International failure in responding to genocide in Darfur should be occasion for the deepest shame. Inaction has already cost hundreds of thousands of lives and caused untold human suffering—but the catastrophe is far from over. The example of Darfur should also prompt considerable reflection on whether the world community feels any “responsibility to protect” civilians endangered because of inaction, or indeed deliberate actions, on the part of their own governments and regimes. Have we reached the point in confronting atrocity crimes at which we put civilian lives ahead of expedient claims of national sovereignty? An answer in the abstract was provided by all UN member states in September 2005. At that time, countries declared themselves “prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council” when national authorities fail to “protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.”
We know—from a staggering number of human rights reports and assessments, and myriad accounts from journalists and humanitarians in the region—the relevance of this clause to events in Darfur. For almost five years, Khartoum has committed all the crimes enumerated here in an attempt to destroy the perceived non-Arab or African civilian base of support for Darfur’s rebel groups. Current humanitarian conditions reveal that a grim genocide by attrition is the regime’s means of sustaining this strategy, which includes continuing harassment and obstruction of aid efforts.
As this brutal counter-insurgency effort is set to enter its sixth year, hope for protection resides entirely in the success of an unwieldy, unprecedented, and inauspiciously begun UN-African Union “hybrid” peace support operation, authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1769 in July 2007. In October 2007, the force had begun deploying without adequate resources, or even land for housing its personnel, and was burdened by a crippling dependence upon African Union personnel—this at the insistence of the Khartoum regime, which is determined to control the mission as much as possible. Consequently, there is likely to be little significant near-term improvement in the acute security crisis that threatens millions of Darfuri civilians and the vast humanitarian operations on which they depend.
At the same time, the National Islamic Front (NIF), which dominates the merely notional “Government of National Unity” in Sudan, appears bent on precipitating renewed north-south conflict. The NIF has not only reneged on key terms of the January 2005 peace agreement that ended more than 20 years of unfathomably destructive north-south civil war, but has engaged in a series of provocative actions directed against both the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its military forces. In October the SPLM responded by suspending its participation in the national government. The prospects for renewed war are greater than at any time since January 2005, and the consequences of such a war would be catastrophic. Whatever Darfur cease-fire might be in place, or whatever peace process may be inching forward, would rapidly collapse under the weight of nation-wide civil war.
Darfur’s staggering figures make questions of international response all the more exigent: hundreds of thousands already dead; 2.5 million displaced, most losing everything; and 4.2 million human beings dependent on the world’s largest and most endangered humanitarian operation.
Answers are at once numerous and complex—and bluntly obvious. There has simply never been any stomach to confront, in effective and concerted fashion, the ruthless tyranny of the NIF. The regime came to power by military coup in 1989, deposing the elected government of Sadiq el-Mahdi and deliberately aborting Sudan’s most promising chance for peace since independence. Yet there have never been coordinated economic sanctions targeting the NIF leadership. There have never even been effective diplomatic sanctions, although the UN nominally imposed them in 1995 following the NIF’s role in the conspiracy to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa. On the contrary, commercial and capital investment in the Khartoum-dominated economy has been massive, coming from Europe, Canada, and Asian countries, primarily China.
Moreover, Khartoum has never faced a serious threat of non-consensual military action to halt genocide, even in Darfur, where the realities of large-scale, ethnically-targeted human destruction have been consistently and unambiguously reported since 2003. This lack of resolve is clear from a series of feckless UN Security Council resolutions stretching back to July 2004, when the Council impotently “demanded” that Khartoum disarm the savage Janjaweed militias that were responsible for so much of the village destruction and, consequently, the vast numbers of people killed or displaced.
Remote, arid, and landlocked—far from any navigable body of water and without significant infrastructure—Darfur offers unlimited opportunities for Khartoum to compromise the effectiveness of any deploying force. And dismayingly, despite the “hybrid” nature of the operation, African Union Commissioner Alpha Oumar Konar capitulated early on to Khartoum’s demand that forces be essentially, virtually exclusively, African in character. Since the AU simply does not have the requisite number of trained troops and civilian police available (the latter are particularly important), there will be critical shortfalls in men, training, equipment, logistics, and administrative capacity.
The failure of Security Council Resolution 1706 (August 2006), which authorized robust UN military and civilian police forces, marked a turning point. Effectively and expeditiously deployed, the force authorized might have saved tens of thousands of lives and prevented the ongoing slide into increasingly chaotic violence, which is the primary legacy of the ill-conceived and disastrously consummated Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) of May 2006 in Abuja, Nigeria.
Resolution 1706 was the real moment of decision for accepting a “responsibility to protect” in the face of Khartoum’s defiant claims of “national sovereignty”—and the international community blinked. Inevitably, this encouraged Khartoum to cleave all the more insistently to the DPA, in which no international guarantors are stipulated as part of security provisions. Further peace talks can accomplish little if the international community is not willing to press Khartoum for meaningful compliance with previous commitments.
What can be done to respond to the crisis, particularly in light of growing fatigue among aid organizations, international actors, and even advocacy groups?
Khartoum has been impressively patient in playing a very poor hand. It little expected that its genocidal response to the rebellion that emerged fully in February 2003 would garner so much international advocacy attention—given Darfur’s previous obscurity—and was caught temporarily off-guard. But the regime was vastly encouraged by the willingness of Western governments to trade Darfur in the interests of securing a north-south peace agreement, even as the refusal to speak honestly about Darfur occurred at the height of genocidal violence.
Having seen this expediency, Khartoum relies on Darfur not remaining a serious irritant in various bilateral and multilateral relations. This will certainly be true if some fig leaf of a protection force deploys and desultory peace talks proceed indefinitely.
Khartoum will be persuaded that the international community is serious only if deployment of the force recently authorized by Resolution 1769 is clearly under UN command, and if it is made plain that obstructionism by the regime will be met with harsh sanctions. It must be understood that military force will be used against any armed elements that impede deployment or operations of the authorized force. Selection of the components of the deploying force must rest squarely with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO); Jean-Marie Guehenno, head of UN DPKO, should insist that the African Union have only an advisory role in the selection of troops and civilian police. Critically, the militarily capable Western nations that have been scandalously laggard in providing key transport, logistical, and tactical air resources must be urgently forthcoming. Civilian police and military observers should be deployed on a highly expedited basis to the most insecure and volatile areas, with adequate military protection.
On the political front, China must be convinced to cease protecting its client state from real diplomatic pressure. Here advocacy efforts focusing on Beijing’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics have been much more effective than those of Western governments. European nations must be prepared to suspend diplomatic relations in the event that Khartoum cleaves to its obstructionist ways, and they should be prepared to impose economic sanctions as robust as those of the United States.
Khartoum’s gnocidaires may be ruthless, but they are calculating. If there is not relentless scrutiny, a firm demand that all benchmarks be met, and a clear indication that every occasion of reneging will be met with a decisive response, then Khartoum will simply outwait the international community. A voluntary departure from office by the regime is highly unlikely, especially since International Criminal Court indictments ultimately await all these gnocidaires. The regime’s contemptuous defiance of the ICC warrant for Ahmed Haroun—instrumental in Darfur’s genocidal destruction and now Minister for Humanitarian Affairs—gives us a sense of how improbable NIF surrender will be.
The international community must fashion the broadly coercive measures necessary to compel Khartoum to comply with its various commitments and with explicit international demands; otherwise, atrocity crimes will continue to serve as the basis for domestic security policy throughout Sudan.
ERIC REEVES is a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College in Massachusetts. He has spent the past nine years as a Sudan researcher and analyst. He is the author of the recently released “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.”