A Whole Made Up of Parts

Yesterday, The New York Times published an editorial criticizing the UN Security Council for demonstrating insufficient “will” and “urgency” to stop the genocide in Darfur. The Times is rightly frustrated with both the Sudanese government’s persistent obstructionism and the international community’s failure to pony up sufficient funding, supplies, and troops for the peacekeeping force there. The editorial also urges all the right policy steps, including additional sanctions, pressure on China, and support for the International Criminal Court.

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So what’s wrong with the Times‘ well-meaning and largely on-target editorial? Well, only that it may be aiming at an overly broad target . This complaint may seem nit-picky, but the Times, by focusing its indignation on the Security Council “as a whole,” is problematically conflating the umbrella of the “Council” with its component parts — the member states that make up the body and guide its decisions and courses of action. In a sense, then, the Times is missing the trees for the forest — and individual trees, particularly those falling out of line with the rest of the forest, make far better targets than the entire forest.

While unanimous Security Council action is always the goal — with regards to Darfur as well as any other subject of the Council’s attention — this cannot be achieved by simply chastising the entire institution; this is akin to blaming the Times “as a whole” for the words of, say, its editorial board. Using the term “Security Council” may often be convenient, but it casually glosses over the fact that the group — like the whole UN system — is no more than the sum of its parts, and that addressing criticisms to these individual countries, all of which act and vote according to their own interests, is both more effective and more intellectually honest. The Times‘ editorial in fact acknowledges that member states bear the greatest responsibility for the Council’s action or inaction:

But a minority of Council members, led by China, have let their economic interests — in Beijing’s case substantial investments in Sudan’s abundant oil supplies — trump their moral and legal responsibility to thwart genocide. Last week, China’s president, Hu Jintao, used stronger-than-usual language to urge Khartoum to cooperate with United Nations peacekeepers and enforce a cease-fire in Darfur. If China is prepared to back up those words with a tougher line in the Security Council, it could make a huge difference.

China is not the only Security Council member that needs to step up its action on Darfur. Greater individual commitments from all 15 nations — particularly the “P5” of China, Russia, the U.S., U.K., and France — are prerequisites to stronger and more concerted pressure on Sudan. With the signs coming from President Hu’s language, from yesterday’s unified support for ICC prosecutions, and from the U.S. Congress’ progress in allocating funds for desperately-needed helicopters, these stepwise requirements seem to be gradually being notched up.