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Out of Time

“It is very, very important that we all pay lots of attention to Darfur," Kofi Annan's deputy recently told a group of journalists. Forgive us if we are not impressed. The Western world has been paying attention to Darfur for nearly three years. During that time, some 400,000 people have died, and millions more have been displaced. In recent months, as the situation in Darfur has deteriorated further, Turtle Bay has busied itself with the crafting of resolutions and the holding of press conferences.

These activities have created an illusion many in the West have been all too happy to believe: that progress is being made toward ending the killing in Sudan.

But, while Darfur may have the attention of the United Nations, attention is not the same as action; and action is what Darfur desperately needs. This week, the United States and Britain are pushing a Security Council resolution that would authorize the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers to Darfur with a robust mandate to stop the killing. Sounds promising, right? Actually, the events of this week--combined with the events of the last several months--illustrate nothing so much as the futility of using the United Nations as a vehicle for stopping genocide.

How did we get here? The United States long maintained that the African Union (AU) should take the lead in resolving the Darfur crisis. But eventually it became clear that the ragtag AU was not up to the task of halting the killing. Then, in May, Khartoum and a Darfuri rebel faction signed a peace agreement in Abuja, Nigeria. It was widely hoped that this would clear the way for U.N. forces to replace the beleaguered AU troops.

Four months later, that hasn't happened, but here is what has: The number of civilian deaths continues to climb. The International Rescue Committee reports a "massive spike" in sexual assaults surrounding Darfur's largest displaced-persons camp. Huge swaths of Darfur remain beyond the reach of humanitarian aid. Most ominously, in the last few weeks, human rights groups have noted that the government appears to be massing troops in Darfur for the ostensible purpose of confronting rebels that did not sign the peace accord. This sounds like 2003 all over again--when Khartoum chose to fight Darfuri rebels by cleansing the region of non-Arab populations--only this time with an ugly twist: The lone rebel group that did sign the Abuja deal now appears to be working with the government to target civilians belonging primarily to the Fur tribe. Here is the blunt assessment of the U.N.'s top humanitarian official: "We have the worst security situation since 2004. We have the worst access since 2004. We have some of the worst atrocities since 2004."

Enter the United States and Britain with their proposal to dispatch U.N. troops. Unfortunately, the prospect of U.N. forces actually arriving in Darfur and ending the genocide remains an extreme long shot. For one thing, China and Russia--allies of Sudan--hold vetoes on the Security Council and will likely use their power to either block the U.S.-British resolution or water down the mandate given to U.N. forces. Even if China and Russia relent and the resolution passes intact, Sudan has vowed not to let U.N. troops enter its territory with a strong peacemaking mandate; and the resolution stipulates that U.N. forces will be sent to Darfur only with Khartoum's permission. Moreover, even if Sudan is bluffing and, in the end, allows U.N. troops to enter the country with a robust mandate, the process will likely take months--months that Khartoum can use to finish the ugly work of reshaping Darfur's demography.

The lesson from all this is clear: Asking the United Nations to end a genocide is a formula for ensuring that the genocide will not end speedily-- or, worse, will end on the perpetrators' schedule, which is to say, only when the killing is complete. We could have chosen another path. We could have bypassed the maddeningly slow U.N. machinery, assembled a coalition of allies under the banner of NATO, and dispatched troops to Darfur ourselves--without consent from, or apologies to, the men in Khartoum who orchestrated this evil. The United States could have led the way. We still could. But doing so would require a change of heart from the Bush administration and its allies. After all, the reason we have chosen to act through the United Nations is because we evidently lack the will to act on our own--not to mention the sense of urgency. Consider the comments last November of Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer. In the course of assuring a reporter that Darfur was on the mend, she protested that "this is a long process." Yes, it is. And that is exactly the problem.

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By The Editors