The UN Security Council's recent passage of a resolution to establish a UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur could mark an important break with the past, one largely overlooked in the commentary following the resolution's adoption. Most news stories and analyses have focused on whether the government of Sudan's "consent" is required before any UN troops may enter Darfur.
Little noticed, however, is the resolution's reference to paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 United Nations World Summit outcome document. These paragraphs describe what is known as the "responsibility to protect," which world leaders at last year's UN General Assembly unanimously endorsed.
The responsibility to protect means that if a country cannot or will not protect its citizens from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or ethnic cleansing, then it must accept support or assistance from other nations to end the violence. While the sovereignty of countries to regulate their own internal affairs is respected, it is conditional and not absolute. When peaceful means are exhausted and leaders of a UN member state are "manifestly failing to protect their populations," then other states have the responsibility to take collective action through the Security Council.
Resolution 1706 is the first time that the Security Council has referred to the responsibility to protect in a specific country situation where armed UN peacekeepers are to be deployed under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. This chapter allows the council to take whatever military means necessary to restore international peace and security.
In the case of Darfur, the Security Council has "invited" Sudan to consent to the deployment of UN troops which will take over from the beleaguered, demoralized force established by the African Union. The Security Council, however, is not required to gain the government's consent before sending in troops. By inserting the reference to the responsibility to protect, the Security Council is giving notice to Khartoum that while it seeks the government's cooperation, others will have to step in and substitute if Sudan cannot fulfill its sovereign responsibilities. This is one of the reasons that three Security Council members abstained from the vote: China, Russia, and Qatar.
The reaction of Ghana's representative, Nana Effah-Aptengeng, underscores the evolution in thinking about sovereignty. Traditionally, African countries – because of their long history of colonialism and outside meddling – have rejected any interference in what they considered their domestic affairs. The Organization of African Unity, which preceded the African Union, embodied this thinking. It did nothing to counter the genocides in Rwanda and Burundi and allowed dictators such as Uganda's Idi Amin to murder and torture hundreds of thousands of people without fear of OAU intervention.
Mr. Effah-Aptengeng broke with this earlier stand and took opposite sides from China and Russia, declaring that he was concerned that the Security Council even asked for Sudan's consent before deploying troops. He cited the African Union's charter, which strongly mirrors the concept of the responsibility to protect. African states, it says, have an obligation to intervene in the affairs of another state when its people are at risk. It is hard to imagine a greater change in African attitudes on such a fundamental principle. Here is one African state, Ghana, arguing for outside intervention in another African state, Sudan.
This new view of what sovereignty means is not limited to Africa. The US is now spearheading an effort to include Burma (Myanmar) on the Security Council's agenda. Burma's military junta has committed crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing against its minority groups, while keeping in long-term detention the country's democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Long protected from UN action by its Asian neighbors, today Indonesia and nations in Southeast Asia are no longer willing to shelter the Burmese generals and have reportedly told them they are on their own at the UN.
The Security Council has already put Sudan's government on notice. The crucial question is: What happens if Sudan does not "consent?" If it says no, the Security Council has a choice. It can find troops from countries willing to send their young men and women into a hostile environment, or it can do nothing. As difficult as the first option might be, if the UN does not act, the "responsibility to protect" will become an empty phrase, as meaningless in the 21st century as "never again" was in the 20th.
• William G. O'Neill is senior adviser to the Brookings Institution Project on Internal Displacement and coauthor of its report, "Protecting Two Million Internally Displaced: the Successes and Shortcomings of the African Union in Darfur."