Friday, March 13, 2009

Moral Ambiguity

On the heels of his indictment by the International Criminal Court, Sudanese dictator President Omar al-Bashir has decided to eject thirteen of the international assistance organizations that have been providing real help to refugees in Darfur. Bashir has no intention of standing trial for his alleged crimes; he figures that shutting down Darfur's access to outside help will distract attention from his indictment and will make it harder for the ICC to collect the necessary evidence against him. So Bashir is once-again making life miserable in Darfur.

The situation in Darfur is a convoluted mess. It's probably not the genocide that some critics allege (I count myself among those who feel genocide is a systematic effort by a group of one ethnicity or religion to wipe out a different one; that's not what's going on in Darfur), but it's no less horrific for what has occurred there. Since 2003, more 200,000 people who live in the Darfur region have been killed by the Janjaweed, marauding Darfurians hired by the Bashir government in Khartoum. Two million people have been displaced and are living in refugee camps. Another one million are still living at home, but in terror for their lives. With a total population estimated at five million before all broke loose in 2003, it's clear that nearly everyone in Darfur has been affected by the civil war.

The chaos is unimaginable. International groups like Doctors Without Borders and the UN Refugee Assistance program have been providing assistance ranging from food to medical intervention and sanitation to control for the diseases that run rampant in refugee camps. Their help is essential to stem the tide of misery. Now they have been ejected from Darfur.

Make no mistake: Bashir richly deserves the indictment handed down by the ICC. But holding leaders accountable for their crimes has generally been a national responsibility, not an international one. Until the rest of Sudan agrees to stop the horror in Darfur, Bashir can hold Darfuris hostage while he invokes national sovereignty to defend his own actions. And the people who are desperate for help will find themselves more alone than ever.

In a recent interview with NPR, Gemma Davies of Doctors Without Borders talks about her organization's forced evacuation of Darfur. She says that among the people she had to leave behind is a 6 month old orphan living in a refugee camp plagued with meningitus. I keep thinking about that baby. In my mind I see her as emblematic of all the suffering in Darfur. And I can't help but think that indicting Bashir has made that baby's already unhappy life demonstrably more miserable.

I don't have any answers here. Bashir is a bad, bad man. The problems of Darfur are exceedingly complicated. But it seems to me that in organizing our international response, we must be governed by the ancient Greek principle that Doctors Without Borders also invokes: first, do no harm.

Update: Jason is correct when he writes in comments, "the international community needs strong mechanisms to charge, detain, prosecute and punish for crimes against humanity." I agree. But can we actually do that without hurting more innocent people along the way? And if the answer to that question is no, how much more damage should the innocent bear for the good of the international community? These are questions that we must explore.

1 comment:

Jason said...

I disagree in part. Particularly on the issue of domestic vs. international responsibility for prosecution and punishment. As unworkable as it stands in its current form, I think the UN's Responsibility to Protect doctrine hits the nail on the head. There are some crimes that are so heinous that they offend humanity as a whole, and when a state either lacks the will or the institutions to hold those leaders accountable, the international community has a responsibility to step in.

The real value of the ICC as I see it, is clearing up the ambiguity of this responsibility. See the clusterf*ck around Augusto Pinochet for example. Chile's parliament granted Pinochet lifetime immunity for his crimes, one court reversed, and the supreme court re-confirmed. He died in 2006 - decades after his crimes against humanity - without serving a day of punishment other than house arrest.

For the deterrent value if nothing else, the international community needs strong mechanisms to charge, detain, prosecute and punish for crimes against humanity.