Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Sympathy for "Fence Sitters"

I had something of a revelation today.

A question World English Literature final exam today asked me what I thought "should" be done about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Attached to the essay was a brief editorial written by John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. In it, Bolton argued (correctly, as far as I understand international law) that action through the International Criminal Court is an tremendously poor way to bring Sudanese President Bashir to justice and to save the Darfuris, because such action is outside the scope of it's mandate. Suffice it to say that the I.C.C. does not have to power to indite members who are not signatory to its treaty, and rather than violate international law and state sovereignty, the world should seek to empower the Sudanese themselves to deal with Bashir.

This seemed to me, as I first started writing my response, to be a somewhat callous solution to the problem. Anyone who has heard or seen anything of the brutal, mass killing of the Darfuris in the west of Sudan know that nothing short of full-scale military intervention can prevent the janjeweed - backed by the Sudanese army - from slaughtering every single indigenous African darfuri down to the last burned village. To "respect state sovereignty" in this matter essentially amounts to sacrificing the Darfuris to their fate... another genocide in Africa to hang around the world community's shoulders.

But as I weighed the alternative option of armed intervention, I realized that the alternative that it represented casts shadows equally as dark. Violating international law, even to bring an evil man to justice and save a desperate people, sets a dangerous precedent in international law. Wasn't this how President Bush justified the Iraq war after it had been made clear that there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found? Doesn't the continual disregard for international codes of conduct and state sovereignty weaken and destroy central pillar supporting our world institutions in the first place? If they fail, the undeniable truth is that many more people whom the U.N. protects and helps will also suffer, the Darfuris not the least of all.

It looks as though the crisis in Darfur is one of the "dirty hands" scenarios that my philosophy professor warned me about - one in which those in power must make a decision that invariably lays some sort of moral responsibility at their feet.

Is justice truly justice if adherence to law means that bad men go free and good people die? Is breaking the law justified if the protection granted by the rule of law is dissipated? To say that international law is flawed doesn't do much to help find an answer to the problem. The law has already failed - it must be revised, but that is a question for tomorrow. Today's question must be answered first.

As I wrote in my paper, the daily struggle of a government major is to avoid becoming one of Ayn Rand's hated "Fence Sitters" - people who are unable to make a bad decision and end up paralyzed, unable to make any meaningful choice whatsoever. Seeing all sides of an issue is one thing. Making a decision at the end of the day is quite another. Ultimately we must choose, because apathy is a choice far worse than either alternative. I feel more sympathy for Bush now, and really, for any government figure that is forced to make such a terrible decision. Perhaps that is the fundamental aspect of international relations - Obama certainly says that few decisions that make it to his desk are easy ones.

I penned in my conclusion that, since we must choose, perhaps we choose the answer that seems to help the most people, the soonest. If only to sleep better at night, we should make the choice that allows these poor victims of atrocity to survive the day. I think I might rest easier with my humanity intact, knowing that I had made a decision to help real people, now, in front of me, rather than theoretical people over the next hill.

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