Assessment of the Consequences of Insufficient Engagement in Darfur

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

Lorenzo Boni Beadle is a graduate of Tufts University with a B.A. in Political Science and Economics. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessment of the Consequences of Insufficient Engagement in Darfur

Date Originally Written:  May 31, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  August 22, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) whereby the United Nations (UN) intervenes in order to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. The author believes grand strategy and intervention must be ethically grounded.

Summary:  The genocide in Darfur has continued for 15 years. From 2006-2009, serious discussion surrounding a more capable intervention into the region took place. The problems with the peacekeeping force in Darfur and the lack of a No-Fly Zone have precluded current efforts from ending civilian victimization, and the UN has recently pulled further back from the conflict. The consequences of non-intervention have been debilitating to the civilian population.

Text:  In April 2007, U.S. Senator Joe Biden asked the question: “What are we going to do about Darfur?” Four years earlier, an insurgency in Darfur had prompted the Government of Sudan (GoS) to leverage militias called the Janjaweed against the region’s civilian population. By 2006, more than 200,000 had been killed and more than 200,000 Darfuris had fled to neighboring Chad. A peace agreement signed on May 5, 2007 failed to compel the GoS to meet its commitments, and the atrocities in Darfur have continued. In 2005, the UN established R2P, a norm that found itself almost immediately at odds with inaction on the ongoing conflict in Darfur[1]. A military response to the Darfur Genocide has been lacking since it began despite numerous serious proposals. The consequences of this paralysis has been devastating to the people targeted by the Janjaweed.

The challenge of balancing Westphalian sovereignty with humanitarian intervention is a salient one. Nevertheless, the GoS made the argument in favor of intervention much starker with its failure to engage with diplomatic resolutions in good faith in the late 2000s[2]. In 2006, the UN collaborated with the African Union (AU) to propose a UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur. Susan Rice, then of the Brookings Institution, noted that the proposal began with a UN force of 22,000, but negotiations whittled this down to a largely-African force, which African states were unable to provide for. At this stage, it was still unclear whether or not Sudan would accept a UN mission at all. Rice described a robust peacekeeping force as including North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) support under a UN Security Council (UNSC) mandate to protect civilians[3]. At this time, not only had hundreds of thousands been killed, but nearly 2 million were internally displaced, necessitating a substantial commitment to secure the region.

In April 2007, Sudan had not agreed to any formulation of the UN proposal, which prompted an alternate recommendation from Senator Biden. Biden’s proposal sought a NATO No-Fly Zone (NFZ) over Darfur[4]. Despite Sudanese repudiation of the NFZ proposal as likely to be ineffectual, the GoS had bombed Darfur in support of the Janjaweed, making a NFZ necessary to protect innocents from disproportionate force[5]. A NATO NFZ would have served to quell the GoS’ aerial ethnic cleansing and deterred further action by the Janjaweed, similar to the way that the post-Gulf War Iraq NFZs were crafted to protect ethnic and religious groups from persecution.

In July 2007, the UNSC passed Resolution 1769, creating a joint UN-AU peacekeeping force of just under 20,000, as finally agreed to by the GoS. However, violence has continued. In 2016, Amnesty International uncovered the use of chemical weapons on the Darfuri population. Some of these weapons were dropped from aircraft[6]. While the UN-AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) was doing its best on the ground, peacekeeping operations were hamstrung without a NFZ.  Without an NFZ, UNAMID would not be able to respond to airstrikes nor would they be able to punish egregious acts by the GoS with retaliatory strikes on important Sudanese military infrastructure, a suggestion in some formulations of the Darfur NFZ[7]. UNAMID had been set up in a way that guaranteed failure. 

UNAMID’s African troops were poorly trained, and the GoS had made it difficult to import necessary armaments, limiting the peacekeepers’ effectiveness. In addition, the GoS was making the force’s basic operation nightmarish with Kafakaesque bureaucracy, imposing challenges for tasks as simple as obtaining toothpaste. Constant pushback from the GoS (like the 2009 eviction of numerous international aid agencies) stripped away support structures that would have made UNAMID more effective. Without cooperation and with little commitment from important Western states (resulting in failures to deliver important weapons systems like helicopters), UNAMID was unable to adequately protect civilians[8]. Darfur is an area nearly 200,000 square miles; without bolstering UNAMID, it was impossible to fulfill Resolution 1769.

That said, the proposal of a NFZ has been criticized. A NFZ could empower rebel groups to go on the offensive, encouraging a stronger retaliation from the Janjaweed. This could lead to a situation similar to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s continued victimization of the Shia and the Kurds. Aircraft in Darfur would deter the comparatively minor airstrikes performed by the GoS while the Janjaweed ran rampant below[9]. However, proposals for a NFZ often discussed retaliatory strikes on key Sudanese military infrastructure in response to atrocities taking place in Darfur,  Similar retaliatory strikes took place in Iraq in response to Saddam’s aggression against protected groups. Furthermore, NFZ proposals have been paired with diplomatic offensives meant to unite rebel groups and create a framework for peace with the GoS. Aircraft would not be deployed over Darfur with no end – they would be present to deter action while diplomats worked to bring a conclusion to the conflict. Perhaps most importantly, in the scenario where a NFZ is put in place over Darfur, UNAMID is likely to receive important equipment, allowing it to more effectively patrol its jurisdiction. 

Recently, the United States has pressured the UN to slim down, resulting in major cuts to UNAMID. The peacekeeping force has been reduced substantially since 2017[10], and in the interim the genocide continues. The political premium of reducing UN funding is considered more valuable than a commitment to security in Darfur. Darfur does not pose a compelling strategic interest to the United States – neither did Rwanda during its genocide. This lack of strategic interest makes it difficult to politically justify the fulfillment of R2P and protection of millions of Darfuri people. Without a cogent doctrine of humanitarian intervention or a grand strategy that prioritizes a norm of “contingent sovereignty” – threatening governments that victimize their people – galvanizing the United States to involve itself is difficult. The consequences of non-intervention born from political hesitance have been severe. Numerous options for humanitarian intervention were placed on the table, but ultimately, political constraints have made it unrealistic to seriously commit to nearly 10 million people who will continue to suffer at the hands of their government.


[1] Grono, M. (2006, October). The International Community’s Failure to Protect. African Affairs, 105(421), 621-631.

[2] Udombana, N. J. (2005, November). When Neutrality Is a Sin: The Darfur Crisis and the Crisis of Humanitarian Intervention in Sudan. Human Rights Quarterly, 27(4), 1149-1199.

[3] Rice, Susan E. (2006, November 17). Military Intervention Necessary to Stop Darfur Crisis. Retrieved May 29, 2019, From the Brookings Institution:

[4] Darfur: A “Plan B” To Stop Genocide?, Senate, 110th Cong. 1-3 (2007) (statement of Sen. Joe Biden).

[5] Heavens, A. (2008, October 5). Sudan criticises Palin and Biden over Darfur flight ban. Retrieved May 29, 2019, From Reuters:

[6] Amnesty International. (2016, September 29). Sudan: Credible evidence of the use of chemical weapons to kill and maim hundreds of civilians including children in Darfur revealed. Retrieved May 29, 2019, From Amnesty International:

[7] Rice, Susan E. (2007, October 24). The Genocide in Darfur: America Must Do More to Fulfill the Responsibility to Protect. Retrieved May 29, 2019, From the Brookings Institution:

[8] Lynch, C. (2014, April 8). A Mission That Was Set Up to Fail. Retrieved May 29, 2019 From Foreign Affairs:

[9] Zenko, M. (2009, March 12). Say no to a Darfur no-fly zone. Retrieved May 29, 2019 From The Guardian:

[10] Nicholls, M. (2017, June 29). U.N. approves drawdown of peacekeepers in Sudan’s Darfur region. Retrieved May 29, 2019, From Reuters:

Assessment Papers Darfur Irregular Forces Lorenzo Boni Beadle Mass Killings Small Wars Journal Writing Contest Sudan