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An arid and profoundly impoverished region in western Sudan known as Darfur is home to what continues to be, even after the catastrophic December 2004 tsunami in South Asia and the October 2005 earthquake in Kashmir and Pakistan, the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Since February 2003, over 400,000 men, women and children have been killed or have died from disease while another three million civilians - half the population of Darfur - have been forced to flee their destroyed homes and villages. Most have sought safety in squalid and overcrowded refugee camps, where severe shortages of shelter, food, water, and medical care place hundreds of thousands at risk of disease and a cruel and slow starvation.

Supported by the Sudanese government in Khartoum, nomadic Arab "Janjaweed" militias have been systematically clearing the region of civilians through a merciless campaign of ethnic cleansing. Following air raids by government aircraft, the Janjaweed death squads ride into villages on horses and camels, slaughtering men, raping women, burning down homes and villages, and stealing whatever they can. Crops are destroyed, and wells are poisoned with dead bodies. Many women are abducted as sex slaves.

The majority of the 400,000 civilians who have died or been killed were not part of any anti-government group. They were unarmed non-combatant men, women and children living in small tribal villages where they have subsisted off the land for centuries. Survivors are dying one thousand a day in the camps, trapped by the Janjaweed, who patrol outside the camps killing men and raping women who go in search for food or firewood.

The international response thus far has largely been indifference. The world is failing its vow of "never again" made after the Holocaust and reaffirmed after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. During past genocidal campaigns against Armenians, Jews, Cambodians and Rwandans, it was possible for the world to claim that it didn't fully know what was going on. This time we do. And we have no excuse not to act.

Over 130 countries, including the United States, are signatories to the 1948 Convention Against Genocide, which commits countries to act to prevent genocide anywhere in the world. The state-sponsored violence in Darfur clearly constitutes genocide, which the Convention defines as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group" by, for example, "deliberately inflicting on members of the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part."

To his credit, President Bush in the past has called the slaughter in Darfur what it is: genocide. Secretaries of State Powell and then Rice have publicly used the word. Even the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives unanimously adopted a resolution in July 2004 urging the Bush administration to call the atrocities in Darfur "by its rightful name: 'genocide'", which the President finally did in the first presidential debate in September 2004. The resolution even went on to urge the administration to consider "multilateral or even unilateral intervention to prevent genocide should the United Nations Security Council fail to act."

Until recently, opposition to action in Sudan hasn't come from the United States but from the many other UN member states (such as Qatar, China, and Russia) who prefer to respect Sudan's sovereignty or who have oil investments in Sudan and are reluctant to alienate the government in Khartoum. The UN Security Council has for two years been dragging their feet, weakly supporting a grossly inadequate number of African Union troops on the ground in Darfur. These AU soldiers, numbering roughly 7000, patrol the Texas-sized region with limited equipment and an even more limited mandate, lacking the strength and authority to remove or disarm Janjaweed forces from Darfur and around the refugee camps. Most of Darfur remains too dangerous for international aid agencies to reach.

The African Union's mandate expires on March 31st. The UN Security Council has been deliberating the issue of transferring responsibility for stopping the genocide and for delivering desperately needed humanitarian aid to UN peacekeeping forces. This is where the responsibility should lie - with the global community. The world, most especially the West with its high-minded rhetoric of human rights and values, has a moral obligation to do everything possible to protect civilians from genocide.

The United States is the most important presence on the Security Council. Other nations will follow our lead if we insist on a strong and clear new peacekeeping mandate for Darfur. But until recently, words from the Bush administration seemed to indicate that it had backed away from its acknowledgement that the slaughter in Darfur constitutes genocide.

In November, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Zoellick mischaracterized the genocide as a "tribal war", stating that the US cannot clear Darfur because Western peacekeepers would not want to "get in the way of a tribal war of Sudanese". He went on further to state that "if people are determined to kill each other, there's not a lot the United States can do."

However, the only parties 'determined to kill' are members of the genocidal government of Sudan, and members of the Janjaweed militia they have armed and employed. At the time, Zoellick's comments represented a disturbing movement away from former Secretary of State Colin Powell's assertion of the situation as a "consistent and widespread" pattern of genocide, and represented a disturbing policy shift. Many wondered if the administration was seeking to renege on its treaty obligation to protect civilians from genocide.

Further evidence of a shift in policy came in December. The US Senate passed the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act on November 18th, and the US House was poised to pass the DPAA before the White House delayed it. Apparently, the Bush administration was objecting to the continuation of sanctions on the government of Sudan, which has been called an increasingly cooperative "partner in the global war on terror." The US House committee overseeing the DPAA just this past week finally issued a recommendation that the full House pass the DPAA.

However, over the past several months the Bush administration appears to be publicly interested in righting its recent wrongs. After months of frustrating silence, Bush himself has become increasingly involved in calling for the United Nations to take over security responsibilities in Darfur from the African Union. He has also spoken of "NATO stewardship" of the peacekeeping mission, and of doubling the number of troops on the ground in Darfur.

The President's increasingly involvement is welcomed, and for it he deserves some measure of praise. He has done more to address the genocide in Sudan than his predecessor did in Rwanda. But it is past time for the president to do what a growing number of Americans, from human rights organizations to oevangelical Christian groups to ordinary citizens want him to do - lead the world in ending the Darfur genocide.

Bush must make it clear to the UN that it must intercede, both with peacekeepers and a wide range of economic and military sanctions, else the world body's reputation and effectiveness be permanently damaged.

As for NATO, Bush must insist that it provide air cover to keep Sudanese government helicopter gunships on the ground and disabled from providing air support to the janjaweed, especially during the months of time it will take to install UN peacekeeping forces in the region. If this step is not taken in the immediate future, humanitarian aid workers will soon be forced to abandon the country, and the janjaweed will have free reign to swiftly bring the genocide to its horrific conclusion. Enforcing a "no-fly" zone will additionally reduce the growing risk of a military clash between Sudan and neighboring Chad, where several hundred thousand refugees from Darfur are living in camps.

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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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