August 4, 2004
The recent U.N. Security Council resolution calling on the government of Sudan to stop ethnic cleansing in the country couldn't come a moment too soon.
The United Nations has described the situation in Darfur as one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world.
Since February 2003, government-armed Arab militias, known as the Janjaweed, have been robbing, raping and slaughtering tens of thousands of black Sudanese in Darfur, a region in western Sudan. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people have been killed and about 1.2 million others have been left homeless, fleeing their farms to escape the killings. Around 160,000 Sudanese have crossed the border to neighboring Chad, where they are in squalid conditions with inadequate food and vulnerable to disease.
The Sudanese government has been complicit in the killings, which U.N. officials and the U.S. Congress have characterized as genocide. As a result, the government has been the focus of wide international condemnation.
Last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Sudan and expressed outrage at the brutality taking place there. He asked the government of Sudan to disarm the Janjaweed and said that the United States would otherwise consider imposing sanctions. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also visited the troubled region and made a similar plea to Sudanese leaders.
Now, with the Security Council resolution in place, the United Nations must make sure that the central government of Khartoum fulfills its promises to disarm and prosecute the Janjaweed.
Sudan, with a population of 37 million people, is the largest country in Africa. Darfur itself is about the size of France.
About half of its people are Arabic-Muslim, most of whom live in the northern part of the country. Black Africans, some of whom are Christian and others who follow indigenous African religions, live mostly in the south. Darfur is inhabited mostly by black Muslims.
Ethnic and religious diversity has caused tension in the country from as early as British colonial rule. But open hostility erupted in 1983 when the people of the south took up arms in a war for self-determination. The Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has been fighting against the Muslim-dominated government's policy of forced Islamization in a 21-year civil war that has caused the deaths of a million people, massive displacement and high levels of poverty.
What's more, the government-supported militias have been raiding villages in the region to capture black Sudanese into slavery.
During this time, the international community has been almost indifferent. But the recent changing fortunes of Sudan in the global political power game has prompted widespread attention to the crisis in Darfur.
For many years, the United States listed Sudan -- which once harbored Osama bin Laden -- as a sponsor of terrorism. Washington has now removed it from that list. It now categorizes Sudan in the list of countries that are cooperating in its war on terror.
The desire by Washington to enlist Sudan in the anti-terror war efforts has meant that the Bush administration has tread carefully when putting pressure on the country for its human-rights record.
The situation is complicated further by the fact that within Africa itself, there is lack of a strong desire to censure the Sudanese government over the Darfur crisis.
In May, the African bloc in the U.N. Commission on Human Rights rejected a strongly worded motion on human rights in Darfur and even elected Sudan to the commission. The United States walked out, saying it was perplexed that the African group had submitted the candidacy of a country that massacred its own people in Darfur.
The Sudanese people require compassion from the world.
The global community must continue to pressure the Sudanese government to uphold its responsibility to protect the lives of all its citizens -- regardless of their ethnicity or religion. History has shown that despotic regimes only act when faced with international condemnation.
Only a speedy intervention would prevent the ethnic cleansing from escalating into a Rwanda-like situation, and prevent the further slaughter and starvation of tens of thousands of innocent people.
The United Nations, with the lead of the United States, should stop this genocide now.
David Karanja is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a former columnist for the Daily News of Zimbabwe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.