Will Sanctions End the Darfur Killing?

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Marco Longari / AFP / Getty

Relatives mourn over the body of 1-year-old Ali, who died of malnutrition in a refugee camp in El-Geneina in Darfur, Sudan.

President George Bush's announcement of sanctions against Sudan in an effort to end the bloodshed in Darfur reflects the sustained U.S. effort to end a conflict so ineffectually handled by the international community. The language he used in announcing a ban on trade with 30 Sudanese companies, one arms supplier to Sudan, two government ministers and a Sudanese rebel leader also resonated with humanitarian aid groups. "For too long the people of Darfur have suffered at the hands of a government that is complicit in the bombing, murder and rape of innocent civilians," said the President. "My Administration has called these actions by their rightful name: genocide. The world has a responsibility to put an end to it."

The question is, will sanctions put an end to it? And the answer is no.

The Darfur atrocities described by President Bush as genocide are perpetrated by the Arab supremacist Janjaweed militia, with support from Sudanese troops, against the farmer population of Darfur, who are mostly black Africans. In four years of fighting in this eastern, semi-desert region of Sudan, 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million displaced. Last November, Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir finally agreed to a three-phase U.N. plan to strengthen the overstretched, 7,000-strong African Union (AU) peacekeeping force in Darfur. Then, after five months of stalling, the Sudanese President gave the go-ahead in April for the second phase of the peace plan: a "heavy support package," with 3,000 U.N. troops, police and civilian personnel along with six attack helicopters and other equipment. Last weekend, however, al-Bashir reiterated his opposition to the deployment of a 22,000-strong joint U.N.-AU force, saying he would only allow a larger African force with technical and logistical support from the U.N.

As Bush noted, international attempts to pressure the Sudanese government have long foundered on Bashir's intransigence. "President Bashir's actions over the past few weeks follow a long pattern of promising cooperation while finding new methods for obstruction," the President said. "The result is that the dire security situation on the ground in Darfur has not changed." The question is how sanctions by the U.S. government against a few Sudanese companies with whom America already does no business will persuade Bashir to relent.

Washington has certainly done more than any other country to bring peace to Darfur, urging the U.N. to define the conflict as a genocide and brokering a peace agreement between the government and some rebel factions in 2006 (that was, however, never implemented), before Tuesday's sanctions announcement. Europe has yet to find clear voice on the conflict. (Tuesday also saw France unveil a plan for an international force to open a humanitarian corridor from eastern Chad into Darfur, but when questioned, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner admitted: "It is only an idea so far ... but it might work.") Meanwhile, Africa and the Arab world offer no way forward, while China — whose oil interests and other investments in Sudan give it substantially more leverage than the U.S. has over Khartoum — has used its veto power in the Security Council to block harsher U.N. actions against Bashir's regime.

Precisely because the U.S. ability to directly pressure Sudan is so limited, the al-Bashir regime has been able to ignore criticism and all but laugh at measures taken against it so far. With most diplomatic avenues exhausted, the only type of action that might change minds in Khartoum would be the threat of direct military intervention, but in light of the Iraq debacle, that option is simply not on the table. Despite the sanctions announced Tuesday by President Bush, the coming months will see more horrifying news of massacres from Darfur, more wrenching refugee tales, more urgent calls for action. And the reason the Darfur crisis will continue to tear at the world's conscience isn't simply because of the scale and cruelty of the atrocities there, but also because the global community either won't or can't do enough to end it.