Ten years after Rwanda, a genocide is unfolding again while the world watches and refuses to say its name. The failure of the United States and the international community to act in Rwanda a decade ago cost 800,000 lives. Now, up to 1 million people face a similar fate in Darfur, western Sudan, as a result of an ongoing government campaign to destroy a portion of its population. What is happening in Darfur is genocide, and must be called that. The term “genocide” not only captures the fundamental characteristics of the Khartoum government’s intent and actions, it also invokes clear international obligations.
Yet, as horrifying reports continue to emerge, and as a humanitarian emergency grows, there is no indication that the United States or the United Nations is prepared to intervene–despite promises of “never again” and explicit obligations under the 1948 Convention on Genocide. For more than a year, the Khartoum government has systematically obstructed access to Darfur and blocked international efforts to establish a relief program. More recently, it has failed to honor the cease-fire it signed in April. As a result, Darfur now faces the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with 30,000 people already killed and more than a million internally displaced. International aid agencies say that even if humanitarian relief arrives now, 350,000 people may still die.
Sudan, geographically Africa’s largest country, has experienced civil war with only a ten-year pause since independence in 1956. More than 2 million people have been killed and twice that many displaced in the long-running war between successive governments of the north and peoples of the south. Recent progress toward peace has brought hope that this troubled history will finally come to a close, but the growing crisis in Darfur, which began last year, casts a dark shadow. In Darfur, the Sudanese government is destroying African Muslim communities because some among them have challenged Khartoum’s authoritarian rule. As in the conflict between north and south, in Darfur ethnic and racial identities have also been part of the conflict. But at its heart is a repressive minority Arab-centric regime in Khartoum that rules by force, cannot even claim to represent a majority of northerners and has relied on religious fundamentalism to maintain its power.
Ironically, the international community’s unwillingness to intervene results–at least in part–from concern that a fragile peace deal between north and south will be jeopardized. Across several administrations, the United States has been involved in promoting peace in Sudan, and the Bush Administration is eager to claim credit for its diplomatic efforts. But as long as the Sudanese government is waging a genocidal war in Darfur, the United States cannot pretend that a meaningful peace deal can be achieved. The Administration had hoped that such an agreement would allow it to lift sanctions on Sudan. This, in turn, would permit US oil companies to pursue a share of the country’s recently developed oil wealth. Such interests, however, cannot be allowed to compromise a larger moral obligation.
As parties to the Genocide Convention, all permanent members of the UN Security Council, including the United States and more than 130 countries worldwide, are bound to prevent and punish genocide. The convention names genocide as a crime in international law, describing it as the commission of acts with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
The Security Council continues to hesitate on Darfur, largely because of the economic and diplomatic interests of its permanent members, who don’t wish to antagonize Khartoum. Whether the UN can be spurred to action will depend largely on the United States, and Washington has an obligation to act. One reason is its treaty obligations under the Genocide Convention. Another is its involvement in Sudan’s peace process, supported by an eclectic domestic constituency, including groups ranging from the evangelical right to the Congressional Black Caucus. A third is the unique US intelligence capacity to track militia activity in Darfur as well as the movements of the displaced. Finally, it has 1,800 troops in nearby Djibouti, some of whom could be mobilized quickly to lead a multinational force to secure the region, to facilitate humanitarian assistance and to enforce the cease-fire until a UN peacekeeping force can be assembled.
When George W. Bush hosted the G-8 summit in June, the leaders of the world’s richest and most powerful countries merely urged the government of Sudan to disarm the militias. Were this tragedy unfolding in Europe, their summit would have focused on little other than intervention. Unless there is an immediate military intervention in Darfur, up to a million people could die this year. We should have learned from Rwanda that to stop genocide, Washington must first say the word.