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Genocide again in Darfur. Will the world stop it?

Washington Post

June 3, 2024

By David Simon

A woman carries aid in sacks at a camp for internally displaced Sudanese people on May 12. (AFP/Getty Images)

Genocide looms again in Darfur. Will the world stop it from happening?

Sudanese militias are ready to finish what they started decades ago.

With the world’s gaze directed elsewhere, the specter of genocide again looms over the Darfur region in western Sudan.

The city of El Fasher and its more than 2.5 million residents are in the crosshairs of the military faction known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which controls three of the four main roads leading into the city. Sudan’s government forces (SAF) and several local militias are barely holding on.

Sources: Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab (damage analysis); Open Street Map

Although the siege of El Fasher began in earnest only a short time ago, conditions have been desperate for much longer. In February, international observers estimated that children were dying at a rate of one every two hours in the Zamzam internal displacement camp outside El Fasher. Today, aid is no longer getting through and acute famine appears imminent.

The fall of El Fasher would give the RSF near-total control of western Sudan and a significant upper hand in its battle for control of the country. As a result, widespread genocidal violence would likely return to Darfur.

RSF leadership includes many Janjaweed fighters who, when they were aligned with the government in the 2000s, attempted a scorched-earth campaign to rid western Sudan of its non-Arab ethnic groups.

Back then, The Save Darfur Coalition, an ad hoc coalition of journalists, scholars, students and celebrity activists came together to put pressure on Sudan, its international sponsors and the multinational corporations that did business with them.

Although persecution of non-Arabs in Darfur never abated entirely, the coalition achieved some modest successes. In 2004, the African Union sent peacekeepers, who would later be “rehelmeted” as a United Nations force with Security Council authorization.

In 2005, the Security Council also referred the case to the International Criminal Court, which would later issue warrants for the arrest of Janjaweed leaders and Sudanese government officials who had abetted the slaughter, including head of state Omar al-Bashir.

In 2006, President George W. Bush, who had publicly used the word “genocide” to describe the situation, signed a bill levying sanctions on the Janjaweed and the Bashir regime.

A fragile peace ensued that, until last year, seemed to protect the non-Arab populations of Darfur from genocidal persecution.

Today, however, the Janjaweed are poised to succeed. If El Fasher falls, they could get the opportunity to complete their genocidal project.

A Human Rights Watch report last month described in gruesome detail how, when the RSF overran the city of El Geneina last year, it embarked on a campaign of torture, rape, assassination and massacres of civilians.

In October, BBC reporters arrived at similar conclusions regarding the RSF conquest of Nyala. For many of Darfur’s non-Arab citizens, El Fasher is the last refuge. When it falls, it is likely to be brutalized for resisting conquest for more than 20 years.

Since securing the roads around El Fasher in April, RSF troops have moved cautiously. Whether because of stiffer resistance than expected or simply because their stranglehold is so secure, they can afford to wait.

Weapons and reinforcements for the RSF are arriving, and its besieged opponents have nowhere to turn.

Destroyed military vehicles belonging to the defeated Sudanese Armed Forces litter the main street in El Geneina on Feb. 20. (Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi for The Washington Post)

The RSF has calculated — up to this point, accurately — that it can afford to wait because the global response has been negligible. This in itself is a tragedy. It represents an abdication of the international community’s responsibility to protect a population under threat.

The world must respond urgently, although its options are dwindling by the day. The best course now would be to negotiate a cease-fire, allowing aid to come into the city. It appears, however, that only the United Arab Emirates, known to be the RSF’s major international sponsor, could apply the needed pressure to bring about a pause in fighting. Unfortunately, an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on May 24 yielded no tangible progress on a deal.

The only other option is to deploy a U.N.-authorized peacekeeping operation to protect the civilian population. In this case, the United Nations might have to defer to the African Union in the sourcing and organizing of troops, although the United States and European countries should be ready to supply materiel.

The operation’s mission would be, first, to prevent direct attacks on civilian populations in El Fasher and its refugee camps and, second, to secure El Fasher’s airport for the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

A more permanent solution to the crisis will require the Sudanese people to arrive at a lasting political compromise. That would likely have to be a compromise among the military elites fighting each other in battle, the Khartoum-based civil society groups representing the democratically elected government that was overthrown in 2021, and local ethnic leaders — perhaps to share power, at least initially, but more fundamentally to recognize the citizenship rights and human rights of all Sudanese people. There will also have to be a strategy to pursue accountability for the horrific crimes perpetuated in this conflict. But this can happen only after the RSF’s genocidal intentions are thwarted.

Deploying an international peacekeeping force is the most extreme measure in the atrocity-prevention tool kit. Pulling one together will not be easy, especially given all the other crises roiling the globe right now. But the world’s dithering for this long has left Sudan facing resumed genocide, with no other options to prevent it

David Simon is director of Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program and a senior lecturer at Yale’s Jackson School of Global Affairs.

Copyright 2024 David Simon and the Washington Post


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