U.S. and U.N. humanitarian officials are repeating calls for international intervention in the troubled Sudanese region of Darfur. The officials spoke at a VOA-sponsored conference as word came of a decision to send African Union peacekeepers to Darfur.
The United Nations Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, Francis Deng, was one of several officials who spoke at VOA Thursday. Mr. Deng said action, not words, is needed to contain and resolve the crisis in Darfur.
"What is happening in Darfur has to be faced; the immediate humanitarian crisis should be addressed. Security of the people and [refugees] being able to return is another level [need]. We are not talking only of humanitarian aid, which is important. We are talking about protection - saving lives," he said.
Thursday, African Union leaders gathered in Ethiopia, authorized what they termed a "protection force" to promote security and stability in Darfur. The western Sudanese region has been plagued by violence and bloodletting stemming from conflict between pro and anti-government militias.
USAID Assistant Administrator Roger Winter says the catastrophe in Darfur extends well beyond fighting and bloodshed. He says disease and unsanitary living conditions will take a heavy toll on hundreds of thousands of people who fled their homes to escape the conflict.
"Unless there is a dramatic turnaround, we can expect in the neighborhood of 350,000 deaths [by] the end of this calendar year," he said.
Also speaking at the VOA conference was the deputy chief of mission for Sudan's embassy in Washington, Abdel Bagi Kabier. Mr. Kabier neither endorsed nor rejected the prospect of international forces operating in Darfur. But he did say that non-governmental armed groups cannot be tolerated in the region.
"We need to disarm everybody who is not part of the [Sudanese] armed forces," he said. "That is how you get [maintain] security in a country where you have a state, a government. You should have one unit that is in possession of arms."
Some observers have debated whether the bloodshed in Darfur rises to the level of genocide. U.N. representative Francis Deng said the international community risks a repeat of the 1994 mass-killings in Rwanda if it allows itself to become paralyzed over definitions and legal jargon while people are dying.
"The tragedy of what happened in Rwanda was that people were arguing whether it was genocide or not," he said. "And it was after that terrible development that we were able to look back and say that genocide had taken place. It does seem to me that it is more important to look at what is unacceptable, whether you call it war crimes or humanitarian tragedy, and act."
Mr. Deng added he is hopeful that the attention Darfur is receiving from the international community is a sign that the lessons of Rwanda are not forgotten.