On Thursday, the United States made human-rights history.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, testifying to a packed Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room on Thursday morning, reported that in July the United States had launched an investigation into charges that the Arab Islamist government of Sudan and its proxy militia of Arab tribesmen, known as the Janjaweed, were responsible for carrying out atrocities against the three African tribes of Sudan’s western province of Darfur. He said that despite denials and attempts to obfuscate by Khartoum, the investigative team found “a consistent and widespread pattern of atrocities (killings, rapes and burning of villages)” against the non-Arab villagers and that 74 percent of those victims interviewed reported that the Sudanese military forces were involved in the attacks.
Powell’s next statement was breathtaking: “[T]he evidence leads us to the conclusion that genocide has occurred and may still be occurring in Darfur. We believe the evidence corroborates the specific intent of the perpetrators to destroy ‘a group in whole or in part’. This intent may be inferred from their deliberate conduct. We believe the other elements of the convention have been met as well.”
The significance of the administration’s action cannot be overstated. This marks the first instance that a party to the 1948 Genocide Convention, the most fundamental of all human-rights treaties, has formally charged another party with “genocide” and invoked the convention’s provisions while genocide has been in progress. In the past, the convention and the term “genocide” have been applied only retroactively by state parties, long after the violence ended. Former President Bill Clinton underscored this recently when he apologized for his administration’s inaction to stop the 1994 genocidal massacres of the Tutsis in Rwanda.
Moreover, in taking efforts to stop the genocide, the administration is going well beyond what is required under international law. The convention does not require parties to take any specific action other than to end their own responsibility for the human destruction. Nevertheless, the United States is taking the lead in trying to rally the international community to exert pressure on Khartoum, all the while continuing America’s unilateral economic sanctions.
Citing the Genocide Convention, the United States is introducing a U.N. Security Council resolution threatening international oil sanctions, an expanded mission of African Union forces (bolstered with U.S. logistical support) and other measures against Sudan. The foundation for this was laid on July 30 when the Security Council adopted a prior U.S. resolution that set a 30-day deadline for Khartoum to rein in and bring to justice the killers–a deadline that expired ten days ago without compliance.
The United States is also providing some 80 percent of the humanitarian aid and other support to keep Darfur’s 1.5 million refugees alive. While many other nations have so far failed to make good on their pledges, the U.S. is exceeding its aid commitment.
Darfur is the most recent example of the exemplary, but little acknowledged, diplomatic leadership President George W. Bush has demonstrated in pursuing peace in Sudan. On June 5, three years of persevering and creative involvement by the administration culminated in a north-south agreement to end a 20-year rebellion for religious freedom in which two million from the Christian homelands of the south had perished. The Clinton administration imposed important American economic sanctions against Khartoum but otherwise kept Sudan as a “backburner” foreign-policy issue, as was revealed in an internal Clinton administration white paper. It was the strategic diplomacy initiated by President Bush himself from the earliest months of his administration, joined with the sanctions, that proved effective. Peace has largely come to southern Sudan (even though, by its own account, Khartoum has shifted its focus to Darfur and has been unwilling to resume talks to finalize the details for implementing the far-reaching power- and revenue-sharing protocols of that agreement).
The European Union has hedged from using the G-word about Darfur. In the late 90s when it dropped the word “slavery” from the U.N. Human Rights Commission resolution censuring Sudan’s atrocities in the south, the EU representatives argued that such harsh terms have no place in diplomacy. But it was with just such bluntness that President Bush laid blame squarely on the regime back in 2001 for crimes against the southerners (he called the crimes “monstrous” and compared them to the Holocaust).
It is now up to the other members of the Security Council to seize this historic moment. On its response to the U.S. resolution rests the fate of the three African tribes of Darfur–and the world’s solemn promise to act to stop genocide.
–Nina Shea is director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom.