The U.N. Security Council and its members must secure Sudanese government consent to urgently deploy a U.N. force to protect civilians in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said today. Sudanese President Omar El Bashir has repeatedly rejected the request – made in the last two months by the Security Council, the African Union (AU) and the Arab League – that Khartoum consent to a U.N. mission in Darfur.

“The Security Council must now back its demands with action against high Sudanese officials if they continue to block a U.N. force for Darfur,” said Peter Takirambudde, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Security Council members have a duty to prevent new war crimes and ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and to protect civilians in Darfur.”

The AU Peace and Security Council on June 27 reaffirmed its decision to end its military mission to Darfur when its mandate ends on September 30, or shortly after. The new U.N. force that is proposed to replace the AU mission must be fully deployed by then to fill the protection gap for 2 million displaced civilians still at risk and avert further widespread attacks on civilians.

On May 5, the AU wrapped up negotiations between the Sudanese government and the largest of the Darfur rebel groups, resulting in the Darfur Peace Agreement. It now wants to fold the 7,000-strong African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) force into a larger U.N. force, with African troops continuing to form the core.

But the situation in Darfur has deteriorated, as Sudanese government-backed “Janjaweed” militia are converted into police and regular soldiers, rebel groups fragment, and Chadian rebels entrench themselves in West Darfur. Since December, continuing cross-border attacks from Darfur into Chad by the Janjaweed militia and Chadian rebels have displaced more than 50,000 Chadians. The cross-border conflict also threatens more than 208,000 Darfurian refugees in Chad.

“The Security Council’s reluctance to take on the Sudanese government has cost the lives of more people in Darfur,” said Takirambudde. “Any further delay will simply raise the death toll. A U.N. mission must have a mandate to use all necessary measures to protect civilians.”

The Security Council’s June 22 report of its mission to Sudan and Chad sets forth a seven-step process toward full U.N. operational capacity in Darfur. It highlights the need for a broader AMIS mandate and greater funding to provide maximum security while the full transition to U.N. forces is being completed – potentially by January 2007.

Human Rights Watch called especially on the Russian and Chinese members of the Security Council to tell Bashir that they will no longer consider vetoing strong measures against Sudan if Khartoum continues to oppose a U.N. force in Darfur.

“If Khartoum knows that Russia and China will no longer provide it with a diplomatic shield, Bashir’s objections to U.N. forces in Darfur will melt away,” said Takirambudde,

But the Security Council must be ready to apply further sanctions against Khartoum, and extend the arms embargo it enacted on arms supplies to Darfur to the whole of Sudan, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch also urged the Security Council not to delay desperately needed action and thereby repeat in Darfur the mistakes made in Africa’s Great Lakes region during the 1990s, when almost a million people died and regional peace was destroyed.