The December decision by the United Nations to dispatch a team of experts to investigate human-rights abuses in the Darfur region of western Sudan was a small step in the right direction, as was the conditional sixty-day cease-fire subsequently negotiated by New Mexico governor Bill Richardson.
But since 2003, when a long-standing ethnic conflict in the region first escalated into open war, there have been many such small steps, and so far none of them has brought Darfur any closer to peace. More than three hundred thousand people have died in the conflict, and at least 2 million more have been chased from their homes by Sudanese soldiers and the Janjaweed militias the Khartoum government directs. These Arab militias have pursued a brutal campaign to clear the region of its non-Arab Muslim tribes. The Sudanese air force has contributed to the effort by bombing villages and camps. Aid workers in Darfur have long called what’s happening there a genocide. Western leaders, understandably wary of that term, have also begun to use it, which is to their credit.
But the word “genocide” is not enough; we must also accept and respond to the urgency such language implies. While politicians and diplomats have been issuing stiff condemnations of the atrocities, the atrocities have continued. The Khartoum government’s ruthless program of ethnic cleansing does not require—and surely does not merit—patient requests by the international community for greater cooperation on the part of Sudan’s génocidaires. It requires intervention. The only question now is, Who should intervene—and how?
Many people here and in Europe had hoped the problem could be solved by the African Union (AU) with some support from the UN, but that hope has been disappointed more than once. By the spring of 2005, the AU had a “monitoring” mission of five thousand troops and two thousand support personnel in Darfur. Both the small size of this force and the meagerness of its mandate—it could protect only its own observers, not the civilians under attack—made the mission ineffectual. In May 2006, the Sudanese government and one of Darfur’s rebel factions signed a peace treaty in Abuja, Nigeria, but by the end of summer the Janjaweed were back.
Finally, in late August, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1706, which would have sent in more than twenty-two thousand UN troops to stop the killing, provided Khartoum gave its permission. The permission never came. In November, UN officials tried to salvage the resolution by organizing a “high-level consultation” between the Security Council’s permanent members and the Sudanese government. The result was a “conclusion” document that seemed to please everyone—that is, until Khartoum made it clear how it intended to interpret the agreement’s vague provisions. The agreement was supposed to mandate a “hybrid” force of twenty thousand troops from both the United Nations and the African Union, but Sudan’s President Omar Al Bashir insisted that Sudan would accept only a couple of extra battalions.
The “conclusion,” then, has turned out to be as inconclusive as the many agreements that came before it. Al Bashir and his ministers still pretend that the war they are waging against the people of Darfur is no more than a skirmish; they still insist that human-rights organizations are exaggerating the death toll. Meanwhile, the same government has sponsored rebellions across its western boarders, in Chad and the Central African Republic, leaving the Darfuri refugees, and the aid workers trying to help them, with no place to go.
The crisis is no longer a local land dispute between Arab and non-Arab Muslims. It is systematic ethnic cleansing that threatens the stability of an entire region. The United States must use all its diplomatic resources to force Sudan’s leaders into compliance with international law. But that may not be enough. If we are going to keep calling the violence there a genocide, we must be prepared to do whatever we can to stop it, even if this means using force. America’s military, already overcommitted in Iraq and Afghanistan, is in no position to undertake a unilateral intervention, but a small NATO force, with U.S. support, could push back the Janjaweed and establish a no-fly zone over Darfur. Recent events in Somalia have reminded us that the U.S. government is willing to involve itself in African conflicts when it thinks the stakes are high enough, and they could not be much higher than they are in Darfur. Now may seem like an especially bad time to propose yet another military operation, however modest. But if the new cease-fire fails to end the killing, who will tell the people of Darfur to keep waiting? They have been waiting, and we have been watching, for too long already.