Darfur and the Case for Intervention

Tasneem Jamal

Nirina Kiplagat

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2005 Volume 26 Issue 1

Nirina Kiplagat has a Masters of Science degree in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from Nova Southeastern University. She was an intern with Project Ploughshares in Fall 2004.

As the scene of atrocities, Darfur in southwestern Sudan has received a great deal of attention in the past year. Some observers have dubbed these atrocities genocide. And, while the international community at large has been reluctant to accept this description, the situation in Darfur has aroused outcries for intervention, particularly in light of the framework of the Responsibility to Protect. Despite this outcry, the violence has not been effectively stemmed. This article will review the case for intervention and analyse the gap between the theoretical perspective and the actual situation.

The case for intervention

Eric Reeves (2004b, p. 1) asks if there are any “circumstances that must compel an international humanitarian intervention that is … adequate to protect all vulnerable civilian populations.” This question is answered in Responsibility to Protect, the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS). Gareth Evans (2004, para. 8), co-chair of the ICISS, summaries the criteria that justify military intervention for humanitarian purposes: “There must be serious and irreparable harm to human beings in progress or imminent: either large-scale loss of life due to deliberate state action, inaction or inability to act, or large-scale ‘ethnic cleansing’ carried out not only by killing, but forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape.” Reeves (2004b, p. 6) argues that if the current situation in Darfur, characterized by massive deliberate human destruction, animated by ethnic/racial hatred, does not make a compelling case for intervention, “then it is impossible to imagine a future galvanizing development in Darfur that might be the final spur to action.” Roméo Dallaire (2004) concurs with this assessment and recalls the quibbling on the definition of the events in Rwanda and finds this situation in which there is reluctance to label the events as genocide reminiscent of that travesty. Regardless of the label, de Waal (2004a, p. 8) states that predictions of up to 300,000 famine deaths alone should be sufficient to spur the world to concrete action.
Although Evans (2004, para. 6) states that “[r]esorting to collective military action, overruling the basic norm of non-intervention,” is not an easy decision to make, neither “is it easy to justify standing by when action is possible in practice and defensible in principle.” Intervention, as a reflection of the international responsibility to protect, is particularly justified, he argues, when there is failure on the part of the state to halt or avert the crisis. Michael Ignatieff (2004, para. 11) concurs in his exploration of the idea of “lesser evils,” acts that stray from national and international law, which can be justified only because they prevent the greater evil. Although his discussion is within the context of the War on Terror, much of his thesis is applicable to intervention in Darfur. Here, too, intervention can possibly stray from international law, since it involves assuming responsibility for the protection of a civilian population from its government.

For Lansana Gberie, Darfur presents an ideal case for intervention, in which consent of the Sudanese government has become irrelevant due to its failure to protect its population. Since such intervention occurred in Kosovo in 1999 in response to the deaths of some 2,000 people, Gberie (2004, p. 10) declares that inaction in the Darfur case will lead once again to accusations of the international community’s “embracing double standards and facilitating the entrenchment of a culture of impunity on the African continent.” Reeves (2004, p. 12) concurs that “the refusal to mount a humanitarian intervention that might save hundreds of thousands of lives in Darfur tells us most about how these lives – African, Muslim, geopolitically inconsequential – are valued.” From these arguments the case for intervention in Darfur appears to be compelling.

The Reality in Darfur

What kinds of intervention are possible in Darfur? Consideration must be given to the parties to the conflict, the role of the Sudanese government, geography, and demography.

The roots of the current conflict originate in land rights, the shortcomings of local administration, and the neglect and manipulation of the central government. The citizens of Darfur have received fewer education and healthcare facilities, and fewer development and government posts than any other region in Sudan, including South Sudan, which has been involved in violent conflict with the North for several decades (de Waal 2004a,
p. 4). Furthermore, events in neighbouring Chad and Libya have often exerted more influence over Darfur than the Khartoum government has (de Waal 2004b, p. 1).

The longevity and deep roots of the conflict necessitate a strategic plan that will not only stem the violence, but also create a situation of positive peace, and so prevent the eruption of further conflict in the region. Relationships with Chad and Libya must also be taken into account; their participation will be important in finding a lasting solution to the conflict in Darfur.

An analysis of current proposals for responding to the crisis in Darfur must be done in the context of the present state of peace talks, the failure of UN political leadership, the response from the international community, deteriorating security, the increasing food crisis, and the death and looting of livestock (Reeves 2004a). According to Reeves, some policy suggestions do not acknowledge political realities in Khartoum or the present circumstances of human destruction in Darfur. Plans for humanitarian relief in Darfur too often fail to take a longer perspective on the crisis, and don’t articulate the larger consequences of the virtually total destruction of a traditional African agricultural economy and society.

Current aid efforts are not sufficient to stem the humanitarian disaster in the vast geographic area of Darfur. What humanitarian assistance has been offered has been hindered by numerous attacks on aid workers, which have caused several humanitarian agencies to withdraw from Darfur. During the devastating famine that occurred in Darfur in 1984 survivors foraged for wild grasses and fruit. Now, those who venture out are attacked, raped, or killed. Despite ongoing peace talks and ceasefire agreements, fighting continues. The region is awash in light weapons, the product of insufficient policing and the earlier dissemination of weapons in the area by Libya (de Waal 2004b). Calls for additional African Union (AU) troops cannot be the final international word on this security crisis. As Reeves (2004a, p. 11) says, “To suggest that even an expanded African Union force can achieve any of the goals set forth in a region the size of France, let alone all of them, is yet another way of acquiescing in genocide.”

The international climate in which the events in Darfur are transpiring must be considered in any solution (Gberie 2004). While the situation may appear to call for robust humanitarian intervention, at the forefront of the international community’s consciousness are the “dubious claims by the US and Britain, following the failed search for weapons of mass destruction, of an overriding humanitarian imperative in their disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq” (Gberie 2004, p. 7). So far the international community has offered only a tepid response to the increasing crisis in Darfur in a watered-down United Nations resolution 1556 on 30 July. This resolution provided a one-month period for the Sudanese government to end the massive violations of human rights and rein in the Janjaweed. However, the deadline passed with neither compliance nor repercussions. Intervention by a regional group or neighbouring country might be organized more readily. However, while military intervention by Tanzania did serve a humanitarian function in Uganda by assisting in the overthrow of Idi Amin, Gberie fears that such an intervention in Darfur, by Chad, for example, would only serve to create a regional war.



In light of the current situation, and the difficulties of effective humanitarian intervention, de Waal (2004a, p. 9) suggests the establishment of a working local administration, regulation of the ownership of arms, and the gradual isolation of the outlaws who continue attacks. He also proposes an increase in troops to protect the civilian population in Darfur. To bring an end to the conflict these measures should be accompanied by good local intelligence and an effective political process.

Gberie calls on the international community through the United Nations to bolster the existing African Union talks and force. The AU lacks the political leverage of the Security Council and its permanent members, such resources as rapidly deployable and combat-capable forces, and the finances to sustain such operations (Gberie 2004, p. 9).

Dallaire (2004, para. 10) recommends a similar intervention by “a mixture of mobile AU troops supported by NATO soldiers equipped with helicopters, remotely piloted vehicles, night-vision devices and long-range special forces,” which would serve to “protect Darfur’s displaced people in their camps and remaining villages, and eliminate or incarcerate the Janjaweed.” If NATO is unable to act, then middle nations such as Germany and Canada should assist, since they often have “more political leeway” and “credibility in the developing world” (Dallaire 2004, para. 11).


It appears evident that there is a just threshold for intervention in the case of Darfur. However, the context in which intervention should take place is complicated. One key consideration in overriding the Government of Sudan’s sovereignty is the just concluded peace talks between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), after 22 years of armed conflict. An aggressive act on the part of the international community, particularly in the form of a military intervention, could serve to antagonize the Sudanese government and destabilize the newly established peace. In examining recommendations, one point stands out: the international community needs to commit fully to intervention, by bolstering peace talks, ensuring that ceasefire agreements are respected, and providing humanitarian aid. This strategy may be summarized as an international commitment to a combination of humanitarian action, security, and political settlement.

Dallaire, R. 2004, “Looking at Darfur, Seeing Rwanda,” International Herald Tribune, October 5.

De Waal, A. 2004a, “Counter-Insurgency on the Cheap,” London Review of Books 26(15), August 5.

De Waal, A. 2004b, “Tragedy in Darfur,” Boston Review, October/November.

Evans, G. 2004, “The World Should Be Ready to Intervene in Sudan,” International Herald Tribune, May 14.

Gberie, L. 2004, The Darfur Crisis: A Test Case for Humanitarian Intervention, Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre Paper, No.1, September 1.

Ignatieff, M. 2004, “Lesser Evils,” New York Times Magazine, May 2.

Reeves, E. 2004a, Current Proposals for Responding to Genocide in Darfur: A Compendium and Critique of Suggestions from the International Community, September 23.

Reeves, E. 2004b, Is There No Threshold for Humanitarian Intervention in Darfur? October 18.


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