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Stemming the Crisis in Darfur

Darfur. The name has become synonymous with seemingly endless violence and human suffering. Four years of civil war in the western Sudanese region have left at least 200-thousand people dead. Some experts say the death toll is closer to 400-thousand. Millions more have been forced from their homes in what many call genocide. And yet, despite years of high-level diplomacy, progress in ending the killing has been extremely slow.

It has been more than two years since the U.N. Security Council authorized an African Union peacekeeping force for Darfur. Last year, the Council also slapped targeted sanctions on those responsible for atrocities and referred the case to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.

But the effect has been negligible. Seven-thousand African Union peacekeepers have proven woefully inadequate to stop the killing in a vast region the size of France. And the sanctions -- though well-intentioned -- have been virtually meaningless.

International Response

A move by some Security Council members to send blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers to the region has been stymied by Sudan, which argues that their presence would amount to foreign occupation. Khartoum also refuses to hand over war crimes suspects to the International Court.

Faced with such intransigence, western powers urged the Security Council to enact tougher sanctions. But Sudan has powerful friends, including veto-wielding China, one of Sudan's biggest commercial partners, and several African nations.

South Africa's U.N. Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, whose country rid itself of apartheid with the help of Security Council pressure, argues that penalizing Khartoum would be counterproductive. "Now what is this, coming with sanctions now, I don't know, to achieve what," says Kumalo.

Even relatively mild proposals have been rejected in the Council's consultation room.

Last month, when the Council passed a resolution extending the life of a separate U.N. mission in southern Sudan, the United States tried to include four paragraphs advancing the deployment of U.N. troops in Darfur. But in the final draft adopted by the Council, those paragraphs were deleted.

Speaking to VOA afterward, Sudan's U.N. Ambassador Abdalmahmood Abdalhaleem ridiculed the U.S. diplomatic initiative. "The U.S. has been given a good blow by an overwhelming majority of the Council. Members of the Council gave them a good lesson. I hope they understood it," says Abdalhaleem.

Criticism of the International Response

The failure of diplomacy prompted critics to charge that the United States and other western countries are not trying hard enough. “Why, they ask, are the world's great powers unable to stop what most countries agree are horrific crimes against humanity?” Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch says the answer lies in Sudan's vast petroleum reserves.

"China buys two-thirds of Sudan's oil. The reason we're going into our fifth year of slaughter in Darfur without any real serious effort to stop it is because no one has been willing to put the pressure that's necessary on the Sudanese government to get it to stop the killing. Everybody talks a good game, everybody talks about the need to end the ethnic cleansing, but in fact, when push comes to shove, no one has been willing to really twist Khartoum's arm, particularly through economic sanctions, to get them to agree to the deployment of the peacekeeping force. And the major obstacle here has been China, because they have far and away the greatest influence on Sudan because of their massive oil purchases," says Roth.

Romeo Dallaire commanded U.N. peacekeeping forces in Rwanda in 1994. He was portrayed as a hero in a Hollywood movie for his futile efforts to warn the world as 800-thousand people were slaughtered in a 100-day genocide.

Dallaire, now a Canadian lawmaker, worries that the great powers are again turning a blind eye to atrocities in a remote corner of the world, as they did in Rwanda. "I would contend that we have taken a decision politically not to get involved. In the interim, what we've been doing is we've been buying off ourselves by throwing a whole bunch of humanitarian aid at it. And we've been fiddling with the books and we have not called China's bluff until somebody mentioned the Olympics. And suddenly the whole world's changed," says Dallaire.

Celebrities Urge Action On Darfur

That "somebody" was actress and U.N. goodwill ambassador Mia Farrow. She wasn't the first, but in an opinion piece published in The Wall Street Journal newspaper in March, Farrow urged sponsors of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to push China to use its influence with Sudan.

In a VOA interview, Farrow said the Olympics presents a great opportunity to stop the killing in Darfur.

"We are calling upon China to take a responsible role since they have such a powerful position with the government of Sudan. I mean, in this oil relationship, Khartoum has also purchased the greatest watchdog on the Security Council. So China has really watered down every resolution attempted to protect the people of Darfur. We are now seeing a new China emerging, with a new slogan, "one world, one dream". With the Olympic games coming, we would say to China, there is also one nightmare that we cannot sweep under the rug. And that nightmare is called Darfur, "says Farrow.

Academy award-winning director Steven Spielberg, an artistic adviser to the Games, responded to Farrow's challenge. He sent a letter to China's President Hu Jintao, urging him to use his influence to stop the killings in Darfur. Within weeks, the Khartoum government accepted deployment of an initial three-thousand strong U.N. force to support the African Union peacekeeping mission.

Diplomats say the second stage, a larger, better-equipped hybrid force of United Nations and African Union troops could be ready for deployment by the end of the year.

Diplomacy often moves at a glacial pace, especially when powerful countries are divided. Sometimes it seems not to move at all. Sudan is a classic case in point. But Mia Farrow's suggestion of economic pressure through the Olympics has struck a chord, and is raising new hope for an end to the death and suffering that have plagued Darfur for years.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.