Why it’s better to be Idriss Deby than a Darfurian civilian

On Monday, the Security Council issued a statement condemning the rebel assault on Chad’s capital, N’Djamena and urging Member States to support the Chadian government. The speed at which the Security Council responded to this threat underscores the distinction between defending a sovereign government from rebel attack and responding to a genocide perpetrated by a government on its own people.

Even though the Security Council’s statement had been toned down to omit references to military force or to Sudanese involvement in the attack, it implicitly gave France, which maintains 1,400 troops in Chad, the green light to defend President Idriss Deby’s government. French president Nicolas Sarkozy explicitly articulated his country’s willingness to intervene militarily, asserting yesterday that “if France must do its duty, it will do so.” In the tragic history of the Darfur genocide, by contrast, no country has so baldly proclaimed its readiness to pony up military support — or even peacekeepers or equipment — in the face of opposition from the Sudanese government.This dynamic — whereby it is easier to protect a head of state than millions of civilian victims — is in a sense a natural byproduct of the state sovereignty system under which the UN operates. Thus, a UN-authorized coalition invaded Iraq to defend the sovereign state of Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1991, but the international community had only dithered when the despot gassed Kurds in his own country three years earlier. And while President Deby can feel secure after the rebels’ retreat and the prospect of French support, Darfurians still await the batch of helicopters for the much-delayed peacekeeping force that has been slowly and falteringly cobbled together to protect them.

It is unreasonable to expect that countries would leap at the opportunity to send military forces into a sovereign territory that overtly objects to their presence. To achieve the ultimate goal of balancing these two imperatives — respecting sovereign governments and protecting their populations — countries must embrace the emerging “Responsibility to Protect” (or R2P) doctrine, which creates powerful incentives for states to protect their own people and outlines a contingency scheme in the case of state failure. The UN has theoretically adopted this bold new framework for international relations, but its support thus far has been merely hortatory. Member States must step up and demonstrate their commitment to R2P, so that innocent civilians do not continue to languish unprotected, while beleaguered governments reap the benefits of their sovereign status.