On Our Watch

Why, Again, Is This Happening?

The world community vowed "Never Again!" after the 1994 Rwandan genocide and again after Srebrenica's atrocities a year later. Then came Darfur.

James Traub
The New York Times Magazine

...It was all too obvious to the Sudanese that they would be protected in the Security Council of the U.N. It really is a shameful episode. ...

Why did the U.N. fail, in your estimation?

Here we have to think about what we mean by the words "the U.N." Kofi Annan himself has gotten a lot of criticism for this. He did then; he will in retrospect, I am sure. I don't really think he deserves the criticism. I think he did fail to act in Rwanda. I don't know how much he could have done, but he failed to do what he could have done.

In this case [Darfur], I don't think it's fair. Could he have spoken up earlier than he did? Perhaps, though he actually began speaking up at the very beginning of 2004, and he found no response. So I think the problem here lies not with the U.N. as an institution but with the member states.

What happened was [U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator] Jan Egeland, Mukesh Kapila and others were trying to put pressure on the Security Council to raise this issue, and there was no interest in doing so. In March 2004, Pakistan became the president of the council; that changes every month. The Pakistanis were then, and would remain -- do remain to this day -- staunch in their unwillingness to have any kind of robust action taken against the government in Khartoum.

In April, Germany became the new president and the Germans in fact were willing to act. It was still very difficult even to get it on the agenda of the Security Council and it was put on the agenda as a kind of last minute, back-handed item in which Egeland came and briefed the council.

But after he did so, one normally has, if there's not going to be any kind of a resolution, you'll have what's called a "president's statement," which will summarize the feeling of the council. The president's statement was incredibly lukewarm, because Pakistan, Algeria, China, Russia and others were unwilling to criticize the government. It simply called on all sides to seesaw to these, and that set a tone that would remain for the ensuing years, which was a terribly grudging unwillingness to recognize the magnitude of the action and to act in a way that would be effective.

What have we put in place that can possibly help us next time around, in light of Darfur?

If the critical thing is the ability to credibly threaten the use of military force in the case of genocide, the answer is, we have failed. We have failed because the countries that are the key countries are not willing to act. So then you have to ask whether any of the subsidiary things matter -- for example, the threat of a war crimes tribunal -- and I think that does.

But until you are willing to credibly threaten a series of sanctions up to and ultimately including the use of force in the form of humanitarian intervention, you will not be able to get the attention of these profoundly malevolent regimes that are perpetrating these crimes in the first place. ...

One way of dealing with that -- which I don't think will happen but it's what you could do -- is to pass rules restricting the use of the veto so that you could not use a veto in order to block action in a third country, not against yourself. Oh, you could never tell a country you can't use the veto in its own affairs -- if there are credible claims of gross violations of human rights -- you cannot use a veto to block action there.

Now, do I think that's ever going to happen? No. So, if you're asking me, what do I think can be done in a practical way, I don't know.

A fairly depressing situation for us?

That is, in the end. It does not have to do with the U.N. It has to do with the calculations made by nation states. And the U.N. cannot transcend those calculations.

And that brings it down to individuals, doesn't it? It brings it down to us, the constituents saying this will not stand --

Correct. If heads of states feel that it will be bad for them to fail to act in situations like that, they will act. If they feel that in the end, it just doesn't matter politically, they won't act.

So there is no escaping it for us, either.

Right. Right. This is an obligation that we have as citizens.

Samantha Power
Author, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

photo of Power

If you were writing the report card for the U.N. on Darfur, what does it say?

[Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations] Richard Holbrooke likes to say about the U.N. that blaming the U.N. for anything ... is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly. You know, that you're blaming a building; that fundamentally, at its heart, the U.N. is 192 governments, and if you go one by one by one, you need to give report cards to every one of those governments in terms of how they've responded to this crisis. ...

And so in that sense, it's a disaster. You don't have anybody joining the Bush administration in a prominent way other than the Slovenian President [Janez Drnovsek] briefly took a very strong stand on Darfur; [President Nicolas] Sarkozy now, in France, appears to be finally putting the French back in the debate and active in the diplomacy.

But, I mean, that's three countries: the United States, Slovenia and belatedly France. Canada, a little bit here or there. That leaves you 188 countries that are doing next to nothing about the systematic killing of 400,000 people, about violence that's tearing up the fabric of a society. So I like to go country by country, because I think the more we talk about the U.N.'s responsibility, the more it actually allows countries and governments with real citizens and real interests and real constituencies and real pressure points, it allows them off the hook.

Kofi Annan had a lot of guilt going into Darfur about Rwanda, about Srebrenica -- the massacre that occurred in Bosnia in 1995 -- and his role in those two crimes. And so he tried to speak out, but he doesn't have the temperament. This is not a rabble-rouser. This is not somebody who gets a thrill out of being behind a pulpit and rallying people to his side. ...

And so, relative to prior secretaries-general, he was outspoken on Darfur; relative to just about any head of state in the U.N., he was outspoken on Darfur. ... [Current U.N. Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon, so far, is extremely disappointing on Darfur and looks to be adopting the persona of many of his predecessors in that job, which is to be more of a secretary than a general.

Darfur needs a general. Not a military general, it needs a diplomatic general, a political general, a moral general. It doesn't need a secretary.

Kieran Prendergast
U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, 1997-'05

If you advocate the possibility of armed action when there is no possibility of armed action, you are likely to have the effect of radicalizing the people who think that the U.S. cavalry or the British cavalry or whatever are going to come galloping over the horizon to smite their enemies. You actually have the effect of hardening their position and making it easier for them to behave in an unreasonable way. So I think that a great disservice was done by whoever persuaded the secretary-general to make reference to the possibility of military action. ...

I think that in a situation where you are not actually able to force your views on the Sudanese government, there should have been a greater effort to persuade them and to push them. I played some small part in persuading them to accept a peacekeeping operation in order to implement the North-South agreement. I don't think there was during those critical days a corresponding effort to persuade the Sudanese government with the threat of sanctions, unilateral measures or whatever, to accept measures that would have been helpful in containing the problem. ...

I'm interested to hear you talk about all this, because the sense I get is that the truth is you couldn't stop it even if you wanted to in Darfur. Is that essentially your position?

I thought it was quite difficult to come to a very clear and full understanding of what you were dealing with. How much of it was a humanitarian tragedy which was due to the particular climatic conditions complicated, exacerbated by obstructiveness by the government? How much of it was Janjaweed? ... It was a very complicated situation. I don't think by the time we got to understand how serious was the ongoing loss of life that we could have stopped that in a hurry. ...

And doesn't this speak to the problem? How are we to stop these? Do you look back on Darfur and accept that there are crimes against humanity that are being perpetrated?

Yeah, certainly, definitely. What the ICC [International Criminal Court] has so found. I really do not want to be put in the position of appearing to be an apologist for the regime in Khartoum, because I'm not.

Nevertheless, I think you have to look at issues with a certain rigor, and you have not to blink if you conclude that the policy instruments are limited, and you have to try and use those instruments to the best, and you have not to mislead people by holding out the possibility of other action which is not going to happen.

And by the way, this conversation is very slightly bizarre in that it takes place as if the United Nations was the United Nations Secretariat and there was no Security Council, there was no U.S. Embassy, there was no British Embassy, there was no Canadian Embassy with a much bigger presence on the ground. ...

I don't recall any request in the Security Council for a briefing on Darfur. I don't recall the Canadian government or the U.S. government or the British government making strong statements about Darfur until the issue exploded on the world the way it exploded on us. ...

Why is this focus on the weak little U.N. Secretariat, underfunded, underresourced, undermanned and without technical means that the world's great powers have, actually to have real-time knowledge about what's happening on the ground?

Alex de Waal
Co-author, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War

The U.N. has been thoroughly confused on Darfur throughout the system. It hasn't had the clear leadership at the top from the U.N. Security Council. ... That is a problem of the key member states of the U.N. Security Council: the U.S., Britain, France, China, etc. The U.N. has been hostage to those politics.

The U.N. has also been drawn into an issue, which is the peacekeeping issue, which has trapped it. It's trapped its energies. The decision was made in the middle of 2005, which really came out of the Bush White House, that the policy priority for Darfur would be getting U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur, and the peace process in [the Nigerian capital] Abuja, trying to get a political settlement, became secondary to the peacekeeping issue.

Now, there is one good argument in favor of that, which is, why wait for a peace agreement in order to get some civilian protection on the ground? On the other hand, years of experience with resolving these types of complicated wars suggests that the political process must be given priority and that peacekeeping must be a support to a peace agreement. ...

If peacekeepers are sent without an agreement, that is almost certain to fail. And the U.N. was corralled unwillingly into the role of pushing for U.N. peacekeepers to go in without there being a proper agreement and became hostage to that, ... and it's now foisted with this idea of an African Union-U.N. hybrid force, a novel idea that hasn't been tried. The fear is that neither the U.N. nor the African Union are terribly smoothly functioning bureaucracies -- they both have major internal difficulties in getting anything serious organized, like a peacekeeping force -- and bringing the two of them together could just bring out the worst in both organizations. ...

If you're going to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, you will see one very, very powerful tableau, which is of Gen. Eisenhower arriving at Dachau and seeing the aftermath of the Holocaust, of the Nazi genocide of European Jews.

In a way, that image of the U.S. troops arriving at the site of a genocidal massacre, but too late, is, I think, the trauma that has gripped the U.S. over the genocide issue for some 60 years now. The sort of repeated loop that goes through the minds of policy-makers and activists is: "The cavalry came over the hill too late. We should have arrived earlier. Next time let's arrive in time." ... Our cavalry didn't arrive at all, and it was the Rwandese who solved this problem, but too late.

So the question is, why did the U.S. cavalry not get sent to Darfur in time? And this has an extraordinarily powerful grip on our imaginations.

I would argue that we need to step back from that. We need to look at how actually these episodes of mass killing, be they eliminationist genocide, as in the case of Holocaust or Rwanda, or massive crimes against humanity in the case of war, as in the case of many episodes in Sudan, how actually they were brought to an end. History tells us that it's very rare for an international intervention force to actually play a role.

Mukesh Kapila
U.N. humanitarian coordinator, Sudan, 2003-`04

We're now in 2004, when you first informed your bosses at the U.N. [of evidence of genocide in Darfur] What sort of response are you getting from the U.N.?

Basically the response was, "the United Nations has a humanitarian role in Sudan;" I was resident and humanitarian coordinator; ... I was told to get on with my job. And clearly I wasn't getting enough humanitarian aid to the refugees and displaced; therefore I was actually not being very good at my job, ... conveniently ignoring all the political and other obstructions that the Sudan government was playing. ...

The second thing in relation to that was that basically the United Nations had contracted out the peace process in the North-South to the troika countries, ... and the Department of Political Affairs in the United Nations Secretariat in New York simply did not want to know and simply did not want to get engaged in this particular process. ...

Now, you argue that had ... pressure been applied earlier, it might have stopped this.

I have absolutely no doubt -- and this is going to be my lasting regret to my dying day -- that if we had intervened in late 2003 and early 2004, ... even though many bad things would have continued to happen, the worst might have been reduced a bit. ... That to me is a failure of the United Nations leadership. It is a failure of the permanent members of the Security Council who must bear prime responsibility, along with the United Nations, for the failure in Sudan. If you have a Security Council and ... if they cannot deal with these particular issues, then we have to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this Security Council? ...

The extraordinary thing about the Darfur crisis is that it is the first genocide in history, I think, ... that not only did we fail miserably, despite all the resources and technologies and policies at our disposal, but that we had the satisfaction of documenting every single step of the way. In other words, not only did we fail, but we beautifully recorded our failure, and we beautifully recorded the act of failing. Extraordinary. Extraordinary failure.

The other extraordinary thing about all this is that not a single person of importance anywhere -- in any foreign ministry of powerful countries or in the echelons of the United Nations system -- lost their jobs as a consequence of this. Where is the personal accountability? ...

So what are we to do then? I mean, what are the citizens of the world to expect? What can be done to stop this?

... Two or three things need to happen. Firstly, this doctrine of personal accountability has to be brought forward. ... Unless we can track those people who make decisions and hold them accountable for the personal advice and personal decisions they make, we're not going to have personal accountability, and we will see no particular change. ...

The second thing that I think needs to happen is that we need some kind of system where there is an automaticity of response. The problem is we have too much discretion given to making judgments: Is this ethnic cleansing? Is this genocide? Is the situation bad enough to intervene? How bad does it have to get before you intervene?

The history of genocide prevention is actually a history of failure, because ... by the time you actually declare something genocide, it has already happened. Therefore, in order to actually have a preventive impact on these things, then one has to have a system of graded responses which is almost automatic in terms of what the international community does.

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posted november 20, 2007

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