It is now widely understood that the situation in Darfur, in the remote western desert of Sudan, is the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world. But the disaster in Darfur is not the result of natural causes, such as drought or floods; it is man-made, and if the outside world continues to treat it simply as a humanitarian crisis without addressing its underlying causes, it will not end. With or without peacekeepers, what we have seen so far would be just the beginning of a long-term catastrophe that would leave behind an unresolved political crisis, continuing warfare and another nearly permanent refugee population, requiring endless and immense international assistance -- this time in a trackless area the size of France.
The international humanitarian response, led by the United States, has saved many lives and must be continued, despite its huge costs. There are already at least 500 international aid workers in Darfur, backed up by at least 10 times as many local employees. Traveling with them for a few days last week was inspiring; the outside world can scarcely imagine how hellish and dangerous their mission is. But the relief effort is far short of what it needs in pledges and commitments. The most disgraceful performance of all comes from the oil-rich Arab states, which have contributed virtually nothing.
But -- and this is true of almost all refugee crises -- dealing only with the humanitarian aspect of the problem is like putting a small bandage on a hemorrhage. The underlying causes of the suffering in Darfur are complicated, but the human consequences are there for any visitor to see: many hundreds of thousands of ethnic African refugees fleeing into makeshift and terrible refugee camps before the attacks of the vicious (and primarily Arab) Janjaweed militia, who are, despite official denials, supported and encouraged by elements in the Sudanese government.
The goal of the central government in supporting and encouraging the Janjaweed seems clear: to "depopulate" -- that is, destroy -- the villages and create as many refugees as possible in order to eliminate the village structure in Darfur, which is a base for the activity of two rebel movements opposing the central government.
These movements are virtually unknown outside of the region; they are the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement. They are surprisingly well organized and receive outside assistance, primarily from Sudan's eastern neighbor, Eritrea, which, despite its small size, has shown since its independence in 1993 a surprising aggressiveness toward its much larger neighbors (including Ethiopia, with which it has fought two disastrous wars). Both rebel groups find easy sanctuary in the deserts of Chad, Sudan's neighbor to the west.
The rebels seek the usual goals of such movements: redress of a lengthy list of grievances against a central government that has long ignored the needs of faraway, desperately poor Darfur. In our meetings with two of their senior representatives, they talked about getting a larger slice of the Sudanese budget, greater self-government and even a new federal system. But they were careful not to mention independence or secession.
Surprisingly, the strongest efforts to stop the fighting have come from the African Union, which is facing the first test of its viability as an organization since it replaced the weak and ineffective Organization of African Unity in 2000. Its chairman, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, has convened talks in Nigeria that include representatives of all sides in this drama, including Chad, Eritrea, Libya and both rebel groups. These talks, however, have received too little support from Western powers and the United Nations, and they are in danger of collapsing. Only Obasanjo's standing as the leader of Africa's largest nation, and head of the African Union, keeps these talks alive. Obasanjo has also called for a significant increase in the number of African Union "monitors and protection forces" (currently a paltry 300) in Darfur. This is a useful first step toward bringing an international peacekeeping presence to the area, but it is being predictably opposed by the Sudanese government.
Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to Darfur, and that of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, were valuable signals of high-level concern; they played an important role in helping to open the doors for more humanitarian assistance. But much more needs to be done by the United States and the United Nations. Washington should begin by appointing a special envoy for Darfur, following the model of former senator (and current U.N. ambassador) John Danforth's mission to Sudan, which played such a critical role in bringing the long civil war between Christians and Muslims in southern Sudan so close to a conclusion. Such an American envoy -- shuttling between Khartoum, Eritrea, Chad, Darfur and the talks in Nigeria -- speaking for the president as Danforth did, empowered with the strong support of a bipartisan congressional mandate and the backing of both presidential candidates, could have a significant effect on the shaky peace process.
Although there is anger among many Sudanese about the U.S. intervention in Iraq, we are still respected in the region, and there is power in U.S. leadership and diplomacy that has not yet been tapped. The United States and NATO should offer airlift and logistical support to the impoverished African Union to aid its monitoring mission -- and that mission, with strong U.N. Security Council support, should evolve rapidly into a full-fledged peacekeeping operation. As another sign of support, we should appoint an ambassador to the African Union, as we have to many other major international organizations.
In the end, Darfur is a humanitarian crisis, but one that was caused by political leaders. The innocent victims will only increase in number if U.S. and U.N. diplomatic action in support of the African Union is not greatly accelerated.
Jon Corzine, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, and Richard Holbrooke, a former ambassador to the United Nations, visited Darfur last week.