When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2004 labeled Darfur, Sudan, as this century’s first genocide, it was seen as a key test for how well the world could come together to stop mass atrocities.
But by most any measure, the international community is failing. A United Nations mission has proved costly and ineffective. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal, has been able to travel with relative freedom in Africa, including a recent trip to South Africa. And many in Darfur are still living in fear and misery.
Omer Ismail was a key figure in the Save Darfur movement that swept college campuses, churches and synagogues more than a decade ago, a time when he says many world leaders were still feeling guilty about Rwanda and the Balkans.
“Darfur came to be known around the world at the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide,” Ismail said. “And because it was labeled a genocide by the U.S. government, that became the trigger of this huge activism.”
Ismail grew up in Darfur, which is in western Sudan, but fled the country after Bashir’s military coup in 1989. He has been an outspoken critic of Sudan’s government since then. He says when it comes to Darfur, Bashir manages to do just enough to keep the pressure off, while the conflict, now in its 12th year, rages on.
“The government of Sudan is still denying … still using its tactics of military solution to this crisis. After all these years, they never learned that this crime doesn’t pay and they have to find a settlement to this war,” he said.
The U.N. mission is costing $1.2 billion a year, but has done little to prevent abuses in the region.
“Yes, it is ineffective,” Ismail said. “It is important, but ineffective.”
The U.N. Security Council recently voted to extend the mandate for that U.N. mission for another year. Even that step took a lot of behind-the-scenes work from the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power.
“We have seen more violent displacement of people in Darfur this last year than in 10 years,” she said recently. “Ten years ago, however, Darfur enjoyed a perch at the top of the international peace and security agenda. Today, the suffering of the people of Darfur has become less visible. Our attention has been diverted.”
The peacekeeping presence in Darfur was seen as a victory for activists at the time, but that was short-lived, said Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. State Department official, who now runs the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“Bashir has been one step ahead of the international community from day one,” he said.
The Sudanese leader managed to limit the ability of peacekeepers to do much, he said, and the U.S. and the U.N. should draw some lessons from this.
“Not much has worked, and it has come at a very high cost to everyone involved,” he said.
In addition, Hudson fears that other countries are learning from Sudan that peacekeeping operations can be weakened by “a death by a thousand cuts.”
“We see it happening right now in South Sudan, where the mission there is unable to operate and fulfill its protection mandate, and they are employing all of the same sorts of procedural tactics that the government of Sudan has really patented in many ways,” he said.
Diplomats and activists alike often talk about the various tools the U.N. Security Council has to protect civilians caught up in conflicts, to prevent atrocities.
“The tool box needs re-tooling,” said Ismail, the Darfuri American. “We have to think of different ways of dealing with mass atrocities, war crimes and crime prevention.”
He’s now a policy adviser to the Enough Project, an advocacy group in the U.S. that wants to see the world do more to tighten the financial noose around Sudan’s government and around others accused of atrocities.