Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 31 May 2004

The Darfur Catastrophe


By Susan E. Rice and Gayle E. Smith

The Washington Post

May 30, 2004 — Ten years ago CNN ran footage of bloated corpses floating down Rwanda’s rivers, while Washington debated whether to call it "genocide." As U.S. officials who later were responsible for U.S. policy toward Africa, we helped plan several subsequent military interventions in Africa. But, like many others, we remain haunted by the Rwandan genocide. So it is with some humility and a full appreciation of the complexity of decisions to deploy U.S. forces that we hazard to recommend how to deal with a new Rwanda now unfolding in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

There, the government of Sudan and its proxy, the Janjaweed Arab militia, are attempting to crush a rebellion by Muslim Africans with the same vicious tactics they have used for years against Christian and animist opponents in southern Sudan. While negotiating a peace agreement with southern rebel forces, the government and its militia have killed, raped, kidnapped, bombed, enslaved, displaced, starved and burned countless innocent civilians in Darfur. U.N. officials have called this ethnic cleansing the "world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophe."

Some 10,000 civilians have been killed. At least 130,000 refugees have fled to neighboring Chad. Over a million more have been internally displaced and are trapped by the militia in disease-ridden camps without adequate food or water. They face the imminent threat of starvation. The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates another 300,000 or more could die.

Though the parties agreed to a cease-fire in Darfur last month, insecurity still reigns. The Sudanese government persists in denying its responsibility for the growing crisis, refuses to restrain its militia and impedes humanitarian access.

President Bush, members of Congress and U.N. officials, including Kofi Annan, have condemned the atrocities and urged Khartoum to stop them. But the United States and European and African governments have been loath to take action for fear of undermining the substantial progress being made toward a final peace agreement between Khartoum and its southern opponents. Inaction sends a dangerous signal to Khartoum that if necessary the United States will overlook war crimes in Darfur to achieve north-south peace.

Much more must be done, and soon.

First, the United States, acting through the U.N. Security Council, must pressure the government of Sudan to halt the killing, disarm the militia and allow full, unimpeded access for humanitarian workers and supplies. This pressure should include travel and financial sanctions, as well as a ban on the purchase of Sudanese oil, effective automatically within 14 days unless the government takes immediate and effective action.

Many foreign governments will resist such sanctions. Some might accuse the United States of hypocrisy in light of the Abu Ghraib scandal. We should have none of it. Instead, we should challenge fellow Security Council governments to live with their consciences if they choose to acquiesce in another genocide. Simultaneously, the United States should tell Khartoum no current U.S. sanctions will be lifted unless and until the government relents in Darfur.

Second, the United States should press the Security Council to grant member states the authority to intervene militarily to protect innocent civilians and ensure the security of humanitarian workers and assistance. Such mili- tary action might entail airdrops, a no-fly zone to protect civilians from government bombing, the establishment of humanitarian safe zones and security for critical deliveries by rail and road.

Third, the United States should press European and capable African countries to lead this humanitarian intervention with U.S. support. Given the demands on U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti, it is reasonable to ask Europe and Africa to play a key role.

Finally, the United States should begin urgent military planning and preparation for the contingency that no other country will act to stop the dying in Darfur. The administration has worked hard to end Sudan’s long-running civil conflict. But this effort will have been wasted if we allow the Sudanese government to continue committing crimes against humanity. Not only will the international community have blood on its hands for failure to halt another genocide, but we will have demonstrated to Khartoum that it can continue to act with impunity against its own people. In that case, any hard-won peace agreement will not be worth the paper it’s signed on.

It is too late to change the historical record on Rwanda. But it is not too late to set a better precedent for the future.

Susan E. Rice, assistant secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Gayle E. Smith, special assistant to the president and senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council from 1998 to 2001, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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