(Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a symposium on “The Future of Atrocity Prevention,” organized in collaboration with the Programme on International Peace and Security at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. An introduction to the symposium and links to future installments can be found here.)
Twenty-one years ago, mass atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan shocked the world. Most prominent in the global media was the Save Darfur Coalition, an alliance of young people, celebrities, and activists who accused Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his Janjaweed militia of genocide and demanded that western nations dispatch troops to protect civilians. Campaigners’ placards on the Washington Mall also urged that al-Bashir be removed from power to face justice. The initiative helped set the agenda in Darfur for the United Nations and western governments, exerting pressure on world leaders to end the violence.
There were no such demonstrations outside the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but responding to Darfur was the most ambitious effort of the peace and security architecture under construction at the newly minted AU. At the time, the AU promoted atrocity prevention under the principle of “non-indifference” as an element of “African solutions to African problems.” In line with their shared norms, the AU and the U.N. worked as partners. But the AU’s commitment has unraveled over recent years, and today it has largely reverted to its prior position of indifference to mass atrocity in the guise of protecting national sovereignty.
In the earlier crisis, the United Nations High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change wrote in December 2004, “We have been struck once again by the glacial speed at which our institutions have responded to massive human rights violations in Darfur, Sudan.” If the U.N.’s response then was slow, today’s is stalled entirely. One reason is that the AU, formerly its partner in principled multilateralism, is refusing to move. Looking back over the past 30 years, we can see how the African doctrine has evolved from non-intervention to non-indifference and back again. The arc of this tale reveals both the AU’s strengths and weaknesses in stopping atrocity crimes, and what it might yet be able to accomplish.
The Amnesiac African Union
In the early 2000s, Darfur became a test case at the United Nations for the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, a political commitment to prevent and respond to atrocity crimes adopted by all heads of State and government in 2005. Along with a major-power coalition led by the United States, the U.N. tried an unprecedented array of instruments for atrocity prevention in Darfur – at least to prevent further atrocities. These included the dispatch of an enormous peacekeeping mission (the joint U.N.-AU Mission in Darfur, UNAMID) under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter with a mandate to use force to protect civilians, as well as the imposition of an arms embargo and various types of sanctions, a huge humanitarian aid effort, pressure on the Sudanese government to reach a peace agreement with the rebels, and a referral to the International Criminal Court. Less well-known, but no less significant, is that the AU cooperated closely with the U.N. in these efforts and used much of the same R2P language, while also adopting its own distinct approach to crisis response.
The breadth and scale of international interest in Darfur, as well as other policy agendas in play, such as countering terrorism and supporting the South Sudan cause, meant that there was no agreed metric for what counted as “success” in mitigating the crisis. On the U.S. presidential campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama and his team criticized the George W. Bush administration for not having done enough on Darfur, but once in office, they too found it difficult to reach consensus on a Sudan policy. One group within the Obama team wanted more aggressive action against the al-Bashir regime, while others prioritized stabilizing the country at least enough to smooth the way for the secession of South Sudan, which duly occurred in 2011.
Since the resumption of war in Sudan in April this year, horrific violence has again unfolded against civilians in Darfur. This includes — as it did before — killing, rape, and forced displacement amounting to ethnic cleansing. With a near-total communications blackout, there are no reliable figures for casualties and other impacts of the destruction. We do know, however, that over 400,000 have fled to Chad as refugees, and at least 5,000 are known to have been killed to date.
The same Janjaweed militia — now rebranded as the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group formalized by al-Bashir in 2013 and currently fighting Sudan’s army for power in Khartoum — are also again targeting the same communities. Despite these similar patterns of violence, not a single one of the instruments used in the decade after 2003 is under active consideration by the U.N., the United States, or the AU. In fact, some of those mechanisms that were in place until very recently have been jettisoned altogether, most notably UNAMID, which was closed in June 2021 because donors no longer wanted to foot the bill and naively hoped that a new peace agreement in Sudan would render it unnecessary.
Meanwhile, U.S. policy on Darfur remains solely in the hands of the State Department Africa Bureau, and the de facto position of the White House is, “do not disturb us.” This contrasts starkly with the earlier crisis, when more senior State Department officials — and even the U.S. president — were publicly engaged. On top of this, the key regional players in Sudan today — including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates — are all Middle Eastern countries with many higher-priority items than Darfur in their dealings with Washington D.C.
Thus, without blue helmets, and with the United States and Sudan’s allies essentially out for the count, the AU should be stepping up with a crucial agenda-setting role. Yet, it appears to be suffering from amnesia. The AU Commission — the body’s central secretariat, headed by Chairperson Moussa Faki — has said almost nothing to date. The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC), the highest body responsible for such matters, has not adopted any communiqué. Instead, the African States most concerned with the crisis in Sudan — including Chad, Egypt, Kenya, and South Sudan — have circumvented the AU with their separate initiatives for Sudan, none of which prioritize atrocity prevention in Darfur.
In previous crises, the AU played the crucial role of generating an African consensus. A position adopted by the PSC could be transmitted to the U.N. Security Council, bringing global players to agreement. For example, in 2012, the United States and Russia set aside their sharp disagreements over matters such as Syria to approve an AU PSC Roadmap for resolving conflict between Sudan and South Sudan, enabling AU-U.N. cooperation that successfully ended the crisis with American backing. That isn’t happening today.
To understand why, we must go back to the organization’s early years, and more closely examine how the AU’s commitment to non-indifference came apart.
From Non-Intervention to Non-Indifference: The Early Years
The 2003 crisis in Darfur erupted just as the AU was fashioning its principles and institutions, having itself been established a year prior. Its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity, had commissioned a report into the Rwandan genocide and the failure of Africa and the wider world to prevent it, which articulated a new norm of “non-indifference” to mass atrocities. This drew upon the work of (now) South Sudanese diplomat and scholar, Francis Deng, on the concept of “sovereignty as responsibility,” reversing the old AU position that essentially made national sovereignty a shield behind which governments could act with impunity. The Constitutive Act of the African Union, which came into force in 2002, included Article 4(h), empowering the AU to intervene in such “grave circumstances.”
The AU decided to rise to the challenge of Darfur, even though this meant, in the words of one Commission official, sailing the ship and constructing it at the same time. The chairperson of the Commission, Alpha Oumar Konaré, met with al-Bashir and warned him that Article 4(h) applied to Darfur. (When he visited Darfur, Konaré had slipped his security detail and quietly spent the night in a camp for displaced people, listening firsthand to their stories of atrocity and hunger.) The AU PSC, established in February 2004, held its first two meetings on Darfur the same year, and promptly endorsed the Humanitarian Ceasefire Agreement signed between the Sudanese government and the Darfur rebels, while dispatching military observers and monitors as the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS).
As international outrage over Darfur escalated – even while the killing and dying declined – African leaders became increasingly concerned that calls for intervention and accountability were becoming a cover for regime change. Nonetheless, once the “G-word” genocide entered the policy debate, the logic led inexorably to removing the perpetrator of the crime of crimes from power.
The international response to Darfur might have been glacially slow to get moving, but once in motion, it looked like an unstoppable force crushing all in its path. When the ICC Prosecutor demanded an arrest warrant for al-Bashir, many African leaders became uncomfortable, worrying that they had signed up to human rights commitments that might eventually forfeit the continent’s sovereignty, not to mention their own positions.
Importantly, the AU’s “non-indifference” to mass atrocities conjoined with a range of other principles from the start. Among them were respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity, rejection of unconstitutional changes in government, and offering and accepting good-faith proposals for conflict resolution. Non-indifference was not intended to override these principles, but rather to operate alongside them. Parsing and weighing the different norms was thus a challenge the AU had to address. To do so, it established the AU High-Level Panel on Darfur (AUPD) in 2009 — headed by Thabo Mbeki, who had just stepped down from the South African presidency the year before — to conduct a thorough investigation into the challenge of how best to address Darfur’s crisis in line with the AU’s principles, including consulting with Darfurian communities.
The resulting AUPD report embedded the imperative of justice and accountability within a holistic agenda for peace, democracy, and securing an equitable place for Darfur within Sudan as a whole. While the report did not explicitly address the question of preventing future atrocities, it made clear that such a whole-cloth approach was needed. The AUPD recommendations, however, were never implemented: the Sudanese government didn’t support them, while the United States and the U.N. preferred to run with a more conventional mediation sponsored by Qatar, which didn’t succeed. With neither a clear path forward nor the necessary political will, the AUPD agenda for a hybrid court to pursue accountability and an all-Darfur peace conference withered on the vine, leaving the Darfur conflict unresolved and vulnerable to reescalation.
Libya: R2P’s Turning Point
In 2011, Gareth Evans, a leading architect of R2P, celebrated the “coming of age” of the doctrine after the fall of the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. For many Africans, that operation validated their lingering suspicions about R2P’s half-hidden agenda. In February that year, the United States, France, and Britain assured Africa that U.N. Security Council resolution 1973 was not a charter for regime change, and that an AU initiative to seek a negotiated settlement would be given an opportunity. In their diplomacy, the NATO powers were disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst. The AU peace initiative was unceremoniously blocked, and on the day African leaders were due to fly to Tripoli, NATO told them that the no-fly zone was in effect and the safety of their plane could not be guaranteed.
The wording of the Chapter VII resolution and the logical progression from using force to protect civilians from a perpetrator regime to removing that regime from power after it continued to perpetrate violence against civilians was inescapable. If using force for atrocity prevention were to become a regular priority for the U.S. and Europe, a latter-day form of philanthropic imperialism was in prospect.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev backed the AU peace plan for Libya, and taking a lead from the Africans, agreed not to veto the Security Council resolution. But what happened next validated then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s distrust of NATO. The following year, Syria was a casualty, with Russia systematically blocking any western-led response efforts at the U.N. Security Council.
The Libya intervention not only divided the Council, but also split AU member states. Some insisted that Gaddafi should go, while others backed the AU plan for a negotiated settlement. These divisions were sharpened by NATO’s humiliating dismissal of the AU’s mediation efforts. The outcome was an acrimonious election for a new chairperson of the Commission, with the incumbent Jean Ping losing out to his challenger, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. The organization has yet to recover from this bruising experience.
While sidelining the AU, NATO also elevated the Gulf States — especially Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — as their preferred regional partners in Libya. They, along with Turkey and Egypt, have remained deeply entangled in Libya’s conflict ever since, and also expanded their involvement across the greater Middle East including the Horn of Africa. In contrast to western aspirations for a norm-based multilateralism, the rising powers of the Middle East have a transactional approach to regional politics, so that conflicts such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen have turned into proxy wars. For them, atrocity prevention is not even a rhetorical commitment.
As Chadian President Idriss Déby had warned, opening the “Libyan Pandora’s Box” also sparked crises across the Sahel. Libya became an arms emporium. Radical armed groups in Gaddafi’s Saharan training camps were let loose, notably in Mali. A new template of rivalrous regional politics also emerged, with Middle Eastern powers using their enormous financial and military resources to pursue their rivalries in what they saw as an expanding African security hinterland. This spread to the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, where the nascent Pax Africana collapsed. The Gulf States were unconcerned with, or even unaware of, the AU’s painstaking efforts to build a norm-based security community. Cherished but fragile norms such as non-indifference were trampled underfoot.
In response to this shifting geopolitical landscape, African states — led by the Eritrean dictatorship — sought to play Gulf clientship to their tactical advantage, and the AU, demoralized and divided, followed meekly. The test case was the war in the Tigray region of Ethiopia – a locus of systematic atrocities including massacres, systematic rape, and starvation – which passed without rebuke from the AU.
This leads us to the conundrums of today. Addis Ababa is the headquarters of the AU, and as such, it’s doubtful that it could act in an impartial manner in any conflict in which Ethiopia is a belligerent. But we must be clear that this is not an insoluble problem. In previous civil wars where the AU faced unmanageable conflicts of interest — such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where numerous African countries had been involved in a regionalized civil war — the organization deferred to the U.N., as indeed it is obliged to do under Chapter VIII of the U.N. Charter and Article 17 of the P.S.C. Protocol. However, when an alliance of the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments went to war in the Tigray region in 2020, the AU Commission chose instead to side with the Ethiopian government and block any attempts to raise the matter at the U.N. Security Council. Two years later, having presided with studious indifference over war, mass atrocity, and starvation, the AU reluctantly convened negotiations that led to a threadbare cessation of hostilities, stripped of any reference to the foundational principles of the Union, yet dressed up as an “African solution.”
What’s worse, the U.N. hid behind the AU, while the U.S. and European governments were content to fall behind this alibi. Among other failures, all chose not to mention the role of the UAE in both financing and arming Ethiopia and backstopping Eritrea, the continent’s purest and most sanguinary dictatorship.
In May this year, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights quietly closed its investigation into atrocities in Tigray, without issuing an explanation, let alone a report.
In October, Ethiopia and the AU won the consent of the U.S. and European countries to terminate the mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia (ICHREE) — the sole independent mechanism for documenting international crimes in Ethiopia — at a time when, in the words of the Commission, there is “acute risk of further atrocity crimes” in that country. Meanwhile, a proposal at the U.N. Human Rights Council for an investigative mission to Sudan, introduced on Oct. 4, received no backing from the AU and virtually none from African states. Among the western policy commentariat, the consensus now is that principled multilateralism is a relic of the past.
Recovering the Atrocity Prevention Agenda in Darfur
Against this backdrop, the AU’s silence on Darfur today is sadly consistent with its current de facto doctrine of indifference to atrocity crimes, in contradiction of its own foundational position. The Pax Africana project 20 years ago was principled but pragmatic, bringing the principle of “non-indifference” to co-equal standing with other principles and norms. Managing the tensions between competing norms required both skilled political handling and a careful ambiguity over how far to pursue the logic of refusing to tolerate atrocities.
In the end, however, the AU’s bluff was called: it lacked the political clout, the military resources, or the persuasion to sustain its principled position, then lost the will. In its retreat, the AU has also jettisoned the project of establishing and nurturing a norm-based, multilateral African peace and security order. That failing was ultimately the AU Commission’s. Without serious recommitment to such a political project, the atrocity prevention toolbox for Africa is likely to remain shut, its tools quietly rusting away while people in Darfur and beyond pay the ultimate price.
According to the Constitutive Act of the African Union, collective action by African states to support fundamental principles including non-indifference is not a choice, it’s an obligation. No other countries besides members of the AU have an overriding geostrategic interest in Darfur and the outcome of the conflict there. Reviving the norms and mechanisms of Africa’s peace and security architecture should be the AU’s top priority. Until it has tried, no one can judge what obstacles might stand in its way, let alone strategize on how to surmount them.