Urgent Need for US Leadership on Darfur

The Enough Project team sees a Srebrenica-type situation threatening to unfold in Darfur.

One hundred and ninety six peacekeepers from UNAMID, the joint AU/UN peacekeeping force for Darfur, are stationed in Muhajiriya, a rebel-held town of 30,000 in South Darfur. The government of Sudan has requested that UNAMID withdraw these troops, as it masses its military forces outside the town and uses airpower to bombard nearby camps for displaced persons. Thousands of civilians have gathered outside the UNAMID base in Muhajiriya, just as thousands gathered around similar bases in Rwanda and Bosnia. Khartoum’s intention is clear: a full-scale assault on Muhajiriya regardless of the cost to civilians. Given UNAMID’s mandate to protect civilians, it would be nothing short of a shameful capitulation for the UN to abandon its post or to allow the Sudanese government to militarily extort the suspension of the International Criminal Court case against President Bashir through these actions.

The international community, and the Obama administration, now faces a crucial moment. It can abandon 30,000 civilians to state-sponsored violence, or it can embrace its responsibility to protect and make sure that Muhajiriya does not become the next Srebrenica. Rather than withdrawing, UNAMID must immediately reinforce its presence in Muhajiriya, and the United States must spell out specific consequences for the Sudan if it does not immediately cease aerial bombings and abandon its plans for this offensive. This is a clear attempt by Khartoum to test the resolve of the Obama Administration in its early days, and the response of President Obama and the UN will determine the fate of thousands of Darfuris.

I would not worry about “shameful capitulation” by UNAMID. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon sounded the alarm on the situation in Muhajiriya today, affirming that peacekeepers will not back down from their mandate to protect civilians there. Also, peacekeeping doctrine has undergone profound shifts in the wake of the 1995 Srebrenica tragedy to insure that those types of situations will not be repeated.

Enough is spot on, though, in calling for American leadership on Darfur. We are already two weeks into the new administration and we still do not have a sense of what their Darfur strategy will look like. As the unfolding situation in Muhajiriya show, time is not on their side.

Meanwhile, the tense stand-off at Muhajiriya is but one manifestation of the uptick in tensions that is linked to the forthcoming International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Sudan President Omar al Bashir, widely expected to be handed down in the next couple of weeks. As I wrote in a recent American Prospect piece, the correct response to these threats is for the Obama administration to fulsomely embrace the court and give the arrest warrant its full diplomatic backing.