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Countdown on Darfur


Wednesday, Mar. 30, 2005

Today's Security Council vote seeks justice for these crimes. If the resolution under debate were to pass, it would send the perpetrators of atrocities in Darfur to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Not only would this provide a measure of justice to the victims of these crimes, but the likelihood of prosecution would be a powerful disincentive to further violence.

Like the sanctions measure that passed yesterday, the measure has wide support on the Security Council. What makes its passage uncertain, however, is the threat of a U.S. veto.

The Security Council's Dismal Record

Until now, the world has done little to stop the ongoing tragedy in Darfur. The Security Council's three previous resolutions on Darfur were weak, each one worse than the last.

The first resolution, passed in July 2004, gave the Sudanese government thirty days to take action against human rights violations. The second resolution, in September, overlooked the government's failure to comply with the July resolution, did not impose sanctions on Sudan or on its civilian and military leadership, and merely threatened that the Council would take "further measures" in the event of noncompliance.

The third resolution, in November, was the most disappointing of all. It again failed to punish Sudan for its blatant violations in Darfur, and simply warned, using diplomatically oblique language, that the Security Council might (someday) "take appropriate action against any party failing to fulfill its commitments."

Beyond the rhetoric, the most the world was able to muster to protect the people of Darfur was a small force of 2,000 African troops. (There are supposed to be 3,000 of them, but although months have gone by since the force's original deployment, it has yet to reach its mandated strength). Two thousand troops is a pitifully small number to cover an area the size of France. Worse, the troops have a mandate to observe crimes against civilians, but not to stop them.

Unsurprisingly, the crimes have not stopped.

The Report of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry

What provided the impetus for the present burst of Security Council activity was an investigative report on Darfur by a high-level U.N. commission. The report, issued in late January, concluded that the government of Sudan and its allied Janjaweed militia are responsible for crimes against humanity.

Yesterday, in a 12-0 vote (with China, Russia and Algeria as the predictable abstentions), the Security Council finally imposed limited sanctions against Sudanese government officials. While the resolution did not include the toughest sanctions possible, it still represented a notable advance over the Council's past efforts on Darfur.

The resolution imposes a travel ban and an assets freeze on those who "impede the peace process," commit human rights atrocities or war crimes, constitute a threat to stability, violate prior embargoes, or are responsible for offensive military overflights in Darfur. It also extends a weapons ban, which previously covered only the rebels and the armed militias, to cover the Sudanese government. And it demands that the government immediately cease its offensive military flights in Darfur.

The International Criminal Court

But the most delicate and controversial issue will be decided today. Despite its stated commitment to accountability for the crimes in Darfur, the Bush administration is firmly opposed referring the case to the International Criminal Court.

As an alternative to the ICC, the administration has proposed that a new international court be created, to be housed with an existing tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania. Yet judging from past experience with such courts, it would take at least a year to recruit the judges, prosecutors, and investigators needed to staff the new tribunal. In the meantime, the Sudanese government could continue killing, and might also take steps to cover up its tracks. It could burn key documents, intimidate and kill witnesses, and dig up mass graves.

A year's delay on Darfur will cost thousands of lives. The past year has given proof enough of that. The ICC is ready to take the case now, and the Security Council should do its part by referring it.

Joanne Mariner is a FindLaw columnist and human rights attorney. She has visited Darfur twice in the past year on behalf of Human Rights Watch, documenting rape, murder, ethnic cleansing and other atrocities. The views expressed in her column are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights Watch.

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