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Specter of Past African Genocides Haunts U.S. in Sudan

Washington's failed attempts to stop two African genocides in the past 16 years has influenced a so-far successful U.S. drive to prevent a new war and mass killings in south Sudan, according to current and former U.S. officials.

On Sunday, southerners in Sudan began a week-long referendum to vote for independence from the north after 43 years of civil war. More than two million people died until the war ended with a 2005 U.S.-brokered agreement, which called for the referendum. 

Although the vote is now expected to take place peacefully, post-referendum disputes over demarcating what would be Africa's longest border, sharing water and oil resources, and splitting the national debt are still fraught with danger. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, already indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, also warned on Friday that the flashpoint could be Abeyi province, which was supposed to begin voting Sunday on whether to stay with the north or join the south. But disputes over voter eligibility have indefinitely postponed that separate referendum.

"We will not accept Abeyi to be part of the south," Bashir told Al-Jazeera. "If any party takes any independent action on Abeyi, that would be the beginning of a conflict."

Concern in Washington over potential violence has been so great that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called south Sudan "a ticking time-bomb" and Dennis Blair, former Director of National Intelligence, testified to Congress in February that it was the world's most likely place for a new genocide.

The U.S. policy was developed in September, when there were strong fears lasting until just last week of renewed violence in a region that has known almost continual civil war from Sudan's 1956 independence from Britain. Analysts say the Obama administration's strategy to avert a new war is more extensive than either recent U.S. efforts to end genocide in Darfur or the Clinton administration's hesitant response to the impending 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Washington has enticed Bashir's government with promises of lifting sanctions if it respects the referendum's results, and threatening new sanctions if it does not. "Senior levels of [the Sudanese] government ... [know] the steps we are looking for, and the steps we are prepared to take," America's U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said in an interview.

The U.S. has sent more diplomats to Sudan, stepped up visits by senior officials, and spent $162 million to train Sudanese youth, resolve conflicts over resources and provide election security. It is paying another $220 million a year towards the cost of a 20,000-man U.N. peacekeeping force in the south.

Averting a new war could also open the way for potential U.S. investment in an independent south's agriculture, oil and mineral sectors. The south holds 80% of Sudan's oil, a reason the north is reluctant to let it go. U.S. sanctions on agricultural equipment for the entire country have already been lifted. All other sectors remain under U.S. embargo. Investments from the U.S. and neighboring Kenya will be crucial for a new nation with only 50 km of paved-roads.

The U.S. incentives to Bashir seem to have backed him off from the threat of renewed war and mass killings in the south, at least for now. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the U.S. strategy, which for the moment appears to be successful, has been "absolutely" linked to America's earlier failed policies in Rwanda and Darfur.

"The irony is that when people were commemorating the tenth anniversary of [Rwanda's genocide in 2004], was when the worst stuff was going on in Darfur," Albright said in a telephone interview. "It still seemed very difficult to do something about it [and] that's why looking at what potentially could happen in southern Sudan is so important."

Tom Malinowski, who was a White House advisor to President Bill Clinton and today is Human Rights Watch's Washington director, said, "I am sure there is a relationship between the U.S. response to Sudan today and our collective experience in the 1990s in dealing with Rwanda. People are very conscious of history and the necessity of learning its lessons."

Following a debacle in which 19 U.S. servicemen died during a U.N. humanitarian mission in Somalia in October 1993, "There was a political judgement ... that the U.S. shouldn't intervene in Rwanda" six months later, Malinowski said. "The administration was under enormous political pressure from Congress in particular to signal that it was not going to get entangled in such U.N. missions again."

Albright said the U.S. was indeed influenced by Somalia and distracted by crises in Bosnia and Haiti at the time. She said U.S. intelligence failed to see an impending genocide in Rwanda. But the U.N. commander on the ground did and pleaded for more troops. Instead the U.S. voted to withdraw most U.N. forces.

"I understand the context we were operating in, but I wish we had done more," Albright said. In 1998 President Clinton apologized while in Rwanda for not doing "as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred." He vowed to "strengthen our ability to prevent, and if necessary, to stop genocide."

The Obama administration appears to have taken up that vow. Its strategy does not include a threat of military intervention. But it has offered to compensate Khartoum in stages by lifting U.S. sanctions, restoring diplomatic relations and supporting debt relief in exchange for accepting a credible referendum.

Sudanese Foreign Minister Ali Karti said he "hoped" the U.S. incentives were sincere, "because we have had so many promises before."

The extent to which the U.S. is willing to avoid a new Darfur is illustrated by John Kerry, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, who said in Sudan in October the U.S. would remove the country from the U.S. terrorism list if it respected the referendum's outcome.

The U.S. originally made that conditional on Bashir ending Darfur's now lower-level violence, according to a State Department policy paper. U.S. officials call for "accountability" in Darfur but stop short of explicitly calling for Bashir to stand trial before the International Criminal Court.

Ironically, the U.S. is downplaying Bashir's indictment for a past genocide, to perhaps prevent another. "I think covering over or dialing down egregious crimes that have happened in the past all too often proves to be an ill-conceived formula for avoiding them in the future," said Richard Dicker, a director at Human Rights Watch.

The U.S. strategy is being driven by officials with a history of wanting to prevent genocide. Vice President Joe Biden has pushed for U.S. intervention in Darfur and visited Sudan in November. Samantha Power, a close Obama aide, made her career as an anti-genocide campaigner. And Rice, the U.N. ambassador, has been outspoken about U.S. efforts to stop mass killings.

In 1994 Rice was on the Clinton National Security Council when, six months after the Rwandan killing ended, she found herself in a Rwandan churchyard. The bodies were still decomposing, corpses packed so tightly one couldn't avoid stepping on rotting limbs and torsos, she said. Darfur and that experience have made her "passionate about ... preventing genocide and crimes against humanity," she told her 20009 Senate confirmation hearing.

Rice said it was useless to dwell on past failures in Rwanda and Darfur. "I'm less interested in that than I am in working very hard ... to prevent genocide and to respond to genocide when it is occurring," she said. Since Sudan "has now the potential for large-scale violence again," she said, it is "rightly a focal point for ... genocide prevention."

But Rice, who led a U.N. Security Council mission to Sudan in October, admits the U.S. strategy still might not work. "Whether everybody learned lessons, my own personal view is that preventive action is crucial," she said. "It doesn't always succeed, but damn you for not trying."

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