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Countdown on Darfur

Tuesday, August 24, 2004; Page A16

TWENTY-FOUR days have elapsed since the U.N. Security Council gave the government of Sudan a month to stop a campaign of ethnic cleansing by militias and its own troops in the region of Darfur -- and still the killing goes on. Monitors of the African Union and envoys of the United Nations report no substantial improvement. Attacks by the militias on civilians continue, desperate refugees continue to swell under-provided camps in neighboring Chad, and people continue to die by the hundreds each day. The government has offered only cosmetic compliance with the U.N. resolution, and yet it proclaims that it has nothing to fear from a promised review at the end of the month. Its cynicism is understandable, because Western diplomats are suggesting that the council is unlikely to follow through on an implicit threat of sanctions.

Darfur already has become a synonym for dithering by outside powers in the face of genocide. Soon it may also deliver another grim verdict on the ability of the Security Council to back up its own resolutions. Hamstrung by the unwillingness of veto-wielding members, such as China, to intervene, it delayed action for months, then watered down the language it finally adopted on July 30 to omit any direct sanction against the Sudanese regime. Days after that, an agreement between U.N. and Sudanese officials further weakened the pressure on Khartoum: Among other things, it converted a requirement that the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia be disarmed into a Sudanese promise to provide a list of those it admits to controlling.

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The government also pledged to set up safe areas to which the more than 1 million displaced people in Darfur could go, protected by its security forces. According to reports by human rights groups, it then proceeded to draft members of the Janjaweed into those very forces, while rounding up a few petty criminals whom it parades as captured militants. It eliminated some of the red tape hampering humanitarian groups but has continued to block aid deliveries on security grounds. The strategy is obvious: to foster the illusion of responsiveness, and thereby thwart any agreement by the Security Council on further action, while allowing its campaign against Darfur's non-Arab population to continue.

The only dim light in this gloomy picture is the action of the African Union. Its monitors in Darfur have reported honestly about violations of a cease-fire between the government and rebel groups; it is sponsoring peace talks between the government and rebels. Most significantly, it has dispatched 150 (soon to be 300) troops to the region, nominally as guards for the monitors, and offered to send thousands more to help disarm militias and safeguard civilians. The government has rejected this offer, which represents probably the best chance of preventing hundreds of thousands more civilian deaths in the coming months. That makes the duty of the Security Council obvious: to conclude its 30-day review by mandating the deployment of the African force and insisting on its acceptance by Khartoum. The alternative is more dithering, and more deaths.

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