Mass atrocities are once again plaguing the people of Darfur, Sudan, with talk of a genocide taking place.
Twenty years after genocide began in the region, recent conflict and targeted violence have forced over 5 million people to flee their homes across Sudan in just five months. In Darfur, non-Arab unarmed civilians have been hunted down and massacred, according to eyewitnesses and survivors. Women and girls have been subjected to systematic rape, sexual violence and trafficking.
With genocide and crimes against humanity once again taking place and so little international attention, one wonders if the international community has completely turned its back on a decades-old commitment to protect civilians from mass atrocities, known as the “responsibility to protect.”
I’m an adjunct professor of genocide studies and human rights at the University of Connecticut, and the question of how the international community should confront genocide is an issue my students and I grapple with every semester.
Before unpacking that question, let’s look at why the expectation of civilian protection even exists.
In 2000, then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked the international community, “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica — to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?”
It was an important question. For centuries, the principle of sovereignty reigned supreme in international relations. It was largely understood that what happens within a country’s borders is that government’s responsibility. Governing authorities were pretty much free to do what they pleased, without fear of meddling from other international actors.
In the post-World War II era, states began to willingly give up some of their sovereignty to join the newly created United Nations and engage in various agreements outlining common rules they would follow – collectively, these rules are now known as international law. However, even after witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust and pledging “never again,” the world watched genocide unfold in Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica the following year. Annan’s question needed an answer if the international community were to effectively prevent or intervene to stop another genocide.
In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty sought to answer Annan’s question by presenting a new concept known as the “responsibility to protect.” The framework re-imagined state sovereignty and the responsibility of states to protect their people from mass atrocities like genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. In cases when a state was unwilling to live up to its responsibility to protect civilians or was itself the perpetrator of mass atrocities, then the responsibility shifted to the wider international community through the United Nations.
The commission outlined three key responsibilities for implementing the responsibility to protect: the responsibility to prevent, react and rebuild.