During the first hundred days of the Obama presidency, the crisis in Darfur has taken a catastrophic turn for the worse, yet it has received barely a second glance from the new administration. This is quite surprising, since candidate Barack Obama’s website proclaimed that he was a “leading voice urging the Bush administration to take stronger steps to end the genocide in Sudan.” Before her confirmation as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton also spoke out on Darfur, even proposing a no-fly zone over the western Sudanese region. United Nations ambassador Susan Rice and senior National Security Council official Samantha Power were both particularly vociferous leaders of the “Save Darfur” campaign until they went into the administration. But since then, they have been largely silent on the issue, and President Obama has failed to establish a coherent policy.
Meanwhile, the situation in Darfur has reached a critical juncture. On March 4, Sudan’s president, Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir, expelled 16 international and Sudanese aid groups from the war-torn region, putting “well over 1 million people at life-threatening risk,” according to U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s April 14 report to the Security Council.
Without aid, these people will soon run out of food, potable water, and medical services. According to Ban, the expulsions came just as a meningitis epidemic was erupting, and as tens of thousands were migrating within the region to escape the government’s continuing aerial bombardment, burning of villages, and other violence.
Ban warned that the start of the rainy season in May is likely to make the situation “significantly worse,” with violence expected to rise. These dire assessments come against the backdrop of a six-year conflict already so brutal that the Bush administration called it “genocide.”
Since 2003, Darfur’s death toll is estimated to be 300,000. We don’t know how many more have died recently, since for the last two months the U.N. has been denied access to much of the region but the secretary general’s largely ignored report provides some grim details. Ban states that widespread rape continues to occur, though it is underreported since Sudan’s sharia laws could result in the victim’s being stoned if evidentiary standards are not met. During February and March, the U.N. documented dozens of attacks against the international aid community 62 against its own personnel, including an incident in which the Sudanese air force attempted to shoot down a U.N. supply helicopter, and 54 attacks on other NGOs. Nothing less than the entire African UnionUnited Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) is now in jeopardy, reports the secretary general.
As the humanitarian situation spirals out of control, the Obama administration’s Darfur policy is adrift. It has neither used its bully pulpit nor adopted any effective policies, and its new special envoy returned emptyhanded after visiting Sudan four weeks ago. In speeches to mark April as Genocide Prevention Month, administration officials dwelt on the past violence in Rwanda but avoided discussing current events in Darfur.
Political advocacy for Darfur, once ubiquitous, also has all but disappeared. The heartwrenching front-page news stories of Darfur’s victims are gone. George Clooney has exchanged mega-protest rallies for private meetings with President Obama. Mia Farrow, to her credit, has undertaken a hunger strike, but she has gained no traction either in the mainstream media or with policymakers. Occasional small gatherings and prayer vigils are still held by caring Americans in places such as Imperial, Pa., and Terre Haute, Ind., and the hundreds of churches and synagogues who make up the Darfur Coalition continue to display fading “Save Darfur” signs, but they are perceived as local events. For all practical purposes, the Darfur cause has folded.
So why was there a full-bore campaign to save Darfur during the Bush years but not now, even though the situation has gotten more desperate since Bush left office? We cannot discount political cynicism. The relentless placement of full-page ads in major media outlets in 2007 singling out President Bush for failing to stop the Darfur genocide certainly had the odor of partisanship. As I noted at the time, this impression was so strong that the Save Darfur Coalition put up a web posting denying that it was engaged in “Bush-bashing.”
But there’s another compelling explanation: After March 4, 2009, the big lesson of Darfur is not the failure of the Bush administration but rather the abject failure of transnational law and a cherished liberal project.
Darfur advocacy centered heavily on bringing Sudan’s President Bashir to justice before the International Criminal Court (ICC). It was so successful that the Bush administration, which opposed the ICC, defied liberal predictions by refraining from vetoing the March 2005 U.N. Security Council resolution that referred Darfur to the ICC. After a painstaking four-year investigation, on March 4, 2009, the ICC finally issued its arrest warrant against Bashir.
What should have been a Darfur campaign achievement instantly proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Instead of turning himself over to the court and standing trial on two counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity, Bashir was defiant. The same day the arrest warrant was issued, he expelled the aid agencies, plunging the region into its current crisis. Bashir has emerged stronger from the ICC confrontation, receiving support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, and warm welcomes in such places as Egypt and Qatar, where he was photographed at the side of King Abdullah during an Arab League summit.
Given Bashir’s bloody track record, his reaction to the ICC warrant was utterly predictable. Only in faculty lounges and the halls of the American Society of International Law could anyone have supposed that a rogue dictator armed with considerable oil and backing from Islamists would voluntarily submit to the rule of law on human rights. Unfortunately, it was just such international-law types who developed the Darfur ICC strategy.
Darfur is what lawyers call a “good case.” It is hard to imagine a more just case to prosecute before the ICC than that against Bashir. The fact that international political realities rendered not justice and accountability but a full-blown human catastrophe discredits the entire ICC enterprise.
The Obama administration’s sudden neglect of Darfur is an embarrassed silence. Recourse to the ICC backfired. Rather than alleviating the Darfur suffering, turning to the international court could end up causing over a million deaths. A new policy is urgently needed. Obama must negotiate a deal whereby the ICC drops its prosecution in exchange for Bashir’s cooperation, not only on allowing the distribution of international aid, but in resolving the Darfur conflict itself. This course reversal will be difficult for Obama, as it will require admitting that the ICC does not work. But as France has already acknowledged with its own proposal to suspend the ICC warrant it is necessary. A million lives hang in the balance.