01/12/2012 02:58 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Western Amnesia Encourages Atrocity in Sudan

After the Holocaust, Western nations raised the rallying cry of 'never again.' Originally intended as a covenant -- eternal, unbreakable -- the phrase has actually become a mantra, endlessly repeated. 'Never again' we pronounce after each successive genocide, with greater fervor and rising desperation. Implicit in the pledge is the promise to remember the past. Never again will we repeat our listless response to atrocity. We will not forget the mass graves, emaciated survivors, hellish camps. Remembering the ultimate modern crime was supposed to prevent the dissipation of horror and the return of indifference. It hasn't.

Apparently, the world has amnesia in the case of Sudan. We do not remember the nearly two million dead or the grueling years of negotiations that brought a fragile peace between the North and the South (even though stability is unraveling in a stealthy parade of so-called sporadic skirmishes). Over 400,000 people have fled their homes due to those skirmishes. Just imagine what will result from sustained combat. We assure ourselves that these are the birth pangs of the newly independent South Sudan. Or that a rebel overthrow of the repressive Sudanese government in the north could herald democracy. We tell ourselves not to overreact or overcommit. With so many other crises clamoring for attention -- North Korea, Iraq, Somalia -- forgetfulness seems the most prudent course.

The Sudanese do not have amnesia. Their memories are sharp -- and their fears even sharper. The past looms over their land like a brooding, malevolent spirit.

Yet, once again, we wait -- as though the outcome is undecided. As though this time, relying on past experience will prove misleading. Indifference now will deal a fatal blow to the 2005 agreement that promised a chance to rebuild a shattered land. Internal conflict between northern rebels and the Sudanese government already infects the newly independent South. After recent fighting, refugees fleeing conflict crossed into South Sudan, hoping for safety. Instead, a cross-border bombing raid from Sudan devastated their makeshift settlement. Each government accuses the other of sheltering hostile rebels. What a cruel irony if the peace accord merely transforms a civil war into an international war.

So why wait?

The situation is not without hope. The United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA), authorized for up to 4,000 Ethiopian troops, is mandated to protect civilians and monitor human rights in the disputed border region of Abyei. United Nations troops are stationed in South Sudan. They are tasked with addressing the communal violence among Southern groups which has led to the slaughter of civilians. These forces require much more support in terms of logistics, supplies, mandate, and diplomatic back-up. Western nations should leverage the resources already in the region.

The world can shine a spotlight on Sudan. We can bring the human rights atrocities to center stage. Sustained global focus on the crisis may prevent the region from transforming again into a theater of war. However, those who remember past indifference wonder if such focus is likely now.

In the wings, the altruists impotently bide their time. After the conflict becomes untenable, the politicians, with self-congratulatory fanfare, send in the humanitarians. Always underfunded and under-supplied. The humanitarians witness the suffering and atrocities. They can staunch the former, but not the latter. The army of aid workers bandages survivors, buries the dead, counsels the rape victims, and feeds the orphans. Western nations claim great advances if they convince hard-hearted governments to allow food and medicine into the war zones. This is pitiful progress in the face of the encroaching war. More is required from the most powerful nations on earth.

If we cannot promise 'never again' to all the world's victims of atrocity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide, we can at least remember Sudan. Continued amnesia will surely bring delusion and disaster.