Skip to main content

It’s Time to Intervene in Sudan

Four months ago, the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, warned that “the risks of genocide remain frighteningly real.” The occasion was the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, in which 800,000 people were slaughtered in just a few months. But it was clear that Annan spoke these words with the situation in Darfur, western Sudan, uppermost in mind. Hundreds of people were dying there each day as a result of a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing directed by government-backed militias. In the face of the worst humanitarian disaster in the world today, Annan declared, “the international community cannot stand idle.”

During the subsequent four months, however, the international community has done just that—even as the killing and dying have continued at an accelerating pace. At least 30,000 and perhaps as many as 50,000 people have already died. More than a million have fled or been chased from their homes, leaving countless villages burned out and destroyed by marauding militias.

Worse is yet to come. By October, nearly the entire population of Darfur, 2 million people in all, will depend on outside food assistance. According to U.S. government officials, even under the best of circumstances more than 300,000 people will die from hunger and disease. Without optimal conditions, the number will be far greater. Just think of it—for the remainder of the year, this small population is confronting the prospect of a tragedy on the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks every day.

None of this information is new. Various UN agencies, the U.S. Agency for International Development, European Union officials, human rights groups and the international press have been recording the unfolding disaster for months. But it wasn’t until late July that the UN Security Council finally passed a resolution demanding that the Sudanese government facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance and disarm the militias. It backed its demands with a veiled threat of sanctions, but it said nothing about possible military action, which Annan had mentioned as far back as April might be needed.

So far, the international community’s approach has consisted of weak pressure on Khartoum to stop the killing, even though its government is in many ways responsible for much of the death and destruction in Darfur. The United Nations endorsed efforts by the African Union to monitor the situation and welcomed its offer to send a peacekeeping force of maybe as many as 2,000 African troops to help secure the environment for humanitarian deliveries.

Welcome as the African Union’s offer is, it is not enough to get the job done. The situation requires 10 times as many troops to protect convoys delivering food, medicine and other supplies to the needy; to defend refugee camps and outlying villages against further attacks; and ultimately to create a secure environment so people can go back to rebuild their lives and their homes.

The African Union cannot possibly do these tasks on its own—it will need help from established militaries. Britain’s chief of defense staff has indicated that 5,000 troops might be available for deployment on short notice. Secretary of State Colin Powell has suggested that all options remain open, though he has warned that this would not be “a trivial military undertaking,” and he has continued to express the hope that the Sudanese, with help from the African Union, will resolve the matter. Australia has also suggested that it could send troops if European armies were to do so.

In continental Europe, however, there has been deafening silence about the possible deployment of humanitarian intervention of any type. France, which has never been shy about intervening in Africa, has 200 troops on the Chad-Sudan border, but has ruled out using troops in Darfur. Germany has talked much about providing financial assistance but said not a word about deploying military forces to stop the killing. Likewise the rest of Europe.

Why this silence in response to the cries of the dying? The legality of any intervention, especially if the Security Council refused to authorize it, might be questionable, but that did not stop these same European governments from acting in response to the humanitarian emergency in Kosovo five years ago. European militaries are engaged in many other parts of the world, as well, but surely France and Germany could deploy a brigade each, which, with Britain’s contribution of 5,000 soldiers, would provide the bulk of the required forces. Other European nations, Australia and the African Union could contribute the remainder. The United States, though already overextended in Iraq and elsewhere, could provide logistical and other support to get these forces rapidly in place. It might even want to contribute troops of its own.

The issue, then, is not legality or lack of troops—it is a shameful lack of will and a failure by the world’s major powers to fulfill their responsibilities. The time to act is now. With Washington preoccupied with Iraq and a presidential election, leadership will have to come from Europe. Is anyone listening?

Get daily updates from Brookings