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Death's grip on Darfur

THERE IS widespread agreement that the genocidal killing in Darfur in western Sudan is currently the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Yet far too little has been done so far by the United States, the United Nations, the international community, and relief organizations. The killing must be stopped, and the flow of humanitarian aid must be improved.

The humanitarian catastrophe in southern Sudan is the worst since 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in 1994. Ever since that disgrace, the international community, including the United States, has chanted the "never again" mantra. But it is happening again.

The circumstances of dying are different and more varied than in Rwanda. Instead of machete-wielding civilians, there are now Sudanese air strikes against the villages followed by the camel-borne Janjaweed militia murdering, raping, and pillaging hundreds of villages, forcing thousands to run for their lives.

Death is beginning also to come in the form of starvation and disease descending on the displaced and traumatized survivors, compounded by heavy seasonal rains. Without swift humanitarian action, more people will die of cholera than at the hands of the militia.

Secretary of State Colin Powell's July visit to Darfur was a belated but welcome sign that the Bush administration is beginning to understand the extraordinary stakes in western Sudan. Fourteen more villages were torched by the Janjaweed shortly after Powell's visit, and yet the administration still holds back from calling these government-sponsored atrocities by their real name -- genocide.

At the very least it should be possible to get relief and medical aid to the victims who have survived the scourge of the Janjaweed. Yet even here the international response is lagging, in part because the United States and other donors have not dispensed funds quickly enough.

The UN must urgently engage all of its resources. The following quickly achievable actions will save hundreds of thousands of lives.

* UN Secretary General Kofi Annan should immediately appoint an internationally known emergency coordinator with full authority to lead all the UN agencies in Darfur and the surrounding region and leverage support from major donor nations. A critical area of focus must be on heading off the outbreaks of diarrhea and cholera and the growing threat of malaria.

* The United States must show more aggressive leadership in the UN Security Council on this issue. Last week the Security Council adopted a resolution calling on the Sudanese government in Khartoum to disarm the government-supported Janjaweed militia and facilitate the provision of humanitarian aid. While the United States successfully fought for a tough resolution that permits the imposition of sanctions if Sudan doesn't stop the fighting, the resolution alone is not enough. Now the United States must make sure the Security Council acts if Sudan doesn't comply. Unfortunately, France, which has energy interests in Sudan, raised concerns about possible sanctions, although France did vote for the resolution. The United States must also lead in supporting the international monitoring team from the African Union.

* To maximize international burden-sharing and to ensure that the US government is acting in concert and with maximum speed and effectiveness, the president should appoint a US coordinator for this issue. The United States has made generous financial commitments to UN relief efforts in Darfur, but France, Japan, Italy, Spain, and Germany have been slower to commit funds, UN officials say.

* The UN and donors should ensure that delivery of relief supplies is maximized on all available channels, including by truck from Libya and Chad, by rail from Port Sudan, and by additional charters of commercial aircraft.

Historical parallels are never exact, but the emergency in Sudan is similar to Cambodia on the brink of famine in early 1979. The appointment of Sir Robert Jackson as the UN czar, authorized to speak for the secretary general and US leadership, saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

President Bush has said that never again means never again in Sudan. The time to act on that is now.

Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the United Nations, is a board member of Refugees International and Kenneth H. Bacon is president of the organization.  

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