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Grand Words, Idle Threats, and Missed Deadlines on Darfur


Monday, Nov. 22, 2004

The Sudanese government was furious last July when the U.N. Security Council passed its first resolution condemning atrocities in Darfur. Government officials were equally outraged in September, when the U.N. body passed another resolution on the violence there.

Sudan's vice-president condemned the second resolution as "unfair," and a foreign ministry spokesman called it "discreditable."

Conditions in Darfur remain dire. Some 1.5 million people have fled their homes; tens of thousands have been killed;, and countless women have been raped. The Sudanese government has yet to take basic steps to provide security to the people of Darfur, reverse ethnic cleansing in the region, or punish those responsible for violent abuses.

Yet rather than toughening its stance on Darfur, the U.N. has backtracked. The Security Council's latest resolution, passed in Nairobi on Friday, will do little to improve the situation there. Although it expresses rhetorical concern at the "growing insecurity and violence" in Darfur, it is, in substance, even more toothless than its two predecessors.

The Lowest Common Denominator

One indicator of the resolution's weakness was the unanimity by which it passed. China and Pakistan abstained from the U.N. resolution approved in July, and two more countries -- Russia and Algeria -- abstained in September. But last week's resolution passed without a hint of dissent, a victory for the lowest common denominator.

Even more telling was the Sudanese government's reaction to it. According to Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, Sudan's foreign minister welcomed the resolution's passage. It indicated, in his government's view, "a positive change in the Security Council's stance on the Sudanese conflict."

The human rights community demurred. Jemera Rone of Human Rights Watch, a longtime Sudan expert, was concerned that the resolution gave the Sudanese government "a blank check to continue its atrocities against the civilian population in Darfur."

James Dyson of Amnesty International was similarly critical. The resolution, he explained, "has failed to put words into action. It doesn't give any signal to Khartoum that it has to stop arming the Janjaweed militia."

The Vanishing Threat of Sanctions

The gap between words and action on Darfur is nothing new. Indeed, human rights groups have previously criticized the Security Council's unwillingness to impose sanctions on Sudan.

In September, as the council was considering its second resolution on Darfur, Human Rights Watch reminded the U.N. body that its earlier resolution had given the Sudanese government thirty days to take action against human rights violations there. Khartoum's failure to comply with the resolution, Human Rights Watch asserted, should have tangible consequences.

"For the U.N. Security Council to fail to deliver on its own strong demands sends the worst possible message," a Human Rights Watch spokesperson explained.

Human Rights Watch had several specific measures to suggest. It urged the Security Council to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Sudan's top military and civilian leaders, and to declare an arms embargo on Sudan as a whole, together with enforcement mechanisms for all sanctions.

The resolution that finally passed did not include these measures. But, like the U.N.'s earlier resolution, it at least threatened to take "further measures" in the event of noncompliance, language that was widely understood as a reference to sanctions.

The warning contained in the new resolution is even more oblique. After some debate over its language, the version that was finally passed simply notes that the Security Council will "take appropriate action against any party failing to fulfill its commitments."

The Meaning of Grand Words

None of the Security Council's resolutions to date has had much impact in stopping the violence in Darfur. And as the threat of sanctions recedes, the odds that the Sudanese government will comply with the U.N.'s demands grow slimmer. Unless the Security Council backs up its ultimatums with strong and meaningful action, abuses against civilians will likely continue and ethnic cleansing will be consolidated.

The architects of the U.N.'s approach are not entirely blind to these dangers, even as they defend their current strategy. Indeed, Ambassador John Danforth, the U.S. representative to the United Nations, made some rather prescient comments in a statement that otherwise justified the U.N. response to the crisis in Sudan:

"Some will say we had two beautiful days in Nairobi -- filled with grand words -- but that the event was an illusion. In the meantime, people are dying in Sudan -- women and children are suffering -- and the atrocities in Darfur continue."

Joanne Mariner is a FindLaw columnist and human rights attorney. She has visited Darfur twice in recent months 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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