A few weeks before my first reporting trip to Darfur, the United Nations enacted an important new resolution on the prevention of genocide _ stressing that "impunity for such crimes encourages their occurrence."
Once in the country, I wrote with fair indignation that 160,000 people had been killed and as many as 100,000 others had been driven from their homes since the conflict began. The Bush administration was calling the mass killing "genocide."
That was 2005. Now, four years later, the United Nations says as many as 300,000 people have died, and more than 2.5 million victims have lost their homes. Susan Rice, who frequently criticized the Bush administration's Darfur strategy, is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
"I think when you've got genocide under way and the government is the perpetrator, there is a moral imperative to act," Rice said three years ago.
Last week, Sudanese military aircraft bombed a town in southern Darfur that was crowded with refugees from earlier attacks. The United Nations, the State Department and others deplored the violence, as always happens after one of these cases of brutal slaughter. But for the Sudanese government, none of that brought any real consequence, just has been true for the last six years. Isn't that the definition of impunity?
Asked about Darfur just after last week's attack, Ambassador Rice said: "Our effort and attention will be" on "effective efforts to support the full and complete deployment of UNAMID so that there is the capacity on the ground to begin to affect that civilian protection."
Well, that's just what the Bush administration used to say.
"UNAMID" is the joint United Nations/African Union military force deployed in Darfur. Its mission is to protect innocent victims. In 2006, the United Nations announced plans to recruit 20,000 U.N. troops to augment the 7,000 African Union force whose work in Darfur had made no appreciable difference. Three years later, the United Nations has been able to recruit fewer than half of the additional troops it promised to provide.
The Obama administration is less than 1 month old, so it is too early to judge. But surely it plans to do more _ now, six years after the killing began. Waiting, and then waiting some more, for ineffectual U.N. forces to trickle in is not nearly enough.
While American officials flail at the United Nations to fill out the ranks of peacekeeping troops, Sudanese government forces have continued killing civilians with utter impunity. The conflict has dragged on for so long that the various Darfur rebel groups are now fighting among themselves. Some of its members have become dangerous renegades.
Given the longstanding concern, even outrage, some bad ideas are floating about. As an example, sending American troops to intercede on the ground in an African civil war is a terrible idea. But one oft-mentioned suggestion does hold merit _ establishing a no-fly zone over Darfur. Hillary Clinton mentioned this as a possibility during her confirmation hearings last month.
A no-fly zone, manned by a multi-national air force that includes the United States, would provide two clear benefits. First, of course, Sudanese government aircraft would no longer be able to bomb and strafe innocent children and other refugees. Sudanese ground-force marauders might also find that wanton murder cannot be committed with impunity, while unfriendly helicopter gunships are hovering about.
Second, and more important, the new policy would formally tell Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese dictator who is under indictment for genocide, that he no longer controls Darfur. He could no longer argue, delay and obfuscate every time the international community proposes some new step to end the killing. He could no longer smile agreement with visiting world leaders who ask him to end the bloodshed _ and then order new carnage before the visitor has made it back the airport.
With the skies of Darfur under foreign control, Bashir would find it much more difficult to control events in his own country. I suspect he would sit in his palace and spit at his perceived antagonists, just as he is doing now.
"I am not concerned about the powers of evil," he told a group of acolytes a few weeks ago, referring to the United States and Western Europe. "They are all under my shoes."
Maybe by the time the multi-national air force begins shooting down Sudanese aircraft, Bashir's view won't matter. Maybe by then, the International Criminal Court, which indicted him last year, will have put him in prison where he belongs.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Joel Brinkley is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for The New York Times and now a professor of journalism at Stanford University. Readers may send him e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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