Thomas Jefferson once said ‘The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.” The sanctity of life however took a huge knock in the twentieth century and we are still feeling the consequences in the new millennium. Mankind lost millions in WW1 in European trenches, we lost tens of millions in WW2 including 6 million Jews, 20 million Russians and tens of thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the Korean peninsula 3-4 million civilians were killed as a result of the conflict, in Vietnam 58,000 US soldiers were killed as well as 2 million Vietnamese over a ten-year period. After Vietnam we have witnessed unspeakable massacres in Cambodia and in the 1990’s Rwanda lost millions as a result of an intra tribal genocide. In the 21st century the momentum goes on, three thousand dead in America, tens of thousands dead in Iraq and Afghanistan and since 2003 the deaths of tens of thousands in Darfur in Western Sudan.
As is inevitable and right, one looks for a cause to blame for the suffering, a scapegoat, someone we can easily punish and account for these unspeakable atrocities. For some in the West the narrative is straightforward, the deaths in Darfur are a direct result of the Sudanese Government and their allies in the Janjaweed militia. Yet even if this political narrative is correct, putting in UN troops is not the answer. The UN’s track record on protecting civilians is patchy to say the least. In 1995 UN peacekeepers failed to protect the massacre of 8,000 people in Srebenicia. In Rwanda, the UN failed to protect the Tutsis from being massacred, in the 1990’s it was UN sanctions that were responsible for the deaths of 500,000 children in Iraq which according to the then US Secretary of State Madeline Albright was a price well worth paying. And the Sudanese Government is not paranoid when it comes to being suspicious about the real agenda of some member states that may wish to contribute to a UN force.
Of course the Sudanese regime has the primary culpability in the current Darfur conflict. The duty of any state is to protect its citizens and to ensure that the lives of its entire people are protected regardless of colour, creed or tribe. In trying to address rebellions in the west of its country, the Sudanese Government should be able to distinguish between those intent on destroying the unity of the state and those who are innocent bystanders. Collective punishment whether practiced in Palestine or Sudan can never be justified. If they continue to kill their citizens, then other Muslim countries should do what is necessary to resolve the situation. Yet it is not only the Sudanese Government who needs to rediscover the sanctity of human life, we all do. Many in the West who believe in the Bush doctrine often accuse Muslims of having double standards when it comes to the death of their co-religionists, criticising America and Israel when it comes to Iraq and Lebanon but turning a blind eye when it comes to atrocities in Darfur. However hypocrisy is not unique to these Muslims, these same critics who highlight Darfur stay largely silent when it comes to the record of Western states in the 19th and 20th centuries where literally millions have died at the behest of Western policy. Not to mention the hypocrisy that they have shown over the UN, an entity that they collectively rubbished in the Iraq conflict and which they now embrace as the mechanism to deal with Sudan.
And here lies the rub of the issue, the sanctity of human life cannot be simply protected by military means or UN resolutions, it requires a transformational change in our collective values and our political actions. Too much of today’s society is now built on materialism, hedonism and national pride and too little built on caring for the dignity of human life. Too much foreign and security policy now prioritises resources over people, markets over ideals and expediency over principle. A life lost in the twin towers should not count more than one who dies in Kandahar, nor is a civilian life taken in the name of God, any more justified than those taken in the name of defending national security, corporate capitalism or tribal superiority. The life of a Red Indian chief, the life of a black slave from Sierra Leone, the life of a Vietnamese mother, the life of an American cabin attendant, the life of an Iraqi trader and the life of a child in Darfur should be equally viewed as sacred. Mankind in the 21st century has advanced technologically in a way in which our ancestors would have only dreamed of, yet our attitude towards the sanctity of human life remains stuck in the dark ages.