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While Darfur Burns


Monday, Aug. 30, 2004

The United Nations' deadline on Darfur expires today. Having passed a resolution at the end of July demanding that the Sudanese government neutralize the Janjaweed militias responsible for widespread atrocities in Darfur, the U.N. Security Council will now meet to consider whether it should take punitive measures against Sudan.

There is no doubt that the Sudanese government has done little to curb the Janjaweed, whose scorched earth tactics have terrorized villagers in Darfur over the past year and a half. Civilians have continued to be targeted for killings, rape, and other abuses in recent months, even as the Sudanese government has signed a series of international agreements pledging to take effective action to stop the violence.

Sudan's failure to abide by its promises is clear. What is less clear is whether the Security Council will muster the necessary political resolve to impose meaningful sanctions to punish war crimes, crimes against humanity, and "ethnic cleansing" in Darfur.

Unending Violence in Darfur

Since February 2003, when the conflict in Darfur began, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, and some 1.4 million have been forced to flee their homes. Ethnic Arab militias known as Janjaweed, working hand in hand with Sudanese government forces, have burned hundreds of villages to the ground.

In a typical attack, the Sudanese government sends Antonov aircraft and helicopter gun ships to bomb a village, and then launches a coordinated ground assault. While sometimes the Janjaweed attack alone, very often army vehicles surround the village as the Janjaweed -- riding camels or horses -- kill, rape, and loot at will.

The government justifies its military actions as a response to the two rebel groups operating in western Sudan: the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Yet, more often than not, there are no rebel positions in or around the villages selected for attack. Nor can killing, raping, and forcibly displacing civilians be explained as counter-insurgency measures.

Robbed of their livestock, and lacking basic necessities, displaced villagers are in desperate humanitarian need. And rather than facilitate international assistance the government of Sudan has a record of obstructing it, exacerbating the humanitarian consequences of the crisis. Although in recent months the government has finally begun allowing humanitarian access, for a long time it restricted the entry of aid workers to the region and provided virtually no aid of its own to the hundreds of thousands of displaced civilians in Darfur.

Sudan's Disgraceful Record

Longtime observers of Sudan have seen all this before. The government's strategy in Darfur of bombing villages, employing proxy militias, causing massive forced displacement, and obstructing humanitarian relief hews close to a formula originally developed in southern Sudan. In its long conflict against non-Muslim, non-Arab populations in the south, Khartoum employed the same murderous tactics that it is using in Darfur now.

Given its deplorable record, the Sudanese government can hardly be considered a credible actor when it comes to protecting its citizens. Most knowledgeable observers believe, therefore, that it will take an international protection force to provide the security necessary for the voluntary and safe return of civilians to their villages.

The Sudanese government, however, seeks to have it both ways. While claiming it cannot control or disarm the Janjaweed militias, it still refuses to permit sufficient numbers of international troops to be deployed in Darfur to protect civilians and put an end to the violence. Its unwillingness to allow an effective international presence in Darfur casts further doubt on its stated desire to reestablish security in the region.

U.N. Action

It is time for the U.N. Security Council to break this impasse. When it meets this week, it should lend the U.N.'s imprimatur to an international peacekeeping force, under the direct auspices of the African Union, to protect the civilian population of Darfur.

And to show that it understands where responsibility lies for Darfur's human rights crisis, the Security Council should also impose sanctions on Sudan for its failure to comply with last month's resolution. Among the possible options would be an embargo on the sale or trade of weapons to Sudan, or an embargo on oil transactions with the government.

Although the U.N. is likely to drag out its deliberations, the situation in Darfur demands action. While I was in North Darfur, just two weeks ago, I was reminded of the need for urgent international pressure by a villager whom I met. "What little we had, they took with them," she said, describing an attack by government forces and Janjaweed militias. "And the rest they burned. And then they left us in our misery."

Joanne Mariner is a FindLaw columnist and human rights attorney. She was recently part of a Human Rights Watch delegation that spent three weeks in North Darfur documenting recent abuses committed against civilians. She directs interested readers to Human Rights Watch's webpage on Darfur, which provides comprehensive information on human rights conditions there.

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