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U.S. Must Lead U.N. to New Action on Darfur

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By Julia Fromholz

Three weeks ago, the Obama administration announced its comprehensive policy toward Sudan, relying on both incentives and pressures to move that country toward peace. The clearest manifestation of the policy to date--renewal of U.S. economic sanctions--was distinctly unilateral. Because progress in Sudan will be elusive without the multilateral action President Obama consistently emphasizes, the administration should seize an immediate opportunity to lead a collective response to new evidence of human rights abuses in Darfur.

On November 5, the United Nations Security Council released the annual report of the independent, expert team charged with monitoring the Council's arms embargo on Darfur. Ninety-four pages of evidence of blatant, continuing violations of international law are now in the public record. This report follows five others, investigated and written by similar teams over the past four years.

Some officials and commentators argue that the multilateral sanctions on Sudan are ineffective. They neglect to mention, however, that those sanctions have never been enforced. Instead, the countries charged with enforcing the embargo--those states that comprise the U.N. Security Council--have failed to act on the last five expert reports on violations of the arms embargo, thereby allowing violations to be committed with no risk of punitive consequences. Because some violators named in the report sit on the Security Council, votes are difficult to gather and vetoes hard to avoid. But making headway against human rights abuses in Darfur and the climate of impunity that exists due to previous inaction will be impossible without the leadership of the United States to overcome tough political challenges.

Despite some apparent internal dissension over the summer, the Obama administration has recently displayed unambiguous vigor in the realm of sanctions. On October 27, President Obama extended the unilateral economic sanctions originally imposed a dozen years ago, stating that "the actions and policies of the Government of Sudan continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States . . . ."

When introducing the Administration's policy toward Sudan, Secretary Clinton noted that the conflicts in Sudan present "an opportunity for the international community to help steer Sudan along a path that can lead to stability and security . . . ." Her emphasis on the obligations of the "international community"--not the U.S. alone--was echoed by General Scott Gration, President Obama's Special Envoy to Sudan. He asserted that "success requires frank dialogue with all parties in Sudan, with the regional states and international community."

Even before the most recent U.N. expert panel report was published last week, the U.S. government missed an opportunity to focus attention on the future of multilateral sanctions: the mandate of the expert panel was renewed without discussion. Security Council member states abdicated their responsibility by failing to publicly acknowledge and discuss the reasons the sanctions have not been effective. Renewing the panel's mandate simply papers over the problem: it allows the Security Council to appear to take action to enforce the embargo, while in fact avoiding the difficult and contentious work of garnering support to punish violators.

At the roll-out of the administration's Sudan policy, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice warned those who refused to take steps toward peace: "There will be significant consequences for parties that backslide or simply stand still. All parties will be held to account." Three weeks in, the Administration should seize this opportunity to ensure that Ambassador Rice's words do not ring hollow.

As the Administration's new policy on Sudan makes clear, no single silver bullet can resolve the many problems in that country. But leading an effort to enforce United Nations sanctions--starting with immediate action on the new report providing detailed evidence of violations thereof--would show that the Obama Administration is serious about pursuing multilateral action on matters of principle, even in tough political contexts.