Darfur: A “Responsibility to Protect”


At the Christmas Midnight Mass this past December, Pope John Paul II made a special petition to the Child Jesus for peace on earth. In particular, he mentioned an area where millions of people are suffering, the Darfur region in Africa, in a situation that the United States has called a genocide. This lesson examines the background of this humanitarian crisis, the response and responsibility of the Church and the world, and the challenges faced in providing assistance and achieving long term solutions. 

 A History of Conflict

The Republic of Sudan is in Northern Africa and won its independence on January 1, 1956. Armed conflict broke out in 1983, when then President Gaafar Nimeiry established the Shariah, Islamic law and began a process of forced Islamization of the southern populations.  The southern part of Sudan is not Islamic, but Christian and animist. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in the south took up arms to defend themselves against the government based in the north, to demand greater autonomy and freedom.  

The conflict in the Darfur region of Western Sudan is primarily between the Arab dominated government, aligned with the Janjaweed, a nomadic Arab tribe, and on the other side, the African tribal farm communities and the rebels promoting their causes.  The tensions between these groups are based on ethnic hatred between the African tribes and Arabs, control of limited water and land supplies in this mostly desert region, control of the money generated from oil fields and a belief by the African tribes of Darfur that the government has not invested enough resources in their communities.  

In February 2003 the conflict escalated with the rebels attacking a Darfur airport, killing 75 policemen and soldiers. The government responded by coordinating with the Janjaweed, to punish the people of Darfur.  Instead of just fighting the rebels, the Janjaweed and central government attacked villages and innocent civilians, killing mass numbers of people and destroying their land.  

In February 2004 terror swept over the land as villages were attacked by the Arab militia. Without warning, government planes bombed villages, followed by the Janjaweed sweeping through and attacking the civilians with guns and whips.  The Janjaweed killed and raped the villagers, poisoned wells, and left the villages burning. People left everything to flee, as men, women and children were killed. They ran to the next village, which would then also be attacked, forcing them to run to another village until it too was destroyed.  

At least 90,000 people of all ages have died in the village attacks, and from illness and hunger due to the fighting.  Over 2 million people have become refugees without a home.  The United Nations estimates that somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people continue to die every month.  The situation in Darfur is a powerful reminder of the suffering which can be unleashed when we violate the virtue of respect for others, and do not treat others with the dignity and value they deserve as human beings.      

Now the people are living in refugee camps, and there are whole cities composed of thousands of tents. The people have a hard life here, as the temperatures drop below zero overnight. With the contaminated wells, it is difficult to find water, and half of the families do not have sufficient provisions. There is poor hygiene and sanitation, so there is danger of illness and death. Infant mortality is increasing rapidly, and 22% of the children are suffering from malnutrition.

Danger looms in the future, as most of the crops were ruined and there will be no food at harvest time. The men who worked hard as farmers have nothing to do now except sit around the camp in boredom, as to leave the camp would mean death. Many of the children fled their villages with school books and bags, and now find hope in their education, even amidst the death and hatred. They go to classes eagerly, because it gives them something solid in the suffering, and shows them that by learning they can look forward to a brighter future.


What should the International Community do?

The Holy Father stated: “When there is hesitation in the international community about the obligation to respect and implement human rights, misery ensues as is so evident today in Darfur.” (cf. Message for the 2003 World Day of Peace, 5) It is necessary to have conviction about our responsibilities to defend the rights of others, so we can be diligent in acting in their favor. 

The Cardinal of Khartoum, Gabriel Zubeir Wako, criticizes the indifference of the government to the plight of its people, which requires someone else to intervene for the defense of human rights: “I don’t think there is a will of the Sudanese government to intervene to stop the janjaweed militias; otherwise they would have allowed the United Nations and the African Union to act with greater speed in Darfur.”

Part 2 “A Responsibility to Protect”

This is not the first case of genocide in Africa. In 1994, 800,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days in a mostly tribal conflict between Hutu and Tutsi tribes. After this, the United Nations commissioned the McArthur Foundation to draft “A Responsibility to Protect” document, outlining how the world should react in the future to cases of genocide.  

The McArthur Foundation advises that the UN first document the existence of violations of human rights, then bring all sides together to try and achieve a negotiated solution.  If negotiations fail, the UN should then consider applying economic sanctions where nations stop buying products from the nation abusing its citizens’ rights, banning international travel by its government leaders, and freezing its financial assets.  As a last resort, the foundation calls on the UN to consider military action.    

Unfortunately in Sudan, the UN has failed to follow through on promises of protection, and has failed to follow Kofi Annan’s call that “We cannot allow impunity when a sovereign state appears unable or unwilling to protect its own citizens.”  The global community has been unable to exert sufficient influence as China, Russia, Algeria and Pakistan and have blocked any attempts to apply sanctions.  We have seen that the U.N. can only be as effective as its member nations are willing to implement its own statements and policies.     

Responsibility of the Church

No matter what government is in place, the Church is there to reach out to each person and help the poor. As Pope John Paul II said, “In this service (of the poor and the needy) the Church desires neither power nor privilege, but only the freedom to express her faith and love in works of goodness, justice and peace.”

While some of the social and humanitarian groups were still talking about what to do, many Catholic and Christian groups began uniting together to raise money and bring it to the people of Darfur. Many Catholic charities worked together in an organization called Caritas Internationalis, while many other Protestant and Christian groups united in an organization called Action by Churches Together. These two large organizations also united efforts to work as a team to help the poor. 

As Cardinal Martino, of the Congregation for Justice and Peace, said, “Wherever one goes, in the heart of Africa — in hospitals, in health centers, in schools and centers of formation, in refugee camps and those for the displaced, in prisons and in other social areas — the Church is always present, by the side of the weakest, fulfilling its preferential option for the poor.”


Challenges to Achieving Effective Solutions 

It is easy to criticize the U.N. in its lack of action and effectiveness in preventing the disaster in Darfur; however, there are significant obstacles.  Unless the parties involved in a conflict either want peace, or are forced into accepting peace, the U.N. can’t be expected to resolve the crisis.  In Darfur, the government and rebels don’t yet seem to want peace and U.N. nations aren’t ready to apply sanctions, let alone commit troops to enforce a peace.     

Sometimes force is necessary to combat evil.  For example the UN could call on some nations to send “peace keeping troops” into the region to protect aid camps and secure the return home of refugees.  However, if the parties behind the conflict don’t agree to a long term solution then as the troops some day leave, the civilians will again be at risk.  Another problem is that many of the other military powers capable of making a difference, such as the U.S., France, England and Germany already have troops in peace-keeping missions in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. 

The aid workers confront severe difficulties in providing aid, in that many of the refugees are in remote locations with no major roads and airports.  In addition, aid workers are often prevented from working effectively by both government troops and the rebels.  Caritas workers were even stopped from taking food into the refugee camps by the soldiers who formed a human chain to keep them out.

The Challenge for Us 

We have seen in this lesson how difficult it is for governments and the U.N. to effectively address humanitarian disasters; however, this doesn’t mean that we as individuals can’t make a difference.  

We can make a difference through our generosity by contributing money, and inspiring others to contribute to one of the many aid organizations that are attempting to help the people of Darfur. 

In addition, we can let our elected representatives know our opinions in how we think our government should approach humanitarian disasters. 

It is not impossible, when each person realizes that we are bound together with every other person who lives in this world, to work together for a common cause and defend human rights.  We are all created by God and loved by him, even those who do not believe in him, and we are all called to be with him in Heaven for eternity.

After the Holocaust, the world had sworn to prevent another genocide, and yet in reality others followed: in Bosnia, Rwanda, and now in Darfur.  It is easy to despair and become cynical, yet we are called to continue working to do whatever we can, right now as individuals, and someday as leaders to learn from our mistakes and to improve how our world approaches humanitarian crises.  Despite the conflicts and suffering around the world, the Holy Father’s Christmas message expresses hope: “Everywhere peace is needed! You, Prince of true peace, help us to understand that the only way to build peace is to flee in horror from evil, and to pursue goodness with courage and perseverance.” 


Animist—A pagan religion that believes in spirits that are present in nature and phenomena

Autonomy – self government

Compassion –feeling of sympathy for the distress of others, with the desire to help 

Complicit –participating in the wrongdoing

Generosity – the freely giving of one’s time unselfishly and cheerfully for the benefit of others

Genocide – The deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political or cultural group.  

Humanitarian – Devoted to the promotion of human welfare and the advancement of social reforms  

Impunity-without punishment

Prudence – to think through the implications of a decision/action before taking it

Responsibility – Accepting and meeting the demands of our chosen duty in life. Being accountable for our actions.

Sovereign- having undisputed right to make decisions and act accordingly

Bible Blurbs

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” Matthew 25:35

 “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” Deuteronomy 15:11

Saints and Heroes


Rose Hawthorne Lathrop Born in 1851, daughter of  the famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rose lived her young life all over the United States and Europe. At 20 she married George Lathrop, and the two became Catholic together. After losing her four-year-old son and her husband, Rose’s good friend became ill with cancer. Her friend was wealthy enough to pay for care, but it made Rose think about all of the poor cancer patients who had to suffer a terrible illness and death without anyone to care for them. She moved to a poor section of New York and began to visit cancer patients and tend to their wounds. She opened up her own apartment to sick people, and inspired others to help her with donations (including the famous author Mark Twain). A friend, Alice Huber, helped Rose to found a new religious community, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, to continue the mission of caring for poor patients with incurable cancer.


Blessed Titus Brandsma lived in the Netherlands during the time of World War II, and the Nazi holocaust of the Jews. A Carmelite brother and a brilliant teacher, he was not afraid to speak out against the injustices and lack of respect for human rights. He encouraged Catholic newspapers not to publish anything that supported the Nazi ideas. When the Germans invaded the Netherlands, Brother Titus was immediately arrested and sent to the concentration camp in Dachau. He was treated severely as a slave, and then was taken to a camp hospital where doctors performed medical experiments on him. Nonetheless he tried to suffer everything as Christ did, praying for his torturers and forgiving them. He was killed by lethal injection in July of 1942.

Web Resources

“Responsibility to Protect” document:  


UN humanitarian information unit: 


USAID webpage, on ways to help send assistance (and donations) to Sudan:  


Document of “Remaining humanitarian requirements for Sudan until 31 December 2004: 



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