Friday, July 23, 2004

Military intervention in Darfur?

I've been vaguely following the atrocities in Darfur for the past few months, watching the reports of ethnic cleansing, deliberate starvation and mass rapes trickle in, but haven't blogged about it, in part out of a sense of total helplessness. None of the major powers really gives a shit about what goes on in Africa (too much trouble for too little oil), and so the best that could be done was for the UN to nicely ask the Sudanese government to rein in its puppet militia and end the killing. Which, given the nature of the Sudanese government, is about as effective as pissing in the wind. Given the aforementioned disinterest by the international community, the usual means of arm-twisting a poorly behaving regime into line - trade sanctions - were simply not on the agenda, and so there was nothing that could really be done.

Fortunately, I was wrong about that. In the past month both the US and the EU have taken an interest, and Colin Powell has personally visited the area and applied pressure to the Sudanese government. The African Union has got involved, sending a small monitoring group and protection force. And today, the Guardian reports that Tony Blair has asked his advisors to draw up plans for military intervention.

Would such intervention be justified? Looking at the plans, the first two options - transporting aid and providing equipment and support to the African union force - are certainly justifiable. The third option - using military force to create safe zones and protect refugees - would require the consent and co-operation of the Sudanese government to be effective. But if there is consent from the relevant authorities, then there isn't really an issue - it's the question of what happens if that consent is not given which poses a moral quandary.

Earlier in the year, Human Rights Watch produced a report on the humanitarian argument for the war in Iraq, in which they concluded that said war was not justifiable on humanitarian grounds. The same ethical framework can be applied to Darfur. According to HRW, military intervention

...can be justified only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life

This is a high threshold because of the inherently messy and uncertain nature of war, and its ability to completely disrupt society and make things far worse. And it may be questionable whether the Darfur crisis reaches it - while the atrocities are terrible, they may not actually be killing enough people. It is starvation and aid delivery which are the chief threats, and these may be able to be met by co-operating with Chad, where many of the camps are located.

But assuming Darfur does reach the threshold - if for example the Sudanese government or the militias continue to interfere with the delivery of food aid, and thereby endanger the lives of the million or so refugees currently in camps along the border - then there are other criteria which must be met. In order to be morally justifiable, any military intervention must:

  • be a last resort;
  • be "guided primarily by a humanitarian purpose" (this does not preclude other motives, but they must be subsidiary);
  • comply with international human rights standards (the means must be concordant with the ends);
  • be reasonably likely to actually make things better; and
  • ideally should be endorsed by the UN or other appropriate multilateral institutions, except in extremis.

I don't think there's any problem with meeting these criteria. If the situation in Darfur deteriorates and the Sudanese government deliberately attempts to starve a million of its citizens to death, it would be entirely justifiable to use military force to prevent it.

It remains to be seen whether force will be necessary. I hope that it will not be, and that the Sudanese government will bow to international pressure, deal to the Janjaweed and allow the free flow of aid to those who need it. But if they do not, then the international community should act. We stood by and watched while a million died in Rwanda; we cannot let that happen again.