Genocide in Sudan?

For the last 21 years the country has been immersed in a civil war. The Arab Muslim government of Khartoum in the north has led a systematic campaign of terror directed at the south, populated mainly by black Christians or practitioners of traditional African religions. International negotiation brought certain resolution to that conflict, with the signing of peace agreements.

Recently a new conflict has arisen in Sudan, this time in the western portion of the country — the Darfur region — aimed particularly at three ethnic groups that did not accept the peace agreements between the north and the south. In response to an insurgent movement from the Darfur region, Arab militias — the Janjaweed — supported by the Sudanese national government have perpetrated atrocities against the civilian population. In this case, Muslims are attacking Muslims, in what is perceived as tribal fights between the nomadic Arabs and the agrarian, mostly black inhabitants of Darfur.

Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., said in a report recently published by the Catholic News Service that the Sudanese government is engaged in a policy to “Arabize” and “Islamize” the population.

"This clearly is an example of ethnic cleansing, no question," he said.

In an Aug. 19 letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell Bishop Ricard, who recently visited the area, recommended that:

The United States and the United Nations work together to immediately deploy human rights monitors to the region.

President Bush appoint a special envoy and coordinator for U.S. policy.

The United States and the international community continue to insist that the Sudanese government allow unfettered humanitarian relief efforts; immediately end government attacks on civilian targets and punish such attacks by others; and accept responsibility to safeguard its own citizens.

Bishop Ricard also outlined steps he said the U.S. government and the international community should take to protect civilians and refugees, including providing logistical, financial and political support.

This crisis has already cost between 30,000 and 50,000 lives. The UN had imposed an Aug. 30 deadline for the Sudanese government to demonstrate that it had taken concrete steps to disarm the Janjaweed pro-government militia and protect civilians. Since Janjaweed attacks continue near the refugee camps, and international access is restricted by the Sudanese government, the international community needs to act.

Neither the UN nor the U.S. Congress is defining the situation as genocide. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide states that genocide consists of “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” In addition, both U.S. and Sudanese bishops are shying away from that word, one that would imply the need for an immediate international intervention.

Still, no matter how the issue is defined, its catastrophic consequences demand swift action. The United Nations has to act decisively to stop the killings and the displacement of more than 1.2 million refugees who are currently heaped up in refugee camps lacking in sanitary conditions, and in which malnutrition and overcrowding are unbearable.

Ten years ago, the situation in Rwanda was allowed to unfold and develop without international intervention resulting in more than 500,000 deaths mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group. It would be shameful if history were allowed to repeat itself in Darfur.