An interest in intervention: A moral argument for Darfur

by Christy Mawdsley


The United States government has consistently failed to act when faced with governments committing mass atrocities against their own citizens. Yet U.S. leaders acknowledge that the United States is capable of and responsible for such action. We have thus seen one U.S. administration after another crying “never again” after a humanitarian crisis or genocide, while allowing the crises to go on unhindered when they recur.

In response to this gap between belief and action, this paper proposes that the U.S. Government (USG) develop a policy toward genocide and other mass atrocities that is consistent with U.S. values. To underscore the practical and real need for such a policy, this analysis will examine the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. The paper will address three central questions: what is occurring in Darfur? What is the theoretical case for U.S. action in Darfur or any other mass murder? And how can this be carried out practically? These questions are extremely pertinent to U.S. policymakers and citizens as they help clarify how our country views and deals with humanitarian crises, if it should at all. The fundamental argument of this paper is that the United States does have an obligation to act in the Darfur crisis and in similar situations in the future, based on both interest and value-grounded rationale.

I aim in this paper to 1) outline the crisis in Darfur from 2003 to the present; 2) describe the U.S. response to the situation in Darfur; 3) delineate what I believe the U.S. should do/be doing in response to the crisis and 4) provide rationale for why the U.S. should undertake these or similar actions in response to genocide in Darfur or other nations in the future.

The scope of this paper is limited in two central ways. First, in addressing human rights violations that necessitate U.S. attention and action, I am speaking to situations in which a government or group within a country is committing mass abuses to a degree that “shocks the human conscience.” This is with an understanding that very basic laws of morality are universally available to human reason. The “atrocities” discussed in this paper entail those along the lines of genocide, ethnic cleansing, gendercide, or mass extermination. The humanitarian crises referenced in this paper refer to objective crises in which mass atrocities are being committed by one group versus another, including but not limited to genocide. I am referencing here a (relatively) sudden act that could necessitate emergency status. Thus, excluded are “nation-building” operations, interventions in the case of a failing state, or interventions for purely economic or strategic purposes.

The second limitation of scope in this paper is the aspect of ethics that I am suggesting be added to American foreign policy. Though a perfectly consistent, moral foreign policy may be the ultimate goal of several theoretical approaches referenced here, developing this idea is not the goal sought here. Rather, I am addressing the addition of ethics and consistency in responses to mass humanitarian crises and atrocities. This paper is not intended to cast other governments or delineation of economies or political systems in terms of “good” and “evil.” It is not intended to promote or devalue any alliance with any other government along these lines, nor do I advocate forcible “regime change” from authoritarian to democratic.

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Christy Mawdsley recently received her master’s degree in international affairs from Texas A&M University, with concentrations in international development and diplomacy. She was editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Affairs Journal during her time in graduate school and currently works with the ONE Campaign and the Save Darfur Coalition.

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