What to Do About Darfur

Panos Pictures
Internally displaced Sudanese returning to their village after having fled fighting in the Western Upper Nile region of southern Sudan, 2002; photograph by Sven Torfinn from Darfur: Twenty Years of War and Genocide in Sudan, edited by Leora Kahn and published by powerHouse Books

The slaughter in Darfur has now lasted more than six years, longer than World War II, yet the “Save Darfur” movement has stalled—even as the plight of many Darfuris may be worsening. Many advocates for Darfur, myself included, had urged the International Criminal Court to prosecute the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir. We got what we hoped for—on March 4, the court issued an arrest warrant for Bashir on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the immediate result was that Bashir expelled thirteen foreign aid organizations and closed three domestic ones. Millions of Darfuris have been left largely without assistance, and some are already dying.

Looming in the background is the risk that war will reignite between north and south Sudan, and if that happens Darfur will be remembered simply as a mild prologue to an even bloodier war. The north and south are each accumulating weapons and preparing for a resumption of the civil war, which, between 1983 and 2005, killed two million people. South Sudan is scheduled to hold a referendum in 2011 to determine whether it will remain in Sudan or secede, and everybody knows that the southern Sudanese will vote overwhelmingly for separation if the present regime remains in power in Khartoum. But two thirds of Sudan’s oil is in the south, and it is almost inconceivable that the north will accept the loss of this oil without a fight. If you believe that Sudan is so wretched that it can’t get worse, just wait.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were among the leaders in the Senate calling for action on Darfur, yet since they have assumed executive power they have done very little about it. The reason is the same one that has always led American presidents to veer away from taking firm action on genocide—there is no neat, easy solution, major national interests are not at stake, and in the absence of an ideal policy it is always easier on any given day to defer a decision. There are also some signs that the Obama administration—in the form of its Sudan envoy, General Scott Gration, who grew up in East Africa but has no Sudan experience—prefers a softer approach toward Khartoum. As a presidential candidate, Obama sounded as if he were determined to do something about Sudan; since taking office, he has had no visible effect on the situation in Darfur.

Those concerned about Darfur are themselves divided. Some favor more aggressive measures and military tactics, such as a no-fly zone, while aid groups still active in Sudan fret that the result of such…

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