Darfur Now More than Ever

In recent weeks several commentators have declared the Save Darfur movement variously as no longer useful, confused, or stuck in the past. Such assertions belie a misunderstanding of what the Save Darfur movement is all about. Darfuris continue to suffer, and as national elections and the referendum on independence for South Sudan grow closer, it is clear that the problems of Darfur will not be solved in the absence of major governance reform in Sudan, and conversely that the myriad of problems facing Sudan cannot be resolved until peace is secured in Darfur. Resolving the Darfur conflict is critical not just for the people of Darfur, but for the future of Sudan and the stability of the entire region. Rather than being past its expiration date, the Save Darfur movement is needed now more than ever.

The Save Darfur movement is perhaps, along with the anti-apartheid movement, the most successful domestic mobilization on a non-military international issue in American history. When the genocide began in 2003, few Americans knew of Sudan, let alone the distant region of Darfur. By raising awareness and communicating public outrage about the genocide to Congress and the Bush administration, the movement helped secure funds for one of the largest humanitarian operations in the world and hundreds of millions of dollars of US support for the eventual deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping force. These actions have saved tens of thousands, if not millions, of lives, and have helped salvage millions of civilian livelihoods devastated by years of conflict and forced displacement.

As the conflict has evolved, the Save Darfur movement has matured. Mass janjaweed attacks on villages no longer take place with any regularity; prior to the recent Jebel Marra offensive, violence (thankfully) was at an all-time low, according to the United Nations. Our critics contend that our movement has refused to acknowledge that the face of the battle has changed; that we are adrift unless villages are burning and wells are being poisoned. We not only acknowledge that the contours of the conflict have changed, we welcome it. But success in raising domestic awareness of the issue and putting pressure on the Sudanese government to stop the most visible abuses does not mean that our work is done - in fact, much hard work remains.

According to UN estimates, 2.7 million Darfuris (a number equivalent to the population of the President's home town of Chicago) remain in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Over 4.7 million Darfuris rely on humanitarian aid. Compounding matters, levels of insecurity have only increased in recent months. A column of over sixty UN peacekeepers was recently disarmed and held overnight by parties allegedly unknown on its way to investigate claims of civilian deaths and displacement. Darfuri civilians, international aid workers, and UN peacekeepers all face daily threats of banditry; all (ironically) depend on the Sudanese government for protection, which it fails to provide. The scourge of rape plagues the IDP and refugee camps. Darfuri civilians cannot leave these designated areas of relative safety and return home because their safety is not guaranteed, and the protracted length of the conflict has made repatriation an uncomfortable and complex prospect, particularly for the hundreds of thousands of children who have grown up knowing nothing but insecurity.

While fewer Darfuris die today from direct violence than in 2003-2005, pervasive violent banditry, combined with the ever-present dangers of poor sanitation and hygiene, contaminated water supplies, and irregular food distribution poses daily risks. President Bashir demonstrated one year ago how quickly he can threaten the humanitarian lifeline when he expelled 13 international aid organizations, which collectively represented 40% of the humanitarian capacity in Darfur. Additionally, the Government of Sudan has failed to disarm the janjaweed and small arms' trafficking has become a grave concern, so Khartoum easily could resume mass direct attacks if it desired. As I write, it is unclear what the current status of the fighting between Sudanese government forces and rebels in Jebel Marra is, or whether civilians have been intentionally targeted. Humanitarian agencies estimate over one hundred civilian casualties and tens of thousands of displaced civilians, but have been forced out by obstructionism and insecurity. The resulting silence is itself a condemnation of the lack of peace in the region.

In short, Darfuris today face different, but no less dangerous, challenges and they still depend upon international support to survive. Thus, there remains a political imperative for activists to continue to draw attention to their plight and engage with relevant domestic and international actors to build the political will to address both the immediate needs and the underlying cause of the danger.

It is true that a number of officials within the Obama administration have long been champions of the Darfur cause. As a candidate, President Obama pledged to work with "unstinting resolve" to end the genocide in Darfur and promote peace in Sudan. Joining him in that pledge was now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice were also vocal champions of the goals of the Darfur movement.

Many hoped that President Obama's election would bring a sea-change in the situation in Darfur. Surely, the candidate of hope and change, the candidate who has deep ties to Africa, the candidate who called the genocide "a stain on our conscience," would act immediately to rescue the Darfuri people from their plight. But the reality of the international system does not easily facilitate change. We were not so naive. We knew and understood the powerful political undercurrents that had stood in the way of many of the Bush administration's efforts to end the genocide and knew they would not disappear on Inauguration Day.

With such strong proponents of the Darfur cause in such important positions within the administration, some say the Save Darfur movement should stand back and let them do their work; that brute political activism is no longer useful or necessary since the true believers are in power. They claim that Save Darfur could not possibly hope to transform activism into an effective role as the matter turned to an intergovernmental policy debate. A fair point, but it ignores the fact that the gravitational pull of inaction within government is always far stronger than that of taking action.

Friendly to the cause they may be, but they still need support. President Obama came into office facing the worst economic crisis in over a half-century, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, frozen Middle East peace-talks, an increasingly belligerent North Korea, and the minor matter of major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Getting Sudan on the agenda was always going to be a challenge. And it is always the responsibility of activists to remind today's leaders of yesterday's promises.

The first fourteen months of the Obama administration bear witness to the need for continued activism. The administration was inexplicably caught flat-footed when President Bashir expelled the humanitarian groups in March 2009, following his indictment by the International Criminal Court. The subsequent appointment of Special Envoy (General) Scott Gration, a personal friend of the president's, was a welcome development, but came only after mounting agitation among activists. Since then, there have been contradictory statements on Sudan policy emanating out of various executive branch offices. While the initial policy review on Afghanistan took 60 days, the policy review on Sudan was not released until last October, reflecting the differences of opinion within the administration over the future of U.S. relations with Sudan.

General Gration should be credited for his outreach to the advocacy community and his frenetic pace of international travel and dialogue. But he cannot solve this problem alone. The urgent involvement and leadership of President Obama and Secretary Clinton are desperately needed to rally key world leaders behind a coherent and comprehensive solution to end Sudan's multiple crises. While Secretary Clinton released the policy review with Gration, the president's absence at the roll-out was perhaps a bad omen. To date, President Obama has expended more personal political capital on Chicago's failed Olympic bid than he has on resolving Sudan's problems.

The cornerstones of the policy were to be reviewed quarterly by the so-called "Deputies Committee" of the major foreign policy and national security agencies. These meetings were designed to ensure the "incentives and pressures" targeted on Sudan were properly calibrated based on the situation on the ground. Troublingly, the first meeting, held in January, apparently took place in a black hole. The only thing the meeting seems to have produced was a hardly inspiring cross-departmental round of sniping by senior-level administration officials.

Our fiercest critics have accused the Save Darfur movement of turning the very complex situation in Sudan into a caricature - that the good guys are the rebels and the bad guys are the Sudanese government and that our ultimate goal is for the United States or NATO to march on Khartoum. But this is itself a caricature of the Save Darfur movement. The main concern of the movement - which actually encompasses a broad range of policy views - has always been civilians, who have borne the brunt of violence. While the Government of Sudan bears disproportionate responsibility for that violence, the various rebel factions are not blameless, and our policy analysis on the matter is far from black-and-white. We are well aware of the need for all of the rebel groups to negotiate, and are often as frustrated at their intransigence as we are at that of the Sudanese government. While the recent talks between the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudanese Government appear stalled, Darfuris would still be best served if the rebels sit at the negotiating table alongside IDP representatives and civil society leaders, rather than cling to what remains of the battlefield. And few of us are under any illusion that there is any effective military solution to the current stalemate; the movement does not advocate for one.

In many ways, we are a unique movement. We advocate for something that very few object to - there are no pro-genocide interest groups (other than genocidaires). Rather than battle the challenges of contrary opinion, we battle the forces of inaction and indifference. We may no longer put 50,000 people on the National Mall to get the administration's attention; we no longer need to. As the conflict has changed, we have changed. Rather than through brute force, we use our influence tactically and, oftentimes, quietly. The nuance and gray areas inherent in the international system are accepted and incorporated strategically.

We have learned that simply shouting "end the genocide" is not enough. There are issues of politics, of capacity, of international diplomacy and intrigue to deal with. But that makes us far from irrelevant. Sympathizers in the administration and in Congress need political support to make the tough choices that we ask of them, they need to know that their constituents still care about Darfur. We can provide the backbone to support their actions. But we will not be taken for granted either. If the administration chooses a path that is not in the best interest of the people of Darfur, we will let them know. At the same time, the movement has a responsibility not to obstruct reasonable initiatives to secure peace in Sudan.

While many assume that the Save Darfur movement is synonymous with the Save Darfur Coalition, they are in fact distinct entities. The movement encompasses a broad array of voices and organizations from across North America, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. While the Coalition is a cornerstone of the movement, it cannot take credit for all of its successes - and neither should it be blamed for every misstep the movement has made along the way. The Coalition's responsibility - my responsibility - is to portray the facts as we know them and provide the policy analysis necessary to support efforts to turn concern into effective action. While some voices in the movement have occasionally been off key, the Coalition persists in its efforts to be faithful to the truth.

The Save Darfur movement has been at times incredibly successful, and at times unspeakably frustrating. It is a movement unique in the annals of history, one which is learning from its own history as it seeks to make it. To suggest that the movement has not adjusted to changing circumstances is to reject the spirit in which the movement was originally created. We will continue to focus our efforts on growing faster, smarter, and becoming ever more effective. But until the people of Darfur can live securely, peacefully, and equally, we will continue to speak out.

The author is Director of Policy and Government Relations at the Save Darfur Coalition