Kerry's Historic Opportunity on Genocide Policy

By Susan Morgan and Eric Cohen

At last, US rhetoric on genocide may mature into effective policy against genocide. What better place to begin than the confirmation hearings to be held Tuesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?

The bi-partisan "Genocide Prevention Taskforce" published its recommendations on December 8, 2008. Their "blueprint for action" comes just in time for the 60th anniversaries of the landmark "Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide" and the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Sixty years is a long time to wait to have a coherent and effective approach to preventing and responding to genocide - too late for Rwanda and other 20th century genocides, but in time, still, to make a difference for Darfur.

Senator John Kerry is well-positioned to take a historic step toward implementing an effective anti-genocide policy.

On June 7, 2004, Senator Kerry sounded the alarm about the crisis raging in Darfur. "The world did not act in Rwanda, to our eternal shame. Now we are at another crisis point this time in Sudan." Kerry's call for "immediate action" may have prompted President Bush to label the violence "genocide" - the first time a sitting president has used that word to describe an ongoing crisis. But over the next four years, President Bush failed to muster actions consistent with his rhetoric on Darfur.

As the newly named chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Kerry's first major task will be to vet President-elect Obama's nominees for Secretary of State, Senator Hillary Clinton, and UN Ambassador, Dr. Susan Rice. The Genocide Prevention Taskforce urged "America's 44th president to demonstrate at the outset that preventing genocide and mass atrocities is a national priority." That process can and should start in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Since Kerry's statements in 2004, the situation in Darfur has continued to be dire. Despite a UN prohibition on offensive military flights, the Government of Sudan continued to bomb villages, at least 43 times in 2008. Insecure camps warehouse over 2.5 million people. UN peacekeepers and humanitarian workers are robbed and attacked. Khartoum obstructs the deployment of the UN peacekeeping force, threatens the entire humanitarian program, and their Janjaweed militia are still armed. No meaningful peace process exists.

There are reasons to be hopeful. The "leadership and political will" called for in the "blueprint for action" began in the presidential campaign. Both President-elect Obama and Secretary of State-designate Clinton pledged "unstinting resolve" in addressing the crisis in Sudan. In addition, the ICC prosecutor's request for an indictment of Sudanese President Bashir provides unique leverage to hammer out a credible and lasting peace deal.

Previous opportunities have been missed because the US was slow to act, slow to lead. President-elect Obama's economic team has shown the value of being active before taking office. So too must the foreign policy team be prepared to tackle the Sudan challenge on their first appearance on the world stage, the Senate hearings.

Senator Clinton and Dr. Rice, both outspoken advocates for intervention to end the crisis in Darfur, should address the crisis in Sudan and the recommendations of the Taskforce as a priority in the hearings.

In his leadership role as chairman of the committee, Senator Kerry should ensure time in the hearings for the nominees to elaborate their plans. We must know that the next administration is already working to ensure peace throughout Sudan, protection for civilians in Darfur and accountability for perpetrators of the world's worst crimes.

President Bush has shown us that it is one thing to care and another to act. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee must be the first step in demonstrating the US commitment to change. Omar al-Bashir will be watching in Khartoum, as will America and the world at large. With the confirmation hearings in early January, we can have a new year's resolution for action against genocide, moving beyond the slogans of "never again" and "not on my watch." The Genocide Prevention Taskforce has recommended "that genocide prevention and response be incorporated into national policy guidance and planning." It's time we take that advice so that we are prepared for whatever may yet come in the 21st century.