United Nations, 30 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Faced with alarming reports about humanitarian conditions in western Sudan, the United Nations has mobilized a massive relief effort, pressured the Sudanese government, and pushed a peace process.
What it has not done is authorize any form of robust intervention to bring a halt to the atrocities still reported to be carried out against civilians. The United Nations estimates that 30,000 people have died, 1.4 million have been displaced and 200,000 have crossed into neighboring Chad.
They are fleeing fighting in the region of Darfur, which includes organized attacks by Arab militias against mostly black civilians.
Neither UN experts nor the Security Council have called the conflict genocidal, which could require the world's major powers to intervene. But the Security Council has given the Sudanese government until today to disarm the militias and control the crisis or face possible punitive action.
The U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights is among the groups which have conducted research in Darfur. It believes the situation there amounts to an unfolding genocide, according to John Heffernan, a researcher with the group. "We determined that there is considerable evidence out there that shows that there's been an organized attempt to affect group annihilation -- consistent patterns in the ways that villages have been attacked, that complete livelihoods of people, their cultures, have been destroyed -- their livestock, their homes -- [and] their wells poisoned," he said.
Many other rights groups are more cautious in their description of actions in Darfur, although they seek intervention. A 1948 UN convention defines genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnic, racial or religious group," including inflicting conditions calculated to lead to a group's destruction.
"It's very clear that what is happening there is crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, and it hasn't stopped."
The question of intent makes it a challenge to determine whether a developing crisis meets the legal test of genocide. But signs of abuse in Darfur are so numerous that the international community should still get mobilized to act, according to Georgette Gagnon, an expert on Africa for Human Rights Watch.
"It's very clear that what is happening there is crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, and it hasn't stopped. It's continuing to this date in spite of pledges by the government of Sudan and the United Nations and others to forcefully address this. It's not happening," Gagnon said.
The Darfur crisis has its roots in a conflict that began 18 months ago, when black African rebel groups rose up against Sudan's Arab-dominated government. They alleged discrimination in the way resources were distributed in the region. In response to the rebel actions, Arab militias known as Janjaweed have rampaged through the area.
The government in Khartoum denies charges it is supporting the Janjaweed in an ethnic-cleansing campaign and has pledged to work with the international community to restore calm to the area. It has also resisted any calls for increasing what is now a token monitoring force in the region.
Aid groups say the government has improved cooperation recently, but there continue to be reports of attacks and intimidation against civilians by government-backed forces.
The UN Security Council will hear from a UN special envoy on conditions in Darfur on 2 September and could decide on punitive sanctions. Council members China and Pakistan have spoken against mandating strong coercive measures against Sudan.
Meanwhile, another potentially influential UN voice -- the newly named special adviser on the prevention of genocide -- is considering what action he should take. The adviser, Juan Mendez, told RFE/RL that if reported abuses continue in Sudan, the international community has a legitimate right to act to stop them.
"I believe that the discussion of whether the genocide definition has been triggered or not can become a paralyzing discussion and a discussion that prevents us from acting. But on the other hand, I don't believe that we need to have the smoking-gun evidence of genocide before the international community has a right to act," Mendez said.
Mendez also serves as president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, a New York-based organization that has advised post-conflict states in the Balkans and Africa on how to address human rights atrocities. He said that aside from the legal definition of genocide, there are warning signs that the international community should recognize as harbingers of looming atrocities.
"Conflicts where race or ethnicity or religion is an important component of the conflict and conflicts that, in addition, are fought in violation of the rules of war, particularly those attaching to the protection of the civilian population. Those are the -- initially at least -- the conflicts that, if left unattended, can easily degenerate into genocide," Mendez said.
Heffernan of Physicians for Human Rights said abuses in Darfur may be easier to conceal because their consequences are more slowly developing. "I think the Darfur crisis is completely commensurate with past instances of mass killings in Rwanda and in Bosnia. But the primary difference, I think, is people this time are dying of starvation and disease due to the fact that they have been removed from their homes and that they are forced to live in areas where they cannot exist without outside aid."
Rights experts say they hope the Security Council will move immediately to set up a commission of inquiry to go into Darfur to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity and allegations of genocide.