Obama's Darfur Promise

During the campaign, when asked about the genocide in Darfur, Candidate Obama said, "We can't say 'never again' and then allow it to happen again. And, as President of the United States, I don't intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter." The candidate also spoke of "ratcheting up sanctions" and "organizing the European Union to be a part of those sanctions." His campaign's policy paper, titled the "Obama-Biden Plan," stated, "As president, Obama will take immediate steps to end the genocide in Darfur by increasing pressure on the Sudanese and pressure the government to halt the killing and stop impeding the deployment of a robust international force."

Fast forward to June 2009. Thus far, President Obama and his Administration have displayed no "immediate" response to the Darfur crisis or any willingness to "pressure" the Sudanese government. Instead we have seen stalls, delays and a very worrisome conciliatory tone in the U.S. response to the ongoing genocide in Darfur. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, Obama's Special Envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, has advocated easing some American sanctions and upgrading U.S. diplomatic relations with Sudan's government to induce cooperation.

Many Darfur activists, whose votes for Obama were influenced by his impassioned statements about the responsibility to act in the face of genocide, feel betrayed. Darfuris, who named babies after Obama and waited hopefully for him to take office, feel understandably abandoned.

Concern amongst grassroots activists (aka voters) as well as amongst the Darfuri refugees reached its peak this week due to comments made by Special Envoy Gration. During his first press conference, Gration not only contradicted both the President's and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.'s assessment of the crisis in Darfur as an "ongoing genocide" but also the facts when he stated that the aid levels have returned to nearly 100% of their previous levels before the forced expulsion of 13 foreign aid groups by the Government of Sudan.

In fact, according to John Holmes, the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, the new aid workers "have not yet replaced, and cannot easily or rapidly replace, the capacity and skills lost." Gration's description of the crisis as the "remnants of genocide" was also disproven in the latest report by U.N. human rights investigator, Sima Samar, covering from last August to her visit to Sudan earlier this month. This report accused Sudanese forces of continuing to carry out land and air attacks against civilians in Darfur, in violation of the world body's resolutions during the reported period. She cited reports that Sudan's security forces have arrested and tortured human rights activists and aid workers.

As if to underscore the points made in the report, on the day it was issued, members of the government's National Congress Party (NCP) brutally attacked female students from Darfur who had convened a meeting in the dormitory at the University of Khartoum to discuss crimes of the government against the people of Darfur. Female NCP supporters accompanied by male security agents disguised in female attire attacked the Darfuri female students with iron bars, bats, and knives. Many were seriously injured.

Some grassroots activist leaders together with Darfuri leaders in IDP camps are calling for Gration's replacement. In a letter to President Obama, Martina Knee, a member of the Executive Committee of the San Francisco Bay Area Darfur Coalition writes:

"Since the appointment of General Gration, the Government of Sudan has bombed Darfuri villages and Chad, sentenced over 100 Darfuris to death after unfair trials, censored its media, and arrested and detained human rights activists in unknown locations. His approach to Sudan has emboldened this genocidal regime who he treats as rational actors. He ignores the 20-year history of tyranny, slaughter and broken agreements."

Whether Gration's statements represent a dramatic shift in the Administration's policy or were merely careless or misinformed, they indicate clearly that Obama's attention to the Darfur crisis is missing. It is hard to imagine such a serious misstep taking place in a press conference held by George Mitchell on the Middle East or by Richard Holbrooke on Afghanistan. Instead, when it comes to the Administration's response to the first genocide of the 21st century, the usually well-oiled machine seems to need a mechanical overhaul.

Five months into his presidency, the people of Darfur have waited long enough for Barack Obama to keep the promises of his candidacy. Victims of genocide deserve the immediate and direct involvement of the President himself. Many may argue correctly that the President has other pressing issues before him and cannot possibly engage with them all immediately. However, in his own words "ongoing genocide" carries with it the "moral imperative" to act.

The facts speak for themselves. Government of Sudan (GoS) planes are bombing defenseless Darfuri refugees in camps in Chad and its own citizens in IDP camps in Darfur. More than three months after the GoS expelled 13 foreign aid groups from the country, 1.5 million people are still waiting for adequate food, water, sanitation and medical care to be restored. Efforts to convene a civil society conference on Darfur with the aim of building what its organizers call "a mandate for peace" were derailed by the GoS. The GoS executed nine men on April 1, who may have been innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Over 70 more men await a similar fate. Their confessions were reported to have been extracted under torture.

Five months after the inauguration, the U.S. State Department, still hasn't completed its lengthy review or unveiled its long-awaited Sudan policy. And the Special Envoy, a man with no prior experience with Sudan or diplomacy, seems to be marching to his own conciliatory tune.

This disarray in policy could not come at a worse time. The Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court has warned that a decision by the Court is imminent on whether to add a genocide charge against Sudan's president Omer al Bashir to the other already approved charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. According to experts at the Enough Project, "many fear the response from Khartoum, which could result in either a government seeking retribution or a government emboldened. As one source put it: 'I read this as a warning to the international community to get prepared.'"

Yet we are not prepared. President Obama -- it is time for you to step in. You must lead the United States and the international community to ensure peace in Darfur and in all of Sudan. You made a promise to the people of Darfur and to the many American voters who care about them. Please keep it. Otherwise, as you said during the campaign, it will be "a stain on all our souls."