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Catastrophe Looming in Darfur

March 10, 2009

Last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) delivered a much anticipated arrest warrant for Sudanese President Bashir. The court accused Bashir of crimes against humanity and war crimes in the western Darfur region of Sudan. The U.N. says that as many as 300,000 people have died and nearly 3 million are displaced as a result of the war that started in 2003.

Hours after the ICC handed down the warrant, President Bashir called in the country managers of more than a dozen of the largest aid organizations to tell them that their license’s had been revoked. They would not longer be able to provide aid in Sudan, they were told. Oxfam, Care, Mercy Corps, International Rescue Committee, Doctors without Borders, and Save the Children are just a handful of the groups affected. That was last wednesday.

Hundred’s of thousands, if not more than a million, could be without potable water, healthcare and food within a few weeks. Disease and hunger is likely to spread through the refugee camps like wildfire. Many more refugees will likely pour into neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic, which could spark greater instability in these countries.

What does all this mean?

Absent a significant change of events, much suffering is about to occur in Darfur. Yes, the last five years have been terrible for those Darfuri’s living in refugee camps. However, the aid groups provided a lifeline. While there was significant carnage and famine between 2003 – 2004 in Darfur, the mortality rate has significantly declined since 2005. Now that the lifeline is getting cut, many more are likely to die from lack of basic human needs.

As I alluded to in a past post, the ICC is a political instrument. One can’t divorce the consequences of pursuing justice to the costs of peace. Human rights focused groups have urged the Obama Administration to stand firm against any attempt to delay the indictment. Yet, at what cost? Are we prepared to accept hundred’s of thousands of deaths in Darfur in order to arrest one man?

In the end, the indictment may force the Administration to do something more forceful. The ‘darfur lobby’ is quite powerful and no new president wants to see mass suffering in the news. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, more coercive measures are limited. The U.N. force in Darfur hasn’t reached full strength, and still lacks transport and attack helicopters. The Security Council has failed to approve even multilateral targeted sanctions.

Last week, a top air force general advocated a no-fly zone. Unfortunately, a no fly zone would be of limited value. While it could ensure no more air attacks by the Sudanese air force, it could heighten tensions between the west and Khartoum, undercut a peace process, and do little to curb the misery from the absence of the aid groups.

So What’s Left

The Security Council could defer the indictment for a year in exchange for concessions, namely allowing aid groups back in the country, demobilizing the proxy militias and keeping troops out of Darfur and the South.

Over the next year, the Obama Administration would need to invest in a credible peace process in Darfur, keep the North-South agreement from collapsing, ensure the peacekeeping force receives the equipment it needs, and provide support for a democratic transformation of the country through national elections.

It’s not perfect. Negotiating with war criminals never is, but it will save lives.

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