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Sovereignty for a New Century

When a country fails to protect its people, other nations must act.

December 27, 2004|John D. Podesta | John D. Podesta, who was President Clinton's chief of staff from 1998 to 2001, is the president and chief executive of the Center for American Progress.

Since the end of World War II, governments around the world have been given virtual carte blanche to mistreat their citizens without fear of outside interference. Despite numerous well-meaning resolutions on the importance of global human rights and the well-being of individuals, the principle of state sovereignty has been deemed paramount; the United Nations Charter includes a clear prohibition on interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign states.

But in today's world, indifference is not an option. The principle of sovereignty must not only guarantee nations the right to be secure within their borders, it also must hold them responsible for safeguarding the security of their citizens.

As we are seeing in Darfur, Sudan -- where government-backed militias have driven more than 1 million civilians from their homes over the last 18 months -- conflicts within less powerful, often dysfunctional states can turn whole nations into killing fields.

In Cambodia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, millions died and countless others were maimed or raped as the world looked on and did little or nothing. It is true that these outrages did not pose an immediate threat to our national security, but they did diminish our humanity.

This month, a high-level 16-member panel on "threats, challenges and change" organized by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the world to accept its "responsibility to protect." To back up this mission, it called for an expanded Security Council with greater authority to protect people at risk, even the right of armed intervention if necessary. The panel's recommendations are based on a groundbreaking 2001 report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, a Canadian initiative that took up Annan's call for new thinking on these issues.

Both reports concluded that in extreme cases, the principle of sovereignty and nonintervention must give way to protection.

This line should be crossed only in cases in which we face massive loss of life, ethnic cleansing or, indeed, genocide. Armed intervention should be considered only when other means have proved ineffective, and the force used should be proportionate to the task.

Ideally, the Security Council would approve interventions, although the panel also indicated the need to rely more heavily upon, and provide greater support to, regional forces that are capable of responding more swiftly than the United Nations.

The U.N. panel pointed out that the "responsibility to protect" is already an emerging norm, and that in recent years, actions by the Australians in East Timor, the British in Sierra Leone and NATO in Kosovo have reflected this developing norm. Regional forces in West Africa have more than once intervened before or even instead of the U.N. Today, though severely limited by its meager resources, the African Union is attempting to stop the bloodshed in Sudan.

Is it progress? Yes, but hardly enough.

Building a new global consensus for the responsibility to protect will not come easily. There is as yet little incentive for the world's most powerful governments to get involved in potentially deadly military missions abroad, particularly when there is no apparent immediate threat to national security. And reaching consensus will be made even more difficult by the still unresolved international divisions over Iraq. But this consensus will not come about at all without robust engagement by the United States.

First, the U.S. should again bring the crisis in Darfur before the Security Council and use the principle of the responsibility to protect as the basis for a resolution that strengthens the African Union mission, includes the credible threat of sanctions and dictates a timetable for holding accountable the perpetrators of the genocide.

Second, the Security Council should pass a resolution unambiguously recognizing each nation's responsibility to prevent genocide against its own citizens and affirming that when a country fails to do so, other governments have a responsibility to act.

Third, it is time to consider a new international agreement that builds on the 1948 Genocide Convention but gives more weight to preventing mass killings and other grave abuses against civilians.

Fourth, we need to recognize that regional organizations will increasingly have the greatest capacity and inclination to act. The AU, for example, already has proved its willingness in Sudan. But groups like the AU need additional training in keeping -- and enforcing -- the peace. The U.N. should create a fund, sustained through assessed contributions, that can be accessed on an urgent basis.

To be true to who we are as Americans, our nation cannot allow genocide to go unanswered. We can either stand by while governments like the one in Khartoum refuse to bring the violence to an end or we can exercise moral leadership and rally the international community to help.

There is no guarantee we will succeed, but history will not forgive us if we fail to try.

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