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Time for action in Darfur

ON MAY 26, after two years of peace talks, the government of Sudan signed a peace agreement with southern rebels. For almost four decades, this east African country with a population of 35 million people has been the scene of intermittent conflict. If fully implemented, the North-South peace agreement will end the conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian and Animist south that has claimed two million lives and displaced an estimated four million people.

The North-South peace accord, which would end Africa's longest running civil war, should be a major cause for celebration. Tragically, the agreement has been quickly overshadowed by the deteriorating situation in the western Sudanese province of Darfur.

At the same time it was negotiating the North-South deal, the Sudanese government in Khartoum was financing and supplying a Muslim-Arab militia known as the Janjaweed to terrorize the Muslim, but non-Arab, population in Darfur. The United Nations identifies the Darfur crisis as the "world's worst humanitarian crisis."

The Janjaweed is committing human rights atrocities on a massive scale in Darfur, and the population there is in extreme danger. Entire villages have been razed and pillaged, women have been raped and branded, and crops have been systematically destroyed. The scorched earth policy of the Janjaweed will take years to reverse. More than one million people have been forced to flee their homes, including as many as 200,000 who have fled into neighboring Chad, which has no capacity to support refugees.

Although it is impossible to get accurate information, an estimated 30,000 people have been killed in Darfur over the past 12 months. The UN has said it will require $250 million to save the lives of the two million people that it estimates are in acute need as a result of this crisis.

Last week the US House appropriated $70 million in disaster and famine relief and another $25 million for refugee aid for the crisis. If it is delivered quickly, this aid may prove vital for those in immediate danger, but it does nothing to address the Janjaweed's continued aggression in Darfur.

According to recent testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by John Prendergast of the International Crisis group, the Sudanese government has a 15-year track record of curbing genocidal activity, but only when it becomes the source of public condemnation and exposure. To that end, the international community must, in a very public manner, denounce and isolate those responsible for the atrocities in Darfur.

I am pleased that Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary General Kofi Annan traveled to Sudan this week. Even though Sudan's presence on the UN Human Rights Commission has compromised the commission's ability to act on this issue, the secretary general's attention to Darfur will put immediate pressure on Khartoum. It is also encouraging that leaders at the recent G-8 summit in Georgia called on Sudan to disarm the Janjaweed .

Until very recently, the United States and the UN seemed more interested in deciding what term to apply to the atrocities in Darfur than in actually solving them. It is time to move beyond oblique discussions of whether this crisis constitutes genocide. This is irrelevant to the situation on the ground in Darfur. If we spend our time debating that question, we will miss the opportunity to save lives.

Some have suggested that the United States could impose travel bans on Janjaweed leaders and freeze their assets. But because none of those leaders is expected to travel to the United States, and none of their assets could be easily seized by authorities in Washington, this is an empty threat. Instead, the United States and the UN should impose immediate sanctions on the Sudanese leadership that is funding and supplying the Janjaweed.

Finally, the UN Security Council should authorize troops to deliver aid and protect refugee camps from the Janjaweed. Such troops have to be in addition to any forces authorized and equipped to implement the North-South peace agreement.

The crisis in Sudan is not occurring in a vacuum. It has a direct effect on our national security. Sudan is a country that was designated as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 and was the target of cruise missile attacks in 1998 for its support of Al Qaeda. Sudan has been on the foreign policy agenda of both the Bush and Clinton administrations and is clearly a frontline in the war on terror.

The crisis in Darfur threatens to undermine the North-South accord and return Sudan into an anarchic harbor for terrorists. There is no excuse for not working as fast as possible to end the humanitarian crisis in Darfur and stabilizing a country that is a known haven for terrorism. We will not only save thousands of lives in Darfur, but possibly lives here as well.

Democrat John Olver is US representative from the First District of Massachusetts. 

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