Genocide continues to rumble forward in Darfur.
Despite the fact that these grisly atrocities were the first in the history of the United States to be recognized as genocide while they were unfolding, today powers around the world are turning a blind eye and rolling back sanctions.
Darfur, the first declared genocide of the 21st century, presses the gruesome question: What is the cost when the world acknowledges an active genocide and still chooses to turn away?
Located in western Sudan, the genocidal killings in Darfur began in 2003.
In a pattern countlessly repeated, assaults often begin with an aerial bombardment of a Darfuri village by the Sudanese Air Force.
As the village burns, government-armed and government-funded militias called the “Janjaweed,” which translates as “devils on horseback,” sweep into the community burning what remains, polluting water sources, looting, raping and murdering.
More than 400,000 have been killed, 300,000 continue to live as refugees in eastern Chad, and 2.7 million are internally displaced in 200 different locations.
These 3 million individuals are in deeply vulnerable situations, often receive little aid and face the real possibility of forced disbursement should the United Nations and outside engagement diminish.
The drivers of this conflict are complex.
Among other rationales are that of a central government willing to abuse far-flung citizens for its own benefit in a context of significant environmental degradation. The frontline soldiers the government deploys are primarily an expanding Arab population taking control of the territory of Darfuris, a minority ethnic population.
The majority who have suffered are Muslim.
In September 2004, then Secretary of State Colin Powell declared his belief that the actions of the Sudanese government met the legal definition of genocide. This was an unprecedented moment.
Unfortunately, little has changed.
The Janjaweed and Sudanese Air Force continue to rampage in Darfur. Omar Al-Bashir remains president of Sudan though he is now indicted by the International Criminal Court on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture and rape); two counts of war crimes including intentionally directing attacks against civilians; and three counts of genocide.
Nonetheless, Reuters reported in January that the U.S. declared that it would “lift a 20-year-old trade embargo against Sudan, unfreeze assets and remove financial sanctions as a response to Khartoum’s cooperation in fighting Islamic State and other groups.”
In her final press conference to U.N. correspondents, Samantha Power, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, noted that in the previous six months there had been “very significant improvement” by the Sudanese government, including a “sea change” of granted humanitarian access in Darfur.
Aid groups immediately decried this statement. As one example among many, they pointed to a September 2016 Amnesty report titled “Scorched Earth, Poisoned Air: Sudanese Government Forces Ravage Jebel Marra, Darfur.”
This report documents that between January and September 2016, the Sudanese government on 30 different occasions used chemical weapons against Darfuris.
These chemical bombs were dropped by the Sudanese Air Force with witnesses describing horrific sights of children whose skin fell off before they died.
In October 2016, humanitarian blockades were so extensive, the U.N. was forced to airlift displaced persons out of harm.
In other words, the Sudanese government, which has for years been enmeshed in terrorist activities, is now leveraging possible information for the removal of sanctions that will only further enrich those committing genocide.
This January, the Obama administration, with the apparent knowledge of the incoming Trump administration, intentionally issued statements that run directly counter to the reality of genocidal suffering impacting millions in Darfur.
To put it another way: For the opportunity to secure possible information that might help keep citizens in the U.S. safe, the U.S. government is willing to sacrifice the lives of 3 million Darfuri citizens to those who seek their death.
Though governments have a right to protect their citizens and Darfuri forces are far from united or without fault, two burning questions linger:
- Is the possibility of American safety worth the certainty of continued genocide among 3 million Darfuris?
- What is our response when the world recognizes a genocide and our government still chooses to turn away?
The situation is grim but not without hope.
The final lifting of the sanctions is contingent on a 180-day review period set to expire on July 12. The final decision now rests in the hands of President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
As 80 of the 180 days have already passed, immediate action is needed to reverse calculated decisions to abandon vulnerable victims.
Now is the time to reach out to every elected representative, Tillerson and Trump to urge them to prevent this travesty.
The blood of the innocent who will certainly face genocide demands nothing less.
Elijah M. Brown is the executive vice president of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative and general secretary of the North American Baptist Fellowship. In 2008, he completed a doctorate at the University of Edinburgh focused on the role of the church in Sudan-South Sudan’s peace process. You can follow him on Twitter @ElijahMBrown.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series focused on genocide for Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month (April). An introduction to and overview of the series is available here.