That was then
There was a time when Darfur, in western Sudan, galvanized an extraordinary coalition of activists in this country. The National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum had begun in 2003 a genocidal counter-insurgency against the region's African tribal groups, perceived as the civilian base of support for rebel groups. So potent was the campaign to halt genocide in Darfur that it forced its way onto the national agenda. Both houses of Congress--in a unanimous, bipartisan vote of July 2004--declared that genocide was occurring in Darfur. Others followed suit, including then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2004. His testimony was based on very substantial research along the Chad/Darfur border in August 2004. Human rights groups, genocide scholars, church and synagogue congregations, and legions of students made this remote and unknown region, in the very middle of Africa, a cause to be reckoned with.
As a presidential candidate Barack Obama saw the electoral possibilities of a strong stance on Darfur. He chided the Bus administration for what he saw as its excessive accommodation of Khartoum's ethnically-targeted destruction. He declared fulsomely, invoking Rwanda and Bosnia, that "the United States has a moral obligation anytime you see humanitarian catastrophes":
"When you see a genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia or in Darfur, that is a stain on all of us, a stain on our souls. We can't say 'never again' and then allow it to happen again, and as a president of the United States I don't intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter." (video clip at | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEd583-fA8M#t=15 )
And early in his presidency Obama again characterized Darfur as the site of "genocide." That was then. Seven years later we hear nothing of consequences from the administration about Darfur.
This is now
Largely as a consequence of this loss of focus, today the Darfur genocide--the first genocide of the 21st century and the longest one in more than a century--is about to achieve another distinction. It will be the first genocide in which the victims are abandoned. An international peacekeeping force authorized in 2007 to halt violence against civilians and humanitarians -- the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, or UNAMID -- is on the verge of being gutted and perhaps eliminated altogether. In less than a month, unless the UN Security Council votes to re-authorize the force, it will be obliged to leave. This fact gives the Khartoum regime what it considers irresistible leverage in negotiations that are ongoing, with what still appear to be major disagreements between the UN and African Union on one side and Khartoum on the other. The current expiration of UNAMID's mandate is June 30 -- less than a month.
The stakes are extraordinarily high. More than 3 million people have been internally displaced or turned into refugees in eastern Chad; almost 500,000 were displaced last year alone. Mortality estimates vary, but we must of necessity speak of several hundred thousands of deaths--perhaps half a million--from violence and its consequences, and all indications are that mortality rates are rising along with acute malnutrition. The victims continue to be overwhelmingly civilians from the African tribal groups that have been targeted for more than twelve years.
It seems perverse that génocidaires in Khartoum are being allowed to decide the fate of their victims in Darfur, but in fact they are insisting that an "exit strategy" -- foolishly agreed to in principle by the UN Security Council last August -- be executed as rapidly as possible. The force has already been cut by 10,000 and stands at approximately at 17,000 uniformed personnel. The regime wants another 15,000 gone this year.
Criticism of UNAMID is longstanding; indeed it preceded official deployment of the civilian-protection mission in January 2008. For the mission was set up to fail, largely because Khartoum was given excessive control over the deployment of personnel and equipment. This led to poor troop quality, with the regime rejecting many highly qualified peacekeeping contributions (such as a Swedish-Norwegian engineering battalion). Essential weaponry and aircraft were also denied. Despite a status-of-forces agreement that was supposed to give UNAMID unrestricted access, Khartoum has systematically obstructed, delayed or compromised countless protection and monitoring missions.
As badly as UNAMID has performed, however, it is all that allows international humanitarian organizations to remain in Darfur. If UNAMID withdraws, or is hopelessly compromised, these organizations may well be forced to end their work. To date, some 25 to 30 major international relief organizations have been expelled by Khartoum or withdrawn because of insecurity. This has occurred against a backdrop of extreme malnutrition in many locations, a desperate lack of clean water and sanitation, and a rapidly collapsing system for providing primary medical care.
The moment of truth
At this very moment decisions are being made that will affect the lives and security of millions of people in Darfur, and yet we hear nothing of significance from the Obama administration about the urgency of preserving key elements of the force. Yes, a facile international chorus has declared "Darfur won't be abandoned," but there are reasons to be skeptical. Leading this chorus is the expedient Hervé Ladsous, head of UN peacekeeping operations, who not so long ago argued that a drawdown of UNAMID was justified by improved security conditions, even as violence has escalated for three years.
Moreover, a brute geopolitical fact defines current planning. UNAMID must be re-authorized before June 30. But Khartoum has veto-wielding friends on the Security Council in the form of China and Russia; they are likely to support the regime even in its most unreasonable demands. Russia is of particular concern, given President Vladimir Putin's general hostility to any Western initiative. In a revealing show of perverse solidarity, Russia sided with Khartoum in rejecting a recent report by Human Rights Watch that authoritatively documented the mass rape last fall of more than 220 girls and women by Khartoum's army troops in the town of Tabit. The evidence in the report is so overwhelming that the Russian denial of its findings suggests an unwillingness to look at Darfur's realities except through Khartoum's eyes.
Depending on the character of the newly authorized force--assuming one is authorized at all--humanitarian organizations may be forced to withdraw from what is already a terribly insecure environment. The epidemic of sexual violence will continue to accelerate, with the Arab militias most responsible continuing to operate with total impunity. More than half Darfur's pre-war population of 6.5 million people are in need of assistance, and yet humanitarian capacity is shrinking. UN agencies such as the World Food Program cannot function without implementing partners, precisely the function that has been fulfilled by the organizations contemplating withdrawal. If they leave, the death toll could be catastrophic.
We need to hear President Obama's voice now; we need to hear the same moral passion on which he so effectively traded in 2008--seven years ago. This will require foregoing the unseemly, finally disgraceful trade-off his administration has engaged in with the Khartoum regime: the U.S. offers the possibility of rapprochement, including lifting longstanding economic sanctions, in exchange for receiving putatively valuable counter-terrorism intelligence, and a possible listening post in its Khartoum embassy. The new embassy, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, has already been built but does not yet house the listening and intercept equipment that will make it so valuable, in addition to providing an actual presence in the middle of the region that seems destined to become the major battleground against radical Islam. The Obama administration's intelligence community lusts for full access to the embassy.
The value of the counter-terrorism intelligence to date is dubious, however, and was challenged vigorously by former Senator Russ Feingold while he was chairman of the Africa subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence. Perhaps more telling are the leaked minutes of a meeting of senior military and security officials last August 31st: Defense Minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein is recorded as scoffing at what the U.S. actually gets in the way of intelligence, and the significance of what is deliberately being withheld about radical Islamist, terrorists, and the international Islamic movement.
This deal should never have been made (as candidate Obama declared when chiding the Bush administration) and must surely give way before moral importance of avoiding a deepening "stain on our souls," the inevitable consequence of leaving the people of Darfur completely at the mercy of Khartoum's regular and brutal militia forces.
The United States must take the lead and, with Britain and France, muscle-up politically in the Security Council; otherwise the fate of Darfur will be dictated by the very men who began the genocide 12 years ago. This would be unprecedented in the grim history of genocide.
[Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and the author of author of Compromising with Evil: An Archival History of Greater Sudan, 2007-2012.]