Tuesday, March 7, 2006

Unless more is done immediately to end the slaughter of innocents in Darfur, historians may treat today’s world leaders about as kindly as the Government of Sudan is currently treating its own people.

History is instructive. In the early 1940s, Allied leaders dismissed as exaggerated reports of what was happening in Nazi concentration camps. It wasn’t until late in the war that those who escaped finally convinced world leaders otherwise. After the war, leaders came together and pledged “never again.” But never again has become again and again — in Cambodia, Uganda, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya and now Darfur.

The Sudanese government and its hired killers, the Janjaweed, regularly sweep into villages and camps of displaced people to murder, loot and rape. Hundreds of thousands of innocents have died and the slaughter continues today, right now. What is happening in Darfur can only be described as savagery. The question before the world, therefore, is: What is to be done?

Currently, the public debate is focused on peacekeepers — that is, troops for civilian protection. To the extent civilians are protected now, it is by a struggling African Union force; the African Union is the organization of African states founded for mutual cooperation on the continent. The African Union forces face nearly insurmountable obstacles — of limited resources, communications, and perhaps worst, authority.

The United Nations and major world powers, including the United States, are debating how to transform this African Union force into a U.N. operation to make it into a larger, better equipped force. In fact, in early February, when the United States assumed its month-long presidency of the U.N. Security Council, one of the first steps was to ask the secretary-general to begin planning for a greater U.N. military role in Darfur; the U.N. is waiting to learn whether the African Union supports this.

President Bush also recently called for a stronger international peacekeeping force, which would include a role for NATO, and asked Congress to approve more than $500 million for peacekeeping and humanitarian aid in Sudan.

While these were welcome moves — it is imperative to protect civilians with a strong, highly mobile, well equipped force — they are not enough. Despite recent steps forward, Western and other governments will be highly reluctant, over the long term, to commit their own troops to intervene where the prospects for peace are remote and where the likelihood is great many of the soldiers will be killed and seriously wounded.

Add to this the issue of cost and the complicated politics of the U.N. Security Council. It’s a matter of political will. In reality, peacekeepers will not be on the ground in Darfur any time soon. And even when they do arrive, civilians will remain at risk. The peacekeeping process will be unending unless we address peacemaking with the same urgency.

The world, therefore, needs to focus not just on troops, but on truce as well. As it stands, peacemaking efforts are faltering. The current African Union peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, are at a standstill on key issues of security and power sharing.

One major problem is that the talks do not include all stakeholders to the conflict. While it is hoped there will be progress in Abuja, reports from the talks suggest whatever gets done will be insufficient to sustain a lasting peace.

It is now clear something bolder is needed, a jolt of adrenaline to peacemaking and a visible symbol for peace: an international figure to jump-start and lead the diplomatic process.

Ideally, this new envoy would be appointed by the United Nations and strongly supported by the Bush administration. This high profile leader’s entry would signal a new resolve by the international community, especially the United States, to deal with the slaughter.

Can one individual make a difference? Quite simply: yes. The Bush administration dispatched John Danforth to Sudan to help successfully negotiate a peace between the Khartoum government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. The Clinton administration turned to George Mitchell to negotiate the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland.

In Darfur, an envoy could energize stalled discussions on security and on power-sharing among all parties — including tribal leaders, refugees and civil society — and put much greater pressure on the Sudanese government and others who have taken up arms to stop the violence. An envoy of sufficient clout and profile could keep the Darfur story on Page One of newspapers and coalesce other governments behind a unified message. But most important, perhaps, an envoy could start immediately — and start saving lives now.

After World War II, when asked how they looked away, leaders claimed ignorance of the atrocities as they happened. But today, the evil in Darfur is well documented. Parade magazine recently ranked the president of Sudan, Omar al Bashir, No. 1 on its list of the “World’s Worst Dictators” of 2006.

That’s why the United Nations should immediately appoint a highly visible and well-respected international figure to address, and end, the slaughter in Darfur. Peacekeepers alone cannot solve the problem. Darfur needs peacemakers as well.

Mudawi Ibrahim Adam is chairman of the Sudan Social Development Organization (www.sudosudan.org) in Khartoum, Sudan. Jill Savitt is the Campaign Director of New York-based Human Rights First (www.HumanRightsFirst.org).

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