict in Darfur as the inevitable result of deep-seated and intractable hatreds between black Africans and Arabs. This interpretation is strikingly similar to early accounts of the Rwandan genocide and is attractive because its appeal to “tribal” divisions simplifies a very complex situation and meshes well with Western stereotypes about Africa. However, the “chaos theory” completely neglects decades of political manipulation in Darfur, as well as Khartoum’s complicity in arming and directing the Janjaweed throughout the counter-insurgency campaign. Numerous studies pointing out the inaccuracy of this type of explanation of Rwandan conflict have diminished its influence as an account of the crisis in Darfur.

A second framing brings our discussion to another key contextual event that has informed the international response to Darfur: the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This event is particularly important because the United States has been the most active “critical state” pushing for a strong response to the atrocities in Darfur. U.S. activity in the Middle East since the beginning of the war in Iraq has significantly undermined the credibility of the United States as a voice for morality on the world stage. Analysts have noted that “unfortunately, the effectiveness of leadership by the United States… has been hampered by fallout from the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism,” especially in mobilizing Arab countries against Khartoum’s policies. Skepticism informs various conspiracy theories concerning the motives behind the U.S. position on Darfur. The Sudanese leadership has effectively stoked suspicions that U.S. pressure has nothing to do with possible genocide and everything to do with securing more petroleum resources, an argument that resonates strongly with states that object to U.S. policies toward the Middle East.

The U.S. appeal to humanitarian intervention as one of several justifications for the invasion of Iraq has been widely viewed as an abuse of the norm that has further undermined U.S. credibility. U.S.-led activity in Iraq has reinforced the belief in some circles that humanitarian intervention is “a ‘Trojan Horse’ used by the powerful to legitimize their interference in the affairs of the weak.” The cases of Iraq and Darfur highlight the fact that disinterested multilateral humanitarian intervention is an acceptable course of action for most states in principle; however, a real debate exists as to whether or not intervention would, or even could, occur for completely selfless reasons in practice. This suspicion of ulterior motives on the part of the United States has been reinforced by the invocation of some of the terminology and norms that were also used to justify the widely condemned invasion of Iraq. Together these factors have heightened perceptions of U.S. hypocrisy and reduced U.S. effectiveness as a norm carrier.

In the case of Darfur, a number of contextual events have had an impact on the normative climate in which calculations of national interest and strategic planning of transnational advocacy networks take place. The Rwandan genocide fundamentally altered the social structure within which international actors operate: denial and silence is no longer a feasible course of action in the face of grave crimes against humanity. Although the substance of the international community’s response has been uninspiring, states have not been complicit in exacerbating or prolonging the Darfur disaster, as was arguably the case during the Rwandan genocide. Evidence of a global failure to link words to action regarding Rwanda includes the fact that the Rwandan delegation was allowed to remain in their rotating UN Security Council seat at the height of the carefully planned massacre at home. Unlike Rwanda, the government of Sudan has not been allowed to participate normally in the international community, and the situation has remained in the public spotlight as the crisis has deepened. NGOs and other members of the transnational advocacy network advocating for Darfuris have also learned a great deal in the last decade and are better equipped to counter competing framings of the dynamics of this conflict. The international community has not sufficiently internalized this new normative climate, however, in a way that might change the strategic calculus of critical states in favor of forceful military intervention in Darfur.

Moreover, the fact that the lead norm carrier on human rights—the United States—has appealed to humanitarian intervention language in the recent past to justify an invasion rejected by much of the international community has dealt a significant blow to international momentum for decisive military action to halt the atrocities being committed in Darfur. This case highlights the dynamic two-way channels through which norms are created. States are not merely reactive; rather, they also play a constitutive role: who they are and how they employ a norm affects the shape it will take throughout the norm cycle, for better or worse.

Additional Mediating Factors

The internalization, or lack thereof, of norms and the identity of norms carriers only takes us so far in explaining the international community’s tepid response to the Darfur conflict. A number of factors on the ground have prevented the United States, or any other country with the necessary military capabilities, from decisively intervening to end Khartoum’s abuses. In the specific case of the United States, military overstretch driven by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has limited its possible range of action: “the United States [is] trying to assert its strength but [can] only carry a very short stick” where the Darfur situation is concerned. Moreover, the U.S. continues to struggle with a conflict of interest between its abhorrence of Sudan’s terrible human rights record and useful information that the Bashir regime has passed along to intelligence officials pursuing the war on terror. The result is consistent contradictory signals that have vindicated the Sudanese government’s strategy of international manipulation and allowed Khartoum’s ever more brazen disregard for the global outcry against the Darfur counterinsurgency campaign.

For the United States and other states engaging the Sudanese government, the significant political capital they invested in the Naivasha peace negotiations to end the war in the south has been another brake on strong action in Darfur. There is a fear that if the international community pushes the ruling clique too hard, it might pull back from the peace process. More recently, however, there has been a heightened recognition of the organic character of Sudan’s wars and the shortcomings of a sequential approach to their resolution. Moreover, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) has been concluded and a government of national reconciliation that includes the SPLA has been formed, so the peace process is by itself no longer a viable excuse for inaction. This is not to say that the CPA is not fragile, especially in the post-Garang era; but insofar as the SPLA is peaceably integrated into the Sudanese political system, there is increased hope for a political solution to the Darfur crisis: the SLA and JEM are more likely to deal willingly with their sometime allies from the South, creating the possibility of a unified, state-level resolution to the conflict.

A final barrier to effective action in western Sudan is the lack of agreement on the shape a workable plan for intervention might take. Darfur’s vast size, forbidding topography, and sparse population present military planners with major logistical challenges. In fact, some analysts doubt that even a large multilateral force with good equipment and a broad mandate could be effective on the ground, advocating instead a defensive mandate that is limited to protecting IDP and refugee camps. The wide variety of options that have been put on the table, along with divergent assessments by concerned states of the level of coercion required to generate results, are obstacles that norms entrepreneurs have found difficult to surmount throughout the Darfur crisis. These complicating factors have combined with conflicting political priorities vis-à-vis Sudan, U.S. military overstretch, and contextual events, crystallizing into a disappointing international response to a potentially preventable catastrophe.


There are several key points to take away from the preceding analysis of the state of humanitarian intervention as a normative concept in the context of ethnic cleansing and possible genocide in Darfur. The crisis in Darfur has clearly shown that in the post-Rwanda world, there is an emerging paradigm within which the international community reacts to gross human rights violations, though it is not yet powerful enough to affect a concrete behavioral shift in favor of a strategy of humanitarian intervention. In other words, there is evidence that this norm is beginning to alter the strategic environment, but not to a point where it can decisively shape action. Indeed, a wide variety of factors, including the Iraq war, division within the UN Security Council, and fragile peace negotiations in southern Sudan, precluded strong action and highlight the “enabling” (i.e., permitting action)—as opposed to “determining” (i.e., requiring action)—quality of the humanitarian intervention norm.

Whatever progress we have identified for the humanitarian intervention norm has been partially offset by the perceived abuse of humanitarian language by the United States in the run-up to Iraq. Moreover, the extent of the damage that the Darfur response has wrought on the Genocide Convention is unclear but decidedly unsettling. In future crises, norm entrepreneurs need to be aware of the fact that while the language and symbolism of their issue can constitute a useful mobilization tool, a strategy of appealing to emotions can also backfire. Contested terms such as “genocide” or doctrines such as “humanitarian intervention” can be used by key actors to hide behind a semantic debate and mask their inaction, with the consequence of diverting limited international attention and energy from the substance of a robust response. This possibility is further enhanced when the norm is invoked by a controversial actor within a highly polarized context. NGOs must recognize when their campaign for action is being hijacked by this type of argument and move rapidly to redirect international attention to concrete measures that will help stop the killing. Developing this ability will likely entail a number of strategic innovations within transnational advocacy networks. One of these innovations will likely be the active cultivation of relationships with political and military leaders, a community traditionally viewed with distrust by the aid community but increasingly seen as a vital partner in multi-track diplomatic efforts.

It is clear that humanitarian intervention, in practice, remains a highly contested course of action. Undeniably, the violation of a state’s sovereignty by foreign military forces in order to stop a humanitarian disaster is an extreme solution to an extreme crisis. The drastic measure of using outside military force as a conflict resolution tool points to the necessity of improving the scope and sophistication of conflict prevention initiatives. We have clearly passed this threshold with respect to Darfur, and at the moment it appears that the deployment of a hybrid AU/UN force is the region’s best hope. Although this is not a perfect solution, NGOs should recognize it as the best available option within the current political and normative context and push for a quick deployment.

When preventative initiatives do fail, it is of the utmost of importance to mobilize the international community quickly and purposefully. While transnational advocacy networks have enhanced their capacities as an early warning system since the Rwandan genocide, they remain too weak to overcome the politicking of the UN Security Council, the reluctance of governments in the industrialized world, and the calculated actions of repressive states. In the meantime, the murder of countless innocents continues unabated.

Nicole Cordeau is studying international development in the foreign service program at Georgetown University. She has also worked for a number of human rights advocacy and development NGOs in Latin America, Asia, Canada, and the United States.

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