May 27, 2011

As far as the eye could see, thousands of displaced people were scattered, accompanied by what little they had left in the world. This surreal vista, which we saw visiting Abyei in January, had no shelters but had big beds and suitcases and dresser drawers sitting in the open or under trees. After years of displacement, thanks to the north-south war that raged in Sudan from 1983 to 2005, thousands of Sudanese had begun the long journey home. They hoped to vote that month in the referendum on southern independence.

But they never voted, because the government in Khartoum wouldn’t allow the plebescite to take place in Abyei, and they never resettled, because they had no support to return after so long. So thousands hunkered down in this Connecticut-size region between North and South Sudan, two historically separate territories that were lumped together at independence in 1956 and whose racial and religious divides have chafed since. Last week the long history of tensions ignited when Khartoum sent its army and allied militias to forcibly occupy the area. The regime engaged in aerial bombing, tank and artillery attacks. Its militias looted and burned villages.

The refugees are scattered, their dreams of returning to their ancestral homelands potentially lost forever.

The balanced international response — pressing both sides for compromise — would be understandable if this were a first in Sudan. But the main town of Abyei was burned and looted by government troops and allied militias in 2008 as well. 

Maybe the usual balanced response would be understandable if this happened only in Abyei. But the list of dishonored agreements and massive human rights crimes in Sudan is shocking in scope. In Darfur, the Khartoum regime has cleared millions from their lands, allowing ethnic groups allied with the government to move into the deserted areas. In the oilfield areas of southern Sudan in the 1990s, the regime strategically killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of indigenous residents to facilitate Chinese oil exploitation. In the Nuba mountains during the late 1980s and 1990s, the vast majority of locals were forcibly displaced by Sudanese government attacks, and hundreds of thousands died.

The international community threatened real consequences during and after these incidents and after other targeted crimes against civilian populations. But the consequences never came.

Millions of lives hang on the question of whether the international context has sufficiently changed to end this pattern of empty threats. Sudan’s dictatorial regime is right next to ground zero of the Arab Spring. Despots in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia have felt the sting of popular revolution. Watching this, Khartoum has aggressively infiltrated protest groups, with state security agents systematically raping women involved in protest efforts and violently attacking public demonstrations.

The world has recently shown some willingness to act in Africa. When hundreds of thousands of civilians were threatened this year in Libya and Ivory Coast, governments around the world invoked the “responsibility to protect” doctrine to prevent massive loss of life. The initial objective of saving lives through robust military action after other, non-military measures failed was successful.  

Sudan’s north-south and Darfur conflicts have produced more dead, wounded and displaced persons than Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Ivory Coast combined. The focus in the United States and elsewhere has been on providing incentives for the Sudanese government to change its behavior and embrace peace in the South and Darfur. We supported President Obama and Sen. John Kerry in crafting these incentives.  We hoped that the carrots of debt relief, removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and an end to sanctions would help change Khartoum’s calculations.

But what’s happening to the people of Abyei is the regime’s unacceptable answer.

How long is the international community willing to tolerate this deadly dictator? President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, is escalating bombing and food aid obstruction in Darfur, and he now threatens the entire north-south peace process. 

The responsibility-to-protect doctrine holds that when a sovereign government can’t or won’t protect its own people, or when it represents their biggest threat, the world must act. An escalating ladder of non-military consequences is supposed to be carried out before the last resort — military force — is considered. 

We are not advocating military intervention. But the evidence shows that incentives alone are insufficient to change Khartoum’s calculations. International support should be sought immediately for denying debt relief, expanding the ICC indictments, diplomatically isolating the regime, suspending all non-humanitarian aid, obstructing state-controlled bank transactions and freezing accounts holding oil wealth diverted by senior regime officials. 

We must proceed before Abyei ignites the next Darfur.

George Clooney, an actor, and John Prendergast, a co-founder of the Enough Project, launched the Satellite Sentinel Project to deter atrocities in Sudan.