Jan Egeland, the UN's humanitarian coordinator, spoke about the conditions in Sudan's western Darfur region.
"Large numbers of civilians have been killed and scores of women and children have been abducted, raped and tortured. Scorched-earth tactics are being employed throughout Darfur -- including the deliberate destruction of schools, wells, seed and food supplies -- making whole towns and villages uninhabitable," Egeland said. "Not even the camps for the refugees and the internally displaced are immune from attacks. I consider this to be ethnic cleansing. I cannot find any other word for it."
Egeland told reporters last week there are signs of an organized campaign under way to force African tribes out of their villages by Arab militias. Three quarters of a million Sudanese have become internally displaced in the region since fighting began last year between the government, allied militias and rebel groups. Another 100,000 have fled to neighboring Chad.
UN officials have sent experts to the region to try to determine the extent of the abuses and to press for deterrent action by the Sudanese government. But, as always, issues of sovereignty and intervention pose challenges.
As they mark the anniversary of Rwanda's genocide, in which as many as 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died, UN officials are calling for new attention to the responsibility of governments to protect their citizens. Any absence of government action, they say, requires robust measures by the international community.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan will speak about Rwanda in a special session today of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. As chief of UN peacekeeping at the time of the genocide, Annan oversaw the activities of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda. He said he tried in vain to get support from UN members for a larger peacekeeping mission.
In an address to a UN panel 10 days ago, Annan also accepted blame for not reacting strongly enough to news of the escalating crisis in Rwanda. "I believed at that time that I was doing my best, but I realized after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support," Annan said.
Investigations into the incident also place heavy blame on the UN Security Council for its failure to bolster peacekeepers in the country.
Ibrahim Gambari represented Nigeria on the Security Council at the time and is now the UN's special adviser on Africa. In addressing last month's panel, he recalled a decision by the Security Council on 21 April 1994 -- in the midst of the unfolding genocide -- to reduce the UN force in Rwanda from 2,558 to about 270 soldiers. Gambari said that "without a doubt, it was the Security Council, especially its most powerful members, as well as the international community as a whole, that failed the people of Rwanda in their gravest hour of need."
Gambari said the Belgian government lobbied its NATO allies on the Security Council to end the operation after the deaths of Belgian peacekeepers. U.S. officials would not allow the word "genocide" to be used in public comments because of the increased international obligation that would entail.
Gambari also faulted states from the non-aligned movement on the Security Council for failing to speak out in support of greater peacekeeping activity. He describes the Security Council in terms of "rings" of self-interest.
"It would be misleading to regard the Security Council as an organic body that always acts to uphold the aims and objectives of the UN Charter," Gambari said. "That would be idealistic to think that. In reality, the council is first and foremost a political institution that functions in concentric circles of interest and relative interest."
Debate over the UN's humanitarian role intensified after the peacekeeping debacles in Rwanda and Bosnia and the NATO intervention in Kosovo, which was not endorsed by the Security Council.
Canada established an international commission on intervention and state sovereignty, which issued a report two years ago called "The Responsibility to Protect."
Canadian Foreign Minister Bill Graham, speaking at the UN last month, repeated the report's central theme -- when states are unwilling or unable to protect residents, the international community has a responsibility to act.
Graham said the UN must draw the proper lessons from the Rwandan tragedy.
"The well-being of the individual must be at the center of our international affairs. We believe that the security of persons is as important as the security of states," Graham said. "Therefore, we reject the notion that state sovereignty confers absolute immunity."
Ramesh Thakur was a member of the panel that produced the Canadian report and is a rector at the United Nations University. He said the threshold for intervention is crossed when large-scale violence is about to occur against civilians.
Thakur stressed that the United Nations is the only authority to override national sovereignty. But he acknowledged that the UN system for responding to threats is in need of reform.
"The urgent task is not to evade or circumvent the UN but to make it work better, to hold it in turn accountable for its responsibility to protect at the global level," Thakur said. "Washington surely has a point about the inadequacies of the existing UN system for confronting and eliminating today's real threats."
Annan has proposed the establishment of a UN special adviser for the prevention of genocide, who could make the Security Council more fully aware of genocidal situations as they arise.
But as UN officials have pointed out, a UN human rights rapporteur did report in 1993 that genocide on a small scale had been committed in Rwanda and that there was a likelihood of large-scale killing.