“Alleged” Genocide in Darfur: Post-9/11 Consensus Breaking and the 21st Century UN

Global Issue 2019

Written by: Hanna McKinley, University of Toronto

From 26 February 2003 to present, the Darfur region of Sudan has experienced a genocide during which an estimated 200,000 civilians have lost their lives.[1] The Darfur crisis has engaged the attention and diplomatic efforts of both individual nations and international organizations, principally the United Nations (UN), whose efforts to prevent the conflict, including a variety of intervention initiatives, evidently failed the ‘African’ ethnic groups of Darfur. This paper will examine why the international community failed to act decisively and effectively to prevent this tragedy, with a principal focus on how the progress of the 1990     s and early 2000     s in establishing an international consensus on intervention was subverted by America’s invasion and continuing involvement in Iraq. On the premise of three observations, t     his paper argues that the American led invasion of Iraq created an international environment that was not at all conducive to humanitarian intervention in Darfur, Sudan. First, the invasion held disastrous consequences for America’s international moral authority, political influence, and military capability, hampering all subsequent attempts to initiate defensive action in Darfur. Second, in the post-     9/11 period humanitarian intervention did not reflect the immediate national security interests of the most militarily capable actors; ergo the United States was unable to overcome the lack of political will existing among them. Third, the absence of a moral consensus among the primary states regarding intervention in Darfur rendered the UN and its efforts largely ineffective. Thus, despite the existence of intervention mechanisms such as the Genocide Convention, ICISS protocol, and later R2P, the international community failed to act effectively to prevent genocide in Darfur.

As scholar and professor Alex Bellamy has argued, the end of the 20th century saw an emerging consensus in support of effective humanitarian intervention.[2] The UN Security Council can legally authorize humanitarian intervention under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, yet its “peacekeeping” missions did not prevent the mass killing of Tutsis in Rwanda and Bosnian civilians during the breakup of Yugoslavia. In response to such failures, Western states began to recognize that intervention in the absence of a UN mandate, while not “legal”,  could nevertheless be viewed as morally legitimate; the U.S. led NATO intervention in Kosovo can be considered a watershed event for this concept.[3] Subsequently, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report in 2001 represented an effort to re-define the nature of humanitarian intervention through a new framework for action under the title of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), which justifies state military intervention within a ‘Just Cause Threshold’; i.e. in the event of large scale loss of life or ethnic cleansing. The R2P framework was created almost in tandem with Al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center, and the resulting U.S.-led “War on Terror” and invasion of Iraq temporarily shelved the idea of humanitarian intervention as legitimate, whether legally or morally. It is in this context that one should examine the ongoing Darfur crisis.

In 2003 the Bush Administration invaded Iraq much to the detriment of American moral credibility, and the subsequent events of Darfur exemplify the loss of America’s position as a normative actor on an international scale. Historically the U.S. enjoyed at least one instance of relative autonomy from UN sovereignty standards (in 1999 NATO received legitimation for intervention through a global moral consensus on Kosovo),[4] though chiefly on the premise that U.S. policy and stance regarding international crises, whether at the core of U.S. national interest or not, provided a reference point for other actors.[5] Now, as the U.S. displayed an ongoing commitment towards action in Darfur, the international community remained unresponsive. In 2004, U.S. National Security Advisor Colin Powell took the novel step of labeling Darfur a “genocide” following a conclusive vote by Congress in July.[6] In September he spoke publicly on the matter:

… some seem to have been waiting for this determination of genocide to take action. […] These people are in desperate need and we must help them. Call it civil war; call it ethnic cleansing; call it genocide; call it “none of the above.” The reality is the same. There are people in Darfur who desperately need the help of the international community.[7]

The label successfully mobilized the support of international human rights organizations who lobbied extensively for action; American journalists and politicians also displayed a certain level of responsibility to safeguard the people in Darfur.[8] Nonetheless, the concerted efforts of non-governmental actors had an inconsequential effect on the slow progress of the UN. In July and September of 2004, the U.S. failed in two separate efforts to impose sanctions on Sudanese government officials.[9] The resulting resolution (1564) agreed upon by the Security Council merely threatened to imposed sanctions.[10] In December the U.S. proposed a UN mission to Darfur which was rejected with ineffectual discussions continuing into the following year.[11] Attempts to press sanctions or incite intervention were repeatedly rejected because the Security Council members were unwilling to threaten Sudan’s sovereignty and assume responsibility for its citizens. So what, exactly, had led the international community to question America’s moral standing so vehemently?

The U.S. created far more instability than it had set out to quell through regime change in Iraq; a fractured society, infrastructure damage, massive casualties, and ethnic conflict prompting a rise in terror organizations, would pose a far greater threat to Western security than Saddam Hussein. Having antagonized the Arab world in what the Arab League and Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) perceived as several misguided attempts at containing radical Islam (Iraq, Somalia), it was inconceivable that the U.S. would be able to gain support regarding its invasion of another Arab state; to be sure, this argument was used on multiple occasions to rebuke U.S. pleas for action within the UN assembly. The OIC expressly rejected American- led activism in the Security Council,[12] joined by both Pakistan and the Arab League who declined all sanctions against Sudan.[13] Following suit, much of the Arab world displayed resistance towards intervention and soft power alternatives.[14] In 2006 David Reiff of the New York Times wrote, “In Europe or the U.S., sending NATO forces to Darfur may seem like fulfilling the global moral responsibility to protect. But in much of the Muslim world, it is far likelier to be experienced as one more incursion of a Christian army into an Islamic land.”[15]

Reiff’s perspective was not exaggerated. Sudan forcefully opposed U.S.-led activism in the UN, attempting to lobby other Arab and African governments around its supposed anti-Islamic agenda.[16] As explained by scholars Igiri and Lyman “The Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan issued press releases attributing U.S. interest to a range of motives, including U.S. leverage over Egypt, crushing Sudan’s Islamic government, keeping Sudan dependent on U.S. food aid,”[17] with Arab media quick to pick up on these ideas as well.[18] America’s renewed interest for intervention raised questions as to its ‘true’ intentions, reinforcing suspicions of American imperialism. Few Security Council members were willing to support aggressive measures in Darfur that might be used as a retrospective rationale for Iraq, and furthermore, the accusations did not seem that far-fetched. As German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder noted in expressing discomfort surrounding the ICISS agenda, “unauthorized humanitarian intervention would be used by the U.S. and the U.K. to justify the Iraq war.”[19] The Bush administration framed its intervention as a humanitarian gesture and it was now clear that the altruistic guise masked underlying national interest motives. War was being waged to fulfill the U.S. national security agenda; one which largely appealed to anti-Islam and anti-terrorist sentiments that arose in the post-     9/11 period. The notion of humanitarian intervention as a vehicle for national interest would henceforth replace the emerging consensus of the 1990s, and every U.S. attempt to initiate defensive action in Darfur would fail. Whereas the U.S. might have enjoyed the support of other liberal states in the past, Canada, Germany, and France repeatedly expressed opposition towards the war in Iraq.[20] By the time of Darfur, the U.S. stood more isolated than ever. 

It would be unfair to suggest that American failure in this regard was owed in whole to its loss of credibility, as apathy towards Darfur could also be ascribed to an overwhelming lack of political will. National security interests of the central states in the post-9/11 period held no direct correlation with intervention in the Darfur region, making it that much harder to generate a consensus on action. The erosion of American moral authority and leadership ensured that the international community would revert to more traditional calculations; each state would be more inclined to view the Darfur crisis through the pragmatic lens of its own national security interests. Most important in this regard were China and Russia, two permanent members of the Security Council. China made use of its Security Council veto power during the initial discussions on Darfur, strongly opposing intervention. While China’s commercial interests in Sudan were undoubtedly a consideration, Lee, Chan, and Chan argue that a concern for state sovereignty was China’s primary motivation at the time.[21] In 2005 the Chinese government released a position paper which spoke to the absolute responsibility of a nation to protect its own people and the importance of maintaining sovereignty.[22] As they vetoed U.S. proposals theyargued that without Sudan’s consent, intervention would breach state sovereignty. Having been a victim of European colonialism and imperialism through much of the 19th century, China remained skeptical towards action that might weaken the “legal basis of national sovereignty.”[23]      Moreover, China did not want to support precedents that could be used to impede its own strategic interests, particularly in the case of disputed regions such as Taiwan. China’s reluctance to support intervention could be seen as a strategy to diminish the role of the U.S. internationally and simultaneously gain influence among its regional counterparts. Similarly, Russia used its veto power to oppose potential U.S. hegemony. Since coming to power in 1999 Vladimir Putin had been determined to re-establish Russian strength and roll back the dismemberment of the USSR, thus inclined to degrade U.S. leadership and stature at every opportunity. 

Even within the U.S. there were major reservations as to the extent of any unilateral commitment to intervention in Darfur. Despite having vocalized a moral obligation towards stemming the human rights abuses, the Darfur crisis posed a national security dilemma for the U.S.. In 2004 the Bush Administration removed Sudan from its list of uncooperative states after the Sudanese government provided counter-terrorism support for the “War on Terror.”[24] In 2005 the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed between the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Sudanese government, ending the Second Sudanese Civil War. The U.S. spent a significant sum of political capital, effort, and prestige during the mediation and finalization of the CPA;[25] to jeopardize such an agreement with intervention would have negated their efforts, undermining the CPA and the American-Sudanese political relationship fostered in the aftermath of 9/11. Notably, these events occurred during a time when the Sudanese government was already being accused of human rights abuses. The Bush Administration demonstrated a clear prioritization of its political relationship with Sudan despite its alleged roll in genocide. 

Additionally, defense budget constraints would limit the U.S. scope of action following military overstretch in both Afghanistan and Iraq,[26] while the Clinton Administration’s failed operation in Mogadishu still plagued important public and private actors.[27] In contrast to those who championed the idea of military intervention were people weary of sending American soldiers back to the African continent (a rationale which prevented American soldiers from entering Rwanda in 1994). Similarly, America’s major ally, the U.K., was in no position to support U.S. initiatives. Aside from a military incapacity, the government of Tony Blair lost credibility with the British public due to its support of the Iraq invasion, and had no political capital to launch another. Overwhelmingly, national security and domestic political interests failed to coincide with the alleged genocide taking place in Darfur and by this notion, hundreds of thousands perished.

Lastly, this paper will examine the UN’s failure to generate a timely and effective response to the alleged genocide in Darfur, despite the existence of policy tools such as the Genocide Convention (1951), ICISS criteria (2001), and R2P (2005). The genocide debate closely followed initial reports of armed conflict in Darfur. The Sudanese government, if not a direct conspirator in genocide, should have been charged with complicity in genocide under article III (e) of the Genocide Convention. Additionally, the Janjaweed militia (comprised of government backed Arab-Sudanese tribesmen) committed actions against the African-Sudanese population in violation of Article II (a) (b), “killing members of the group”[28] and “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.”[29] Seeing as the Convention requires that contracting parties “undertake to prevent and to punish”[30] acts of Genocide, and Article VIII states that “Any Contracting Party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III,”[31] it is disappointing that only the U.S. was ready to invoke the genocide label. Eventually, in 2005, Resolution 1593 referred the Darfur case to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2007 the ICC “issued arrest warrants for crimes against humanity and war crimes against former Minister of State for the Interior of the Government of Sudan and current Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs, Ahmad Harun, and Janjaweed commander Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman.”[32] The ICCargued that while the government did not carry out a policy of genocide, it was complicit in crimes against humanity and war crimes.[33] Ironically, even George Bush stood in front of the UN General Assembly in 2007 and spoke of genocide following this failed respite.[34]

The Darfur crisis demonstrates that the Genocide Convention as a standalone response policy acted as another gross failure of the UN to foster timely collective decision making. A strong proponent with strong moral standings might have effectively led the UN Security Council in the pursuit of a policy of intervention through the Genocide Convention, which, following the Iraq War, the U.S. was not. Beyond the Genocide Convention, a global effort was made to utilize the ICISS protocol and its successor R2P, though a lack of moral consensus among the UN Security Council members surrounding interventionism in the post 9/11 period meant a repetitive use of the veto power. This occurred despite ICISS criteria suggesting that those powers should abstain from using the veto power in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Lack of support for the ICISS criteria could be traced back to the Security Council annual retreat in 2002,[35] however, by 2003, a new fear was that the ICISS criteria might justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq as well as future incursions under the same guise.[36] Responsibility to Protect as a primarily state-centered idea meant that powers such as China and Russia strongly believed peacekeeping efforts should be left to Sudanese government officials. Moreover, due to the ambiguity of ICISS guidelines, many doubted that the Just Cause Threshold justified military intervention in this context.[37]

It was eventually agreed that AMIS, an AU mission would be deployed to Darfur in mid 2004 with around 300 troops following the idea that any mission should have an ‘African character’ and that responsibility should lie with the African people.[38] Even when the AMIS mission failed as a result of undersizing and poor training, actors such as Germany, the AU, and the League of Arab States upheld their anti-intervention stance—knowingly rooted in the fear over Iraq.[39] To date only two resolutions have authorized sanctions against Sudan— resolution 1556 imposing an arms embargo on “all non-governmental entities and individuals”[40] (a failure), and resolution 1591, a watered down version of the U.S. proposal imposing a travel ban and asset freeze on four suspected war criminals.[41] In 2005 Resolution 1590 was unanimously passed, authorizing a Chapter VII peace operation to facilitate cooperation;[42] the deployment of UNMIS, which had already been monitoring the CPA, would be delayed several months. In 2006 UNMIS assisted in carrying through the DPA (Darfur Peace Agreement), although conflict would heavily increase thereafter. In Resolution 1769 it was agreed by the council that a UN/AU hybrid mission (UNAMID) would deploy to Darfur in place of UNMIS.[43] This mission was not accepted by Sudan until 2007. 

The ICISS criteria did not provide a useful framework to legitimize intervention without authorization from the Security Council.[44] Because of the overwhelming lack of consensus on the ICISS criteria, the 2005 World Summit Outcome was R2P, an ambiguous, watered down, two paragraphs outlining the responsibility to protect and how in some cases, this responsibility might fall to the international community. Action regarding Darfur was delayed over several years due to disagreement surrounding the provision of responsibility. Western-imposed sanctions or intervention were seen as veiled imperialism in the post-Iraq order and therefore responsibility would lie with the African people under AMIS. AMIS was deemed ineffective, and in 2007, it merged with UN forces to create UNAMID. By this time the conflict had been ongoing for around five years and there was still no collectively accepted framework for action. By ruling out genocide in 2007, the ICC created further constraints on reactionary efforts—freeing states of the obligation to prevent and punish.

This paper has laid out a comprehensive framework of the international environment as it existed during the Darfur crisis, with an emphasis on the negative shift in perspective surrounding humanitarian intervention following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. America’s loss of moral credibility within the international community diminished its ability to mobilize the other great powers, who, owing to an additional lack of political will, remained unresponsive or in direct opposition to American policy. To a large extent the UN failed the ‘African’ ethnic population of Darfur who were targets of the ruthless ethnic cleansing of the Janjaweed. The question that remains is how, despite the existence of the Genocide Convention and R2P, the UN can overcome obstacles such as mistrust and competing national security interests. Can these institutions be modified or restructured around policy that is less ambiguous and is therefore less subject to misinterpretation and disagreement, or will they have to be replaced altogether? For now, this paper has displayed how national interests can subvert the attempts of even the most powerful international organizations to enforce human rights. Humanitarian intervention and the Responsibility to Protect, while seemingly idyllic solutions to human rights abuses globally, have done little to help countless victims over the past few decades, including those in Darfur. These states must find a way to combine national security interests with human rights needs internationally to avoid such atrocities in the future.


Works Cited:

[1] John Hagan and Alberto Palloni. “Death in Darfur” American Association for the Advancement  of Science 313, no. 5792 (2006): 3.

[2] Alex J. Bellamy. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq” Ethics and International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 34.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alex J. Bellamy. “The Responsibility to Protect and the Problem of Military Intervention” International Affairs 84, no. 4 (2008): 628-629. 

[5] Mark B. Taylor. “Humanitarianism or Counterinsurgency?: R2P at the Crossroads” International Journal 61, no.1 (2005): 154.

[6] Alex J. Bellamy. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq” Ethics and International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 31.

[7] “The Crisis in Darfur.” U.S. Department of State Archive, U.S. Department of State, last modified September 9, 2004, 2001-2009.state.gov/secretary/former/powell/remarks/36042.htm.

[8] Alex J. Bellamy. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq” Ethics and International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 43.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Ibid., 46.

[11] Ibid., 50.

[12] Ibid., 51.

[13] Ibid., 45.

[14] Cheryl Igiri and Princeton Lyman “Giving Meaning to “Never Again”” CSR, no. 5 (2004): 22.

[15] David Reiff, “A Nation of Pre-Emptors?” last modified January 15, 2006. www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/a-nation-of-preemptors.html.

[16] Cheryl Igiri and Princeton Lyman “Giving Meaning to “Never Again”” CSR, no. 5 (2004): 21.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Alex J. Bellamy. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq” Ethics and International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 39.

[20] Alex J. Bellamy. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq” Ethics and International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 37.

[21] Pak Lee, Gerald Chan, and Lai-Ha Chan. “China in Darfur: humanitarian rule-maker or rule-taker?” Review of International Studies no. 38 (2012): 424.

[22] “Position Paper of the People’s Republic of China on the United Nations Reforms” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of Chinalast modified June 7, 2005, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjb_663304/zzjg_663340/gjs_665170/gjsxw_665172/t199318.shtml

[23] Pak Lee, Gerald Chan, and Lai-Ha Chan. “China in Darfur: humanitarian rule-maker or rule-taker?” Review of International Studies no. 38 (2012): 433.

[24] Eyal Mayroz. “Ever again? The United States, genocide suppression, and the crisis in Darfur” Journal of Genocide Research 10, no. 3 (2008): 364.

[25] Ibid., 365.

[26] Touko Piiparinen. “The Lessons of Darfur for the Future of Humanitarian Intervention” Global Governance 13 no. 365 (2007): 373.

[27] Ibid., 378.

[28] “The Yearbook of the United Nations.” UN Multimedia, https://www.unmultimedia.org/searchers/yearbook/page.jspvolume=1948-49&page=963&srq=genocide&srstart=0&srvolumeFacet=1948-49&sroutline=false&searchType=advanced

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] “The United Nations and Darfur” United Nations, last modified August 2007, https://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/sudan/fact_sheet.pdf

[33] Ibid.

[34] “Text of President Bush’s Speech on Sudan” New York Times, last modified May 29, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/29/world/africa/29iht-29sudan-text.5919156.html

[35]Alex J. Bellamy. “The Responsibility to Protect and the Problem of Military Intervention” International Affairs 84, no. 4 (2008): 625.

[36] Ibid., 626.     

[37] Ibid., 628.

[38] Alex J. Bellamy. “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq” Ethics and International Affairs 19, no. 2 (2005): 42.

[39] Ibid., 48.

[40] “Resolution 1556” United Nations Security Council Resolutions, last modified July 30, 2004, http://unscr.com/en/resolutions/doc/1556

[41] “The United Nations and Darfur” United Nations, last modified August 2007, https://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/sudan/fact_sheet.pdf

[42] “Resolution 1590” United Nations, last modified March 24, 2005, http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/RES/1590(2005)

[43] “Security council authorizes deployment of United Nations-African Union ‘hybrid’ peace operation in bid to resolve Darfur conflict” United Nations, last modified July 31, 2007, https://www.un.org/press/en/2007/sc9089.doc.htm

[44] Alex J. Bellamy. “The Responsibility to Protect and the Problem of Military Intervention” International Affairs 84, no. 4 (2008): 628.


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