Stopping a Genocide Before It Starts

On Jan. 9, South Sudanese citizens will head to the polls to vote on a referendum to determine if South Sudan will become a country independent from the rest of Sudan. That the southerners will overwhelmingly vote for independence is not in doubt -- the south fought a 20-year civil war against the Sudanese central government that ended in 2005. Popular sentiment is clearly in favor of autonomy.

What is still unknown is whether the central government in Khartoum will let the south go without a fight, which includes the specter of genocide. In February 2010, former U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair cited Southern Sudan as a place where "a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur."

If so, the tactics will likely resemble Khartoum's 2003-2004 genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, which left an estimated 400,000 people dead and more than a million displaced. Militias on the ground backed by Sudanese airpower and heavy weaponry ransacked villages and towns from which a rebel movement had emerged. In September 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell described the killings as "genocide." The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court agreed and in 2009, issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's president, Omar al Bashir. Still, Bashir remains president of the country.

For years, analysts, scholars, and observers have warned that history might repeat itself. In late September, Nicholas Kristof even devoted a New York Times column, titled "Chronicle of a Genocide Foretold," to the crisis, sketching out the play-by-play of a potential genocide in South Sudan.

That remains a possibility, though a diminishing one. This time around, the international community appears motivated to prevent mass atrocities before they occur.

This is largely due to the advent of a robust and politically active anti-genocide movement that took hold in the United States over the past seven years and that has pressured American and international officials to pay attention to Sudan. The influence, achievements, and occasional missteps of this movement are masterfully chronicled in the forthcoming Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide (Palgrave Macmillan, February) by the journalist Rebecca Hamilton, a fellow at the New America Foundation who has spent years studying the international response to the genocide in Darfur. Hamilton shows how activists helped to keep Sudan a foreign-policy priority for both the Bush and Obama administrations (and how the movement cleverly influenced China, a key player in the region).

The terrible irony of the Save Darfur movement was that by the time it gained political traction in 2005 and 2006, most of the killing in Darfur had already taken place. Several hearings have been held in the Senate and House of Representatives since 2004; in 2005 President George W. Bush said forthrightly that the killings in Darfur constituted a genocide; and rallies were held on the National Mall in April 2006. But by then, 2 million people had already been displaced by genocidal violence.

The Save Darfur movement may have come of age too late to actually save Darfur, but it arrived just in time to avert a potential calamity in South Sudan. Some of the early intellectual leaders of the Save Darfur movement, like Samantha Power, Gayle Smith, and Susan Rice now work in the top echelons of the Obama administration steering American policy on Sudan. They are bolstered by advocacy groups like The Enough Project, Humanity United, and the Genocide Intervention Network (which recently merged with the Save Darfur Coalition), which have honed their message and outreach over the past five years.

This combination of insider access and outside agitation has yielded tangible results. President Barack Obama chaired a special meeting on Sudan at the sidelines of the United Nations summit in September. Representatives from South Sudan and Sudan's central government, as well as several heads of state and ministers from around the world attended. At the meeting, President Obama personally delivered the message that two paths lay ahead for Sudan. "One path is taken by those who flout their responsibilities and for whom there must be consequences. ... The other path is taken by leaders who fulfill their obligations, and which would lead to improved relations between the United States and Sudan," he said.

In the months since that speech, the administration has boosted its diplomatic efforts in Sudan. It added veteran diplomat Princeton Lyman, a well-respected former U.S. ambassador to several African countries, to the team working with President Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration. At a press conference in October, Samantha Power, the U.S. deputy national security adviser for multilateral affairs, revealed that Obama was receiving a daily briefing on Sudan. (It should be noted that it is pretty remarkable for a "human-rights issue" -- let alone a humanitarian crisis -- to be included before it erupts.) In addition, Sen. John Kerry, with the White House's blessing, traveled to Sudan this week to be present during the vote.

Outside official corridors of power, George Clooney has helped keep national attention on the prospect of disaster in South Sudan. After traveling to the region in October, Clooney took to the talk-show circuit, appearing on nearly every major national news program. He also helped create (and provide seed funding) for a collaboration between the United Nations, Google, The Enough Project, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative that will make public satellite imagery of potential troop buildups in key hot spots. The "Satellite Sentinel Project" was launched last week to much media fanfare.

To be sure, none of this can guarantee that atrocities will be averted. So far, though, all this attention on Sudan seems to be having a positive effect. In a rare trip to Southern Sudan on Tuesday, President Bashir said he would respect the results of the referendum. "If the southerners would go for independence, we will congratulate them; we only want good relations," he said.

International action failed to stop the first genocide of the 21st century. If present trends continue, however, South Sudan may become the first averted genocide of the new millennium.

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