Flipping the Conventional Wisdom on Darfur

Last Tuesday, during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing (video) on the “The Future of the United Nations Under Ban Ki-moon,” a question was asked that reflects the conventional wisdom on the crisis in Darfur:

This conflict, I think, highlights the profound shortcomings of the United Nations, and I suspect we might be further down the road of acting decisively, if it were not for the restrictions we allow the Security Council to impose upon us. And I think that … in the United Nations, we’re sort of guaranteed the lowest common denominator approach to genocide.

The response posited by former Senator Tim Wirth flipped the issue on its head and framed it in a way that should be of interest to those promoting a framework for responding quickly to the genocide.

[This] goes right to the question of duty to protect and goes right to what the responsibilities of other nations are to the genocide going on in a sovereign nation. And we haven’t figured that problem out. We don’t know what the answer to that is. I think to say that that’s a part of the profound shortcoming of the UN is to say it’s our own shortcoming. We’re the ones who have not been able, with the Chinese and the other members of the Security Council and others, to really figure out when this veto power exists and when the sovereign responsibility of a country stops and other nations can come in. There’s nothing stopping us from independently going into Darfur; we could certainly do that. We’ve chosen not to do so, but there’s nothing stopping us or others from doing it. We’ve all been delinquent on this subject.

This question has been falsely framed in the public sphere. The debate is not over whether and when the world should act. The answers to those questions in the case of Darfur — “yes” and “now” — were decided long ago by almost every responsible nation. The world is engaged in a more primary and far more complex debate: at what point is national sovereignty trumped by our responsibility to protect? Violating a state’s sovereignty is no small matter. And the UN doing so would set a precedent that nearly every nation is wary of setting. But, clearly, in some instances, it is the world’s moral obligation and in every nation’s security interest to do so.

This debate is not nearly finished, but it has already illuminated a basic misconception about the United Nations. Lee Feinstein, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, put it succinctly in his recent report, “Darfur and Beyond: What is Needed to Prevent Mass Atrocities” when he said, “Criticism of the United Nations is a form of self-criticism.” The UN is the world’s platform for international cooperation. Criticism of its shortcomings is criticism of the world’s inability to engage and to gain consensus. Only when member states exert the political will necessary to develop a truly robust framework around the “responsibility to protect” can the world expect to see an adequate response to genocide.