As we commemorate Human Rights Day, we are challenged by how little the world has done to save the people of Darfur, in western Sudan, from the year’s greatest human rights disaster. With the Sudanese government and its ethnic militia well along in their campaign of murder, rape, pillage, and forced displacement, and after several Security Council resolutions on the Darfur crisis, the governments of the world can no longer claim not to know.
The vitality of the global defense of human rights is at stake. In the face of Khartoum’s crimes against humanity – atrocities that some have described as genocide – it is not enough to condemn the atrocities, feed the victims, and send a handful of poorly equipped African Union forces merely to observe the slaughter and consolidation of ethnic cleansing. No serious pressure has been put on the Sudanese government to halt its murderous campaign. No meaningful international force has been deployed to protect civilians. None of those directing the slaughter have been prosecuted. No government has lived up to its responsibility to protect the people of Darfur from large-scale slaughter.
We know what must be done to end the atrocities in Darfur and create conditions so the displaced can return home safely. The 3,500 African Union forces authorized for Darfur – a pittance for an area the size of France with few roads or infrastructure – must be bolstered significantly. Their mandate must be expanded to encompass civilian protection. Despite their preoccupations elsewhere, major governmental powers outside of Africa have a duty to protect and assist as well.
We also must ensure that those directing the atrocities in Darfur are brought to justice. The commission of inquiry established by the U.N. Security Council is likely to recommend in January that the council refer the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court. Will China see past its oil contracts to allow the referral to go forward? Will Russia let its arms sales to Khartoum get in the way? Will the United States overcome its antipathy for the court to allow prosecution of crimes it calls genocide? Or, as the people of Darfur suffer and die, will Washington insist on wasting time setting up a separate tribunal? The Security Council’s many professions of concern will ring hollow if its answer to the desperate pleas from Darfur is, through delay or inaction, to let impunity reign.
Today, December 10, also marks the resumption of peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria between the Sudanese government and two Darfurian rebel groups. An end to the fighting would undoubtedly help the people of Darfur, but the atrocities are not simply the product of war. Rather, they result from Khartoum’s decision to fight an insurgency by deliberately attacking hundreds of thousands of civilians who happen to share ethnicity with some of the rebels.
As we hope for peace and a political solution to the crisis, we must not lose sight of the atrocities that are the paramount cause of today’s suffering in Darfur. The peace process addressing the twenty-one year war in another part of Sudan, the south, made the grievous error of ignoring similar atrocities committed there. That impunity emboldened Khartoum to resume its atrocities in Darfur when this new insurgency arose. That error must not be repeated. On Human Rights Day, we must remember that the tragedy of Darfur is foremost a human rights crisis. It will not end until the international community commits the military and prosecutorial resources to protect the people of Darfur from Khartoum’s depredations.