U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan did more last week than commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Mr. Annan leveraged that remembrance to highlight the raging crisis in Sudan and deliver a muscular statement to the Sudanese government. President Bush delivered a public message of his own and called Sudanese President Omar Bashir to relay it directly. Secretary of State Colin Powell also called Sudan’s vice president, Ali Othman Taha, and rebel leader John Garang to urge a completion of peace talks.
Mr. Annan called on Khartoum to give humanitarian workers free access to the country or face “swift and appropriate action.” That same day, Mr. Bush called on Khartoum to stop local militias from committing atrocities, adding, “I have expressed my views directly to President Bashir of Sudan.”
The focus on Sudan yielded results. On Thursday, the Sudanese government reportedly signed a 45-day, extendable ceasefire pact with rebels from the western Darfur region that would open the way for the delivery of humanitarian aid.
There are two conflicts raging in Sudan. The more recent, year-old problem, is between Arab militias armed (at least initially) by Khartoum and rebel groups, mostly of African ethnicity, in the western part of the country. The Arab militias, which tend to come from pastoral, nomadic communities, have at times sparred with sedentary, agricultural African communities over land and water. Both sides are predominantly Muslim.
The African community has long accused the regime in Khartoum of favoring Arab communities. About 12 months ago, Arab militias and African rebels, armed possibly by some African governments, started fighting. This fighting has gotten brutal, possibly genocidal. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates that 750,000 people have been displaced and 110,000 others have sought refuge in Chad.
Meanwhile, a conflict that is about two-decades old has raged between Khartoum and rebels in the south, who are animists and Christian. Combat, famine and disease has killed 2 million people in that period. U.S. officials have been leaning on both sides to reach a peace agreement that for months has been called imminent. U.S. officials currently describe a deal as 90 percent completed. Patience is needed, and the United States and others should remain supportive but not gullible. Also, U.S. officials can’t let hopes for a deal with southern rebels deflect their attention from the crisis in Darfur.
The international community has a host of reasons for wanting a peace in Sudan, including the obvious humanitarian ones and the fact that neighboring Chad has valuable oil resources. Also, the affiliation of one rebel group in Darfur with Hassan Turabi, a radical Islamist and former leader of Sudan, are worrisome, even though Mr. Turabi was arrested Saturday. The memory of Rwanda is a call to conscience in Sudan. There are other reasons, though, to be worried about the conflict there.