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With Susan Rice in as the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, policy toward the long vexing Darfur refugee crisis is bound to change. But many questions remain about new approaches to one of the great humanitarian challenges of our time.
Rice has been described as an advocate of muscular diplomacy and a defender of human rights, with Darfur on her mind. Rice served on the staff of the National Security Council in 1994 during the genocide in Rwanda and swore with others "never again." As a Brookings scholar in 2007, she labeled the Bush approach to Darfur "anemic and constipated" in testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee. On her first day on the job with the Obama administration, Rice expressed deep concern about the "ongoing genocide" in Darfur.
And she’s backed up at Foggy Bottom. It was Hillary Clinton, during her confirmation hearings for secretary of state, who initially brought up Darfur and called for ending the "human devastation" there. As Clinton put it, "There is great need to sound the alarm again about Darfur."
But the alarm has been ringing for nearly six years now, and many can recite the numbers. Since fighting erupted in 2003 between the Sudanese government forces, rebels and allied militiamen known as the Janjaweed, some 2.7 million people have been forced to flee their homes and now live in makeshift camps in Sudan or across the border in gritty tent cities in Chad. An estimated 300,000 people have been killed, maybe more.
And despite an international outcry over the need for military action to stop the killing, Darfur is a Rubik’s Cube of complexity, as I witnessed in a February 2005 trip. Four years ago, there were three main rebel groups; now, they have splintered into many different factions, with the cacophony of voices making it harder to reach consensus. Banditry is so bad that humanitarian actors have lost access to hundreds of thousands of people. And the camps themselves have become more politicized, as rebels infiltrate and traditional leaders lose sway. Darfur’s aid operation costs more than $1 billion a year — the largest by far.
And yet the "human devastation" continues. Government planes recently bombed a rebel-held town, killing a child, burning homes and displacing hundreds. There have been other incidents, too. On Jan. 27, the U.S. government issued a statement condemning both the Sudanese government and the rebel group JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) for "an increase in violence over the last week." In the past, Rice promised more, saying in 2007, "America’s principal priority in Darfur must be to stop the suffering and the killing, and to do so quickly."
It won’t be easy. At their confirmation hearings, both Rice and Clinton sketched out some ideas for dealing with Darfur, such as imposing no-flight zones, fully equipping the existing United Nations/African Union peacekeeping force, and putting pressure on China and Russia, Sudan’s big trading partners, to help stop the fighting. The fact is that a no-fly zone is a hotly contested idea within the aid community. Some argue for it, while others say that it would only inhibit, maybe even stop, humanitarian efforts.
There is real consensus on one thing: act quickly. So much is in play right now. The International Criminal Court is on the verge of issuing a formal indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide and war crimes in Darfur. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south Sudan is under threat of coming apart. If either of these occurs, it would muddy the waters more.
There is also the belief that the new Obama administration has this one opportunity to get it right: to try a pragmatic and powerful diplomatic offensive to give the Sudanese government one more chance to stop the atrocities on its part, to get the African Union to work with the rebel factions and to persuade all countries to stop weapons shipments to Sudan.
Obama’s diplomatic team came in talking tough on Sudan. As one Darfur expert puts it, "If Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are Level 1 priority, Darfur should be 1A." It’s definitely worth a try.