Talking to homeless Sudanese in hiding near their burned villages has a way of clarifying issues. In rebel-held territory of Darfur recently, I heard story after story of people whose fathers and brothers had been killed, whose mothers, sisters and daughters had been gang-raped, and whose livelihoods, built over generations, had been torched by their own government and the militia it supports. And I realized more clearly than ever how much foreign policy comes down to basic choices about priorities.
The failure by the international community to respond to Sudan’s killing fields in Darfur may not yet be as dramatic or deadly as its failure in Rwanda, but the excuses ring much more hollow. In 1994, the world had only 90 days in which to act before the killing in Rwanda was over. In contrast, the Sudanese slaughter began in earnest 17 months ago. The hundreds of thousands of further deaths now feared from disease and malnutrition will happen in slow motion.
The failure of the United Nations is particularly noteworthy. In late July, the Security Council resolved in a weak resolution to give the regime 30 days to comply with a series of demands. However, five days later, the U.N. Special Envoy said that the council’s demands could not possibly be met by Khartoum, thus giving the regime a further reason to delay and giving its supporters on the council a golden reason not to impose any punitive measures on the regime. Later this week, the council will pass a new resolution in response to the 30-day deadline. What it will say will be of enormous consequence for the survival of the displaced in Darfur.
The choices confronting the world today in Darfur are clear and compelling: Will we provide the requisite aid resources, or not? Will we demand the deployment of an expanded African Union force into Darfur to protect civilians, or not? Will we pressure regime officials with the ultimate trump card — accountability — or not? None of these options is beyond the realm of the possible; they are simply matters of political will. If the United States answers “yes” to these questions, hundreds of thousands of lives will be spared over the next few months.
Regarding aid choices, there are more than 2 million people in need of assistance in Darfur, but only half are receiving any form of aid. Now that the Sudanese government is finally reducing bureaucratic impediments to aid deliveries, and we realize the United Nations appeals remain underfunded by well over half, will donor governments provide the money and logistical support necessary to end the famine?
Regarding force deployment choices, Sudanese civilians cannot by definition be protected by those that have planned and organized the violence from which they need protection. But that is all that the United Nations and the United States have so far agreed to with the regime, which has offered to provide police to protect civilians and oversee the displacement camps. The regime is already firing non-Arab police and integrating the killer Janjaweed militias into the police and army. Will the U.N. Security Council forcefully advocate the immediate deployment of a robust African Union force that is mandated to protect civilians and large enough to do the job properly?
Regarding accountability choices, human rights should no longer be traded off against endless peace processes that never quite come to fruition. For 15 years, the Sudanese regime has perpetrated all manner of abuses inside and outside its borders. For 15 years, the international community has negotiated with this regime, soft-pedalinghuman-rights concerns in order to keep it at the negotiating table. This has played directly into the hands of the government’s strategy, which has been to maintain endless negotiations as a means to deflect international pressure. The longer the U.N. Security Council does not impose punitive measures against the government, the more the council’s leverage seeps away. Will the council authorize targeted sanctions against regime officials and businesses, create a commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity in Darfur, impose an arms embargo on the government and begin the process of making legally accountable the major human-rights violators?
The substance of the next U.N. Security Council resolution will be crucial. The last council resolution was insufficient to influence the calculations of the Khartoum regime, continuing a pattern characterized by repeated international threats of punitive action that are never followed up meaningfully. The regime has learned well from experience how to do — and mostly say — just enough to escape sanction. The losers, over and over, are the Sudanese people.
The decisions we need to make are clear, and the sooner we decide, the better: Every day, another 1,000 lives are put at risk.
It is our choice.
John Prendergast, Special Advisor to the President of the International Crisis Group, previously worked for the National Security Council and State Department.