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As Genocide Unfolds

Editorial, The Washington Post

June 20, 2004 — THE BUSH administration is waking up to Darfur, the western Sudanese province where Arab death squads have herded African villagers into refugee camps and are waiting for them to die. Two weeks ago Andrew Natsios, the administration’s top aid official, estimated that at least a third of a million refugees are likely to perish for lack of food or basic medicines, and earlier this month Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged to the New York Times that the death squads have been supported by Sudan’s government. Mr. Powell added that State Department lawyers are determining whether the killing, which the administration has already characterized as ethnic cleansing, may qualify for the term “genocide” — a determination that would impose moral, political and arguably also legal obligations to intervene in Darfur.

The Darfur killings do look very much like genocide. The U.N. Convention on Genocide defines it as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” by, for example, “deliberately inflicting on members of the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” In keeping with this language, the Darfur violence has been targeted at a group defined by its black skin, with the objective not merely of looting land or cattle but of physical destruction. Aerial maps, interviews with refugees and reports from the region show that villages with ethnic African populations have been singled out for destruction; in one area, U.N. fact-finders came upon 23 African villages burned to the ground, while ethnic Arab villages, some separated from an African one by as little as 500 yards, were unscathed. Moreover, the refugees from the burned villages now face death not as some byproduct of conflict; their extermination is a main objective of the death squads and Sudan’s government. The death squads attack refugees who venture out of their camps in search of food or firewood, and the government deliberately hampers international humanitarian efforts to deliver relief supplies. After a rebellion began in Darfur early last year, the Sudanese regime appears to have decided that, by wiping out a large fraction of the civilian population, it could deter copy-cat rebellions elsewhere.

Whatever label one attaches to these killings, there is a moral obligation to do everything possible to stop them. To ignore slaughter on this scale is to subscribe to an intolerably cramped view of Western interests, one that would drain foreign policy of its moral content, undermine its support among voters and damage the West’s reputation in developing countries that already seek to paint high-minded Western rhetoric as hypocritical. The Bush administration, to its credit, understands this. But its strategy is out of kilter with the crisis on the ground.

The main thrust of that strategy is to build support for a resolution at the U.N. Security Council demanding that Sudan’s government curb the death squads and grant full humanitarian access to the refugees. If such a resolution could be secured, Sudan’s government would probably meet its demands rather than face sanctions; time and again, it has caved in the face of such pressure, reining in the domestic slave trade, expelling Osama bin Laden and most recently negotiating a settlement in its long-running war with rebels in Sudan’s south. But the trouble is that the State Department expects the bargaining for a Security Council resolution to stretch out over several weeks — a delay that, by the administration’s own reckoning, will cost tens of thousands of lives. The rainy season in Darfur is already beginning, making it hard to deliver relief to the region. Mr. Natsios, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, expects that, if relief supplies don’t get to Darfur, the death toll could approach 1 million.

It is outrageous that other members of the Security Council are dragging their feet on a resolution that could relieve the crisis. China and France both have oil investments in Sudan and do not wish to alienate the government; Russia and some non-permanent members of the Security Council such as Pakistan view a resolution as an infringement of sovereignty. In ordinary times, the United States might be able to prod these countries in the right direction. But the Bush administration is devoting its very limited diplomatic capital to Iraq, and there is little left for Darfur. That is why the U.N. resolution may take weeks.

The Bush administration must press harder at the United Nations, but it must also pursue other routes. It should publicly name officials in Sudan’s government responsible for the Darfur policy, freezing any U.S. assets that they may have and barring them from visiting the United States; companies in which these Sudanese officials have interests should also be targeted. The administration should also announce its intention to prosecute the named individuals for war crimes unless humanitarian access to Darfur is immediately opened and unless the death squads are immediately brought to heel, something that Sudan’s government apparently promised yesterday. Meanwhile, President Bush’s team should push to expand the international presence in Darfur. A small African Union force is arriving to monitor the cease-fire; this must be supplemented with a force to protect refugees from militia harassment and another to ensure that aerial drops of relief supplies are delivered to the refugees who need them, rather than being stolen by armed groups.

The administration’s foreign-policy plate is piled high already. But Darfur’s crisis appears worse than anything the world has seen since the genocide in Rwanda. During that tragedy 10 years ago, the Clinton administration declined to act, refusing even to recognize that genocide was occurring lest such recognition compel action. The Bush administration must not let its own record be disfigured the same way.

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