In Khartoum this week, the United Nations secretary general's special representative for Darfur, Jan Pronk, signed yet another agreement in which Sudan's government pledged to do something about the Janjaweed militias in western Sudan. But this time Sudan has been committed to even less than the international community insisted a month ago.
Negotiating with Khartoum on the basis of "good faith" is unlikely to stop the abuses in western Sudan. As Human Rights Watch documents Wednesday in a new report, Khartoum's pledges of progress have zero credibility when it comes to protecting civilians.
While access for humanitarian aid workers has improved since April, there is still little or no real security for a million Darfurian villagers who have been forced out of their homes, which were burned to the ground by government forces and their Arab Janjaweed militia allies. So far 30,000 have been killed in the campaign. Villagers who have tried to return to their destroyed villages have been attacked yet again by the Janjaweed, who continue to commit the same atrocities that were used to drive the locals out in the first place: rape, beatings and other forms of abuse.
Meanwhile, the United Nations prepares new documents for Khartoum's signature in the vain hope that things will work out. The new UN plan of action this week talks of "safe areas" to protect civilians - an ominous term after Srebrenica. But these planned safe zones won't even have ineffective UN peacekeepers; they'll have no peacekeepers at all. Instead the international community will again trust the same government that just burned and brutalized people out of their homes to ensure their security.
Sudan's government has been on a charm offensive, with Khartoum's top tier of leaders globetrotting to muster support among whatever allies, domestic or international, they can find. But underneath this display of diplomatic zeal, Khartoum is feeling the heat of real scrutiny for the massive atrocities it has committed against its citizens in Darfur.
If anyone had doubts about the brutality of the Sudanese government's human rights record, the events in Darfur illustrate a fact well known to longstanding observers of Sudan. Whether in the interests of security, access to resources, ideology, race or religion - and sometimes all of the above - Sudan's government is willing to destroy the lives and livelihoods of millions of its own citizens to maintain its grip on power.
Ironically, Darfur illustrates the Sudanese government's impartiality when it comes to crushing its own citizens. In the past year Muslims in Darfur have learned the same bitter lesson of murder, displacement and manipulation of ethnicity that has ruined the lives of millions of non-Muslim, non-Arab people in southern Sudan since 1983. The government's military strategy of scorched-earth tactics, ethnic militia proxy forces, forced displacement and bans on humanitarian relief in the south resulted in more than two million dead and more than four million displaced.
Whether Christian, Muslim, animist or atheist, those in Sudan who ask for basic rights and challenge the government's rigid interpretation of Sudanese identity risk devastation. As I heard firsthand from families of refugees and displaced people in Darfur and Chad, in many rural areas and small towns in Darfur, government forces and the Janjaweed militias continue to routinely rape and assault women and girls when they leave camps and towns. In one such attack documented by Human Rights Watch in July, a group of women and girls were stopped at a Janjaweed militia checkpoint in West Darfur. Militia members told them that "the country belonged to the Arabs now and, as they were there without permission, they would be punished." All of the women were then beaten, and six girls aged 13 to 16 were raped.
In recent months, the world has slowly, belatedly, awakened to this human tragedy. So far, however, this attention and concern has yet to translate into real change for civilians in Darfur. Fighting between the government and rebel forces has simply shifted to new areas of Darfur, while civilians continue to be murdered, raped and displaced from their homes.
There's no question that the international community is concerned about Darfur, mainly because of its potential impact on national and regional stability. Even the UN Security Council has bent to the pressure to adopt a resolution on Darfur, which it never did on south Sudan despite similar massive atrocities in that 20-year conflict.
The problem is that the international community keeps asking the government of Sudan the wrong questions, apparently in the hope or misplaced faith that somehow the right answers will emerge. They ask Khartoum how and when it will disarm the Janjaweed, and they debate deadlines - how about 30 days? Maybe 90, or 120, as agreed at an Arab League meeting Sunday? But even if it had the will, the government of Sudan admits that at this point it can't fully control the militias it has created and unleashed on the civilians of Darfur.
The real question that needs to be asked is this: Since it claims it cannot control or disarm the Janjaweed militias it created, why doesn't Khartoum welcome an international protection force, from the African Union or the United Nations or elsewhere, if that's what it takes to protect civilians, stop the violence and bring the situation under control?
The landscape created by the current government gives the answer. It is littered with burned-out villages and empty promises, with broken agreements with the international community - and with the wanton destruction of millions of Sudanese lives.