The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Sudan, a genocide unfolds — again — and the world does little

People wait to board a bus near the border crossing between Sudan and Ethiopia on July 31. (AFP/Getty Images)
4 min

Populated villages razed. Satellite images of mass graves. Millions of innocent civilians displaced. People massacred while trying to flee for their lives. Women and girls subjected to horrific sexual violence, including rape.

This was Sudan’s Darfur region 20 years ago, when government-backed Arab “janjaweed” militiamen — “devils on horseback,” as some translate the name — embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing that killed 300,000 people and drove millions from their homes.

And this is Sudan today, where a new campaign of ethnic cleansing is underway. The devils are now riding in trucks instead of on horses. They now call themselves the Rapid Support Forces. But their atrocities are an ominous echo of the past. Their victims, too, are the same: members of the African Masalit tribe, mostly subsistence farmers who populate the Western Darfur region. In one atrocity, more than 1,000 people were reportedly massacred in June, simply for plotting to flee the besieged city of El Geneina.

Make no mistake: This is systemic ethnic cleansing of the Darfur region. The world is once again witnessing the beginnings of yet another genocide, unfolding in real time. Yet the international response has been muted.

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Perhaps world capitals have crisis fatigue. Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds on, with fears of a bloody stalemate after a long-awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive has so far failed to make major territorial gains. In Africa, the coup in Niger risks heightening instability in the troubled Sahel region, where al-Qaeda and Islamic State offshoots are battling for territory. A growing conflict in Ethiopia between the military and a local Amhara militia threatens to spiral into a new civil war in the Horn of Africa.

But the existence of myriad crises and conflicts does not excuse failing to stem a new genocide.

At its convention in 1948, the United Nations called genocide “an odious scourge” to be eradicated, defining it as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The proscribed acts defining genocide include killing members of a targeted group, forcing the group’s displacement and trying to bring about its destruction. In other words, precisely what is happening in Sudan’s Darfur region right now.

After the Holocaust and the extermination of 6 million Jews in Europe in the middle of the 20th century, the world vowed to never again allow such a preventable tragedy to unfold when there was ample evidence and warning signs. But genocides and outrageous episodes of ethnic cleansing have continued to take place — in Cambodia in the 1970s, in Rwanda in the 1990s, with the Rohingya in Myanmar in the 2000s. The U.S. government and human rights groups and activists have accused China of carrying out a campaign of genocide through its widespread repression of ethnic Uyghurs in its western Xinjiang region, including using mass detention, forced labor, surveillance, and forced sterilization and birth control.

“Never again” seems to have become “again and again,” with the world seemingly unable or unwilling to intervene.

The cause of the bloodletting in Sudan is well-known. Two warring generals vying for power in Khartoum have driven the county to civil war, and the Rapid Support Forces have taken advantage of the anarchy to resume their leftover business from 2003 and 2004 to ethnically cleanse Darfur of its African tribes.

The International Criminal Court has already said it has launched an investigation, but it needs to move faster and name names of those in command. Weapons supplies need to be cut off immediately, so sanctions against individuals and companies supplying arms need to be expanded and tightened. The U.N. Security Council needs to support an African peacekeeping force for the region. Sudan’s key Arab neighbors need to apply pressure on the two generals to halt their senseless duel. Humanitarian corridors need to be established to allow refugees to flee.

During the first Darfur genocide, the administration of President George W. Bush responded by labeling the atrocities a genocide, imposing sanctions on individuals and companies responsible for the violence, and lobbying other Security Council members for a resolution to impose an arms embargo and tougher sanctions on Sudan. A no-fly zone was repeatedly discussed but never imposed. What seems mostly missing now is a sense of urgency. All the warnings and the evidence have not yet galvanized a distracted global community. The world needs to wake up.

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