The U.N.’s Masquerade
Human rights count for nothing in Sudan.


During his speech to the United Nations last week, President Bush took the government of Sudan to task for its refusal to end the violence in Darfur. “My nation has called these atrocities what they are: genocide,” Bush said. Nevertheless, the Islamic regime of Omar el-Bashir vows that, “no matter what the conditions,” it will oppose the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops in the region. The conditions, as everyone knows, are dire: In the last month alone, relief workers have been killed, hundreds of women sexually assaulted, and tens of thousands of civilians displaced. “If the Sudanese government does not approve this peacekeeping force quickly,” Bush warned, “the United Nations must act.”

The problem with the president’s warning is that the United Nations has been one of the chief obstacles to effective action in Darfur. Its failure to stop the killing offers another case study in the U.N.’s debilitating mix of pomposity, cynicism, and moral bewilderment.

More than two years have passed since rebel groups took up arms against the government in Khartoum and U.N. investigators declared that a “reign of terror” had enveloped Darfur. Since then, government-backed militias, known as the janjaweed, have brutalized civilians without consequence. Despite a U.S.-brokered peace agreement signed in May, the janjaweed continue to rape women in refugee camps, murder suspected rebel sympathizers, and destroy entire villages. At least 200,000 are dead and perhaps 2.5 million have been driven from their homes.

Equally alarming, the Sudanese government continues to limit the access of relief organizations, even as the humanitarian crisis worsens. Officials warn about limited food rations, lack of medical care, availability of clean water, and declining security — even for aid workers. Nine humanitarian workers were killed in the month of July alone. Over a two-month period, 25 U.N. or NGO vehicles were ambushed or hijacked.

“If this continues,” warned Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, “one organization after the other will be leaving Darfur because we cannot expose our staff to such unacceptable risks to their lives.” As a worker for a Christian-relief organization recently described her situation to me: “We hear heavy artillery at night. We are making plans to hibernate projects. We are being harassed, and we have a declining security situation.” Earlier this month, the Sudanese government banned the Norwegian Refugee Council from a refugee camp in south Darfur, apparently in retaliation for its reporting of alleged sexual assaults in the camp.

“In Darfur all of our nightmares have become realities,” said Egeland, in an August report. “We are at a point where even hope may escape us.” What already has escaped many U.N. officials, it seems, is any sense of moral seriousness about human right atrocities.

Since Sudan’s complicity in the killings became known, the U.N. Security Council passed two meaningless resolutions calling for the janjaweed to be disarmed. A third resolution failed even to criticize the government for ignoring the resolutions. The Council approved the deployment of African Union forces, but with numbers too small and a mandate too limited to make much difference. Last month the Council authorized 20,000 U.N. troops to take over the AU mission, but president el-Bashir has promised to fire on them (prompting a piddling response from Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who bowed to the government’s objection to U.N. peacekeepers). So far, proposals for sanctions against the regime have been blocked, thanks in part to China, with big-oil interests in the region.

While the Security Council dithers, the Human Rights Council — the new version of the discredited Human Rights Commission — shows no sign of confronting the crisis. Meeting last week in Geneva, the organization heard from U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, who complained that combatants “make a mockery of the principles of international humanitarian law.” They appear to have many allies in the United Nations, especially on the Human Rights Council, whose member states include China, Cuba, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia (the United States declined to seek a seat this year). They, along with several African states, are almost certain to block any meaningful resolution. The European Union, always ready to excoriate Israel, is ignoring Sudan — evidently eager to placate certain Islamic states on the Council.

Thus, despite two years of unremitting suffering in Darfur, the U.N.’s premier human-rights body has failed to produce a single resolution condemning the regime or even warning about the looming humanitarian disaster.

Some human-rights groups have grown increasingly pessimistic about U.N. diplomacy to pressure the Sudanese government. A coalition of over 40 human-rights leaders recently called on the U.N. Democracy Caucus to push for a special session on Darfur at the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, a move rejected at an earlier session this year. “To date, the caucus has yet to adequately act on opportunities to advance human rights at the United Nations,” Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House, told the House International Relations Committee earlier this month.

That’s putting it gently. “Appeals to Khartoum’s conscience, and requests for its assistance in winding back its ethnic cleansing campaign, are destined to fail,” writes Nick Grono, vice president of the International Crisis Group. “The regime will only change its behavior in response to realistic threats to punishment.” So far the United Nations has failed to muster any such threats in the face of the most grievous human-rights disaster since the Rwanda genocide.

All this comes despite the U.N.’s new “responsibility to protect” doctrine. Under the doctrine, approved unanimously by the General Assembly last year, member states agree that they have an obligation to protect people from genocide and other atrocities. States that fail to protect their own citizens, the doctrine implies, can’t escape international censure or even military action. Yet U.N. officials do not contemplate the deployment of troops in Sudan without permission from the offending regime. Suggestions that a NATO-led force establish safe havens for refugees — with or without U.N. Security Council approval — have gone nowhere.

Thus, the diplomatic dance continues. During his U.N. address, Bush announced the appointment of a special envoy to Sudan, former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios. His mandate is to help implement the Darfur Peace Agreement — said to be “in a coma” by the U.N. envoy to Sudan — and produce a plan to bring lasting peace to the region. “Aggressive diplomacy can change the Sudanese government’s mind,” Natsios told the Associated Press. Bush is banking a lot on the effort. Addressing the people of Darfur directly, he offered this warning about the failure to act quickly: “Your lives and the credibility of the United Nations are at stake.”

The great mistake now would be another attempt to preserve the latter at the expense of the former. That path has already been tried, and the body count is mounting.

 – Joseph Loconte is a distinguished visiting professor at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.