Over recent months the international community has at last woken up to the atrocities taking place in western Sudan. More than a million Darfurians have been forced from their homes and large numbers have been attacked by militias supported by their own government. The humanitarian repercussions have been catastrophic, with thousands of children dying every month from disease and malnutrition.
In the face of this unfolding tragedy, the international community has been cumbersome, ineffective and impotent. Despite repeated calls by humanitarian agencies, the family of nations embodied in the United Nations has been both slow to respond and weak now that it has finally done so. The Security Council has been constrained in its response by competing national interests, such as oil revenues and arms sales.
The one nation that has been bold enough to term the situation a genocide has limited influence over its fellow members since it circumvented the United Nations over Iraq. The result is stalemate: a set of UN Security Council resolutions that are all talk and no action.
The lives of those people in Darfur whom humanitarian agencies have managed to reach are desperate. Save the Children focuses on reaching the worst-affected areas, yet insecurity in Darfur is making this almost impossible. Hundreds of thousands of people are in remote areas which agencies are not able to access. These pockets potentially hide horrors beyond those so far witnessed. For example, a recent assessment of the Zagawa area by Save the Children found 40,000 displaced people suffering from alarmingly high rates of malnutrition and with no access to any form of assistance. The central problem is security: security to enable humanitarian agencies to reach those in need; security to allow the thousands of displaced people to return to their homes and begin the long process of rebuilding their lives.
The only body with any hope of bringing this about is the UN through support to the African Union. Right now, the African Union troops are few in number and empowered only to protect a handful of ceasefire monitors. This is moral abdication. Experience in Bosnia and elsewhere shows that troops without a proper mandate and some muscle are worse than useless. Darfur needs a large-scale, at least tenfold, increase in the numbers of African Union monitors and troops. They must be given the power to intervene in order to prevent or halt both violations of the ceasefire and attacks against civilians. This will require the African Union to have the full backing, in terms of mandate and resources, of the international community and unlimited access throughout Darfur.
If the Sudanese government is serious about improving security and protecting civilians it will accept such a protection force. If not, the international community must make it explicit exactly what the repercussions will be. Without a neutral protection force that the people of Darfur can trust families will continue to be too scared to return home; and, in many places, too scared to travel the short distance beyond the environs of their camps to collect firewood for fear of being attacked. Humanitarian agencies are operating in camps where this happens on a regular basis, but we are powerless to assist. Above all, we must ensure that these people have the security to enable them to begin the task of rebuilding their lives.
The UN Security Council needs, as a matter of urgency, to move beyond its current rhetoric. If this calls for some behind-the-scenes diplomatic arm-twisting, so be it. It must find far greater numbers of monitors and troops, with an unequivocal mandate to protect civilians, particularly women and children. Without this, and fresh impetus to the stalled Abuja peace talks, we will continue to fail the people of Darfur, as we did those who died in Rwanda exactly 10 years ago. A decade on, the international community is dithering again while 10,000 people a month are dying.
Mike Aaronson is director general of Save the Children