In his Blueprint for Change in 2008, Barack Obama outlined his foreign policy strategy in Darfur, which promised "immediate steps to end the genocide.” His plan involved pressuring the government and rebel forces to halt the killing and open up Darfur to humanitarian aid and peacekeeping troops.
A quick history: Starting in 2003, the Sudanese government hired Arab militiamen to wage war on non-Arab insurgents, which transformed into a broader campaign against non-Arab African farmers and their villages. The result was thousands of civilians raped and tortured, more than 300,000 dead and 2.7 million people driven from their homes. The Bush administration called it a genocide, as did U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.
Under President Obama, the U.S. did take immediate steps on Darfur: It appointed both a special envoy for Sudan and a senior advisor to the envoy on Darfur issues; it announced a new "carrots and sticks” plan that would strike a balance between incentives and sanctions, with a new emphasis on diplomacy; it negotiated a return of some NGOs to the region; and it maintains a host of ongoing economic sanctions against Sudan.
But have conditions improved under the Obama administration? As evidence of progress, the foreign policy experts we interviewed pointed to U.S. support of the 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur, which includes a ceasefire agreement and a comprehensive plan for peace. The government in Khartoum and one rebel army signed the agreement, though the United Nations Security Council and U.S. State Department have said that the agreement won't be fully effective until several other prominent rebel armies in Darfur stop fighting and join the pact.
The Sudanese government has already violated components of the agreement, such as an arms embargo and a requirement to lift a state of emergency in Darfur that enables the government "to detain perceived opponents for long periods without judicial review, often subjecting them to ill-treatment or torture while in detention," according to reports by Amnesty International USA and Human Rights Watch. Eric Reeves, an English professor at Smith College who studies and writes about Sudan, calls the peace agreement "completely disastrous.”
Most official sources say that the genocide has ended, though many humanitarian groups say there are still atrocities that don't quite qualify as a systematic genocidal effort by the government.
Human Rights Watch alleges continuing crimes against humanity, including government soldiers raping displaced women and children. The prosecutor for the International Criminal Courts, noting that Khartoum has a history of covering up crimes against humanity, said there was no reason to believe the genocide has stopped. And the United Nations Security Council, which does not use the word "genocide,” maintains sanctions against Sudan because individuals affiliated with Sudan's government "have continued to commit violence against civilians and to impede the peace process” in Darfur.
In 2009, former U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan Scott Gration said there were still "remnants of genocide,” but not a "coordinated effort” by the government to kill civilians. That contrasts with the term "ongoing genocide” used by President Obama and U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice earlier in the same year.
We checked with Jennifer Christian, the Sudan policy analyst for the Enough Project, a progressive anti-genocide policy think tank and non-governmental organization, working out of Juba in South Sudan. She said she hadn't seen anything to indicate that genocide continues in Darfur, though she said there is still a humanitarian crisis. We also spoke with Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a foreign policy think tank.
"The conflict has not ended in Darfur, but it's at a lower ebb. The violence is lower,” he said.
In 2011, the African Union – United Nations Mission in Darfur reported a decline in ethnic violence and a decline in overall deaths from the previous year. Another sign of improvement: About 150,000 displaced people have returned to their homes, according to the United Nations Office for Coordinated Humanitarian Affairs.
Still, no one disagrees that fighting continues, both skirmishes between rebel armies and the government, but also between tribes. As recent as April, Rice said she was concerned about escalating violence in several regions of Darfur.
The U.S. government "has definitely taken steps forward. Is (the situation) where it needs to be? No. It isn't a completed task,” said Emily Fertik, a spokeswoman from the State Department's Office of the Special Envoy for the Sudans.
The same could be said about access for international forces. Much of Darfur remains off limits to humanitarian aid workers and peacekeepers. On its "Sudan: background" page, the U.S. State Department describes the Sudanese government as only "somewhat cooperative" in removing bureaucratic impediments to deliver fast and effective aid. Doctors Without Borders, the only medical non-governmental organization in the Jebal Si area of North Darfur, suspended operations in May after months of restricted travel and access to medical supplies.
About 1.7 million Darfuris remain displaced from their original homes and reside in camps. About three million people in Darfur currently rely on food aid. About four million Sudanese suffer from some level of food insecurity, the majority living in Darfur. Such conditions led Richard Williamson, a former U.S. envoy for Sudan, to label the situation a "genocide in slow motion.” Act for Sudan, a coalition of American citizens advocating against genocide and mass atrocities in Sudan, calls this combination of displacement and famine a "genocide by attrition.”
So in rating this promise, we see progress. Genocide, under the international legal definition, appears to have ended. The U.S supported the 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur, it appointed a special envoy, negotiated a return for some NGOs, and continued economic sanctions.
Still, violence persists, international aid is still blocked in critical parts of the region and there are credible allegations that government-sponsored crimes against humanity continue.
For now, we rate this a Compromise. If readers have additional information or analysis they'd like us to consider, please e-mail us at [email protected]