President Obama's approach to Sudan reached a new and shocking low last week when the US sent an official to the inauguration of Omar al-Bashir, a man indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Bashir's inauguration as president of Sudan followed an election that the United States and international observers uniformly acknowledged was neither free nor fair. As Seth Meyers of Saturday Night Live might say, "Really, Mr. President? Really!?! You actually believe that the United States of America should be represented at the inauguration of a man who rigged his election and is the sole sitting head of state wanted for war crimes by the ICC?? Really!?!
Human rights groups had urged countries to boycott the inauguration to demonstrate their commitment to international justice. On Friday, anti-genocide groups condemned the surprise decision by the US to send a representative. John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress, stated, "The administration missed an opportunity to build leverage and lead by example. An announcement a week before the inauguration that the US would not participate would have stiffened the spines of other wavering countries and highlighted the issue, reasserting US leadership on principle. Getting nothing in return for this reversal of long-standing US policy is baffling and ineffective diplomacy."
Indeed, Obama's dance of appeasement, or as he and his appointed Special Envoy, Retired General Scott Gration, like to call it, "engagement," is emboldening Bashir and his National Congress Party in Khartoum.
Since February, there have been widespread reports of a major Sudanese government air and ground offensive in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur. It is thought that 100,000 people have been made homeless by the Sudanese armed forces, and an unknown number of civilians are dead. The violence continues even now, but international peacekeepers have only made one attempt to find out what is going on there.
Belatedly, on a visit to Darfur on Saturday, John Holmes, the chief UN humanitarian official, emphasized the need for the Sudanese government to allow and facilitate access for humanitarian agencies and expressed serious concern over the safety of aid workers in Darfur. "The problem in eastern Jebel Marra is that we don't know what the situation is because we don't have access," he said.
Like the United States, the United Nations also took the low road regarding Bashir's inauguration. Following the United Nations announcement that it would send two high ranking officials to the ceremonies, more than 180 individual Darfuris and 24 Darfuri organizations issued a statement which read in part:
The United Nations announced that it will send the two highest ranking of its officials in Sudan to represent at AlBashir's inaugural ceremonies in Khartoum on the 27th of May. The two top U.N. officials, Haile Menkerios, head of the U.N. Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), and Ibrahim Gambari, joint head of the African Union/U.N. Mission in Darfur (UNAMID, will celebrate with the killer in Khartoum while the blood of our relatives is spilled in Jebel Marrah and Jebel Moon. We, the sons and daughters of those whose blood is spilled there in Darfur, believe that the soft policy of the American Administration towards Sudan sent the wrong signal to the United Nation, African Union, Arab League, and other international bodies.
The Obama administration's Sudan policy, announced in October 2009, clearly stated that tough benchmarks would be applied to Sudan, and that a committee of deputies from various cabinet agencies would assess progress "based on verifiable changes in conditions on the ground." However, according to Sudan Now, a campaign led by a group of prominent anti-genocide and human rights advocacy organizations, the current implementation of the US policy on Sudan has not addressed a number of extremely concerning developments in Sudan including clear indications that the national election was neither free nor fair, non-implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ongoing government attacks on civilians, ongoing obstruction by the Government of Sudan in access for aid workers and UN investigators to Darfur, and the resistance of the Government of Sudan to cooperate in any form with the International Criminal Court investigating war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Sudan.
In the face of inaction by the Obama administration, the Sudan Now campaign is urging members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to press Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice to lead US policy implementation in Sudan. As part of this effort, the Sudan Now campaign developed a series of 19 Facebook ads -- one for each member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- to run in each of the Senators' home states. The interactive ads link to a petition that asks the Senators to keep up the pressure on President Obama to empower Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice to provide their personal, sustained leadership in implementing the Obama administration's Sudan policy, including a renewed diplomatic push for peace backed by pressure-based leverage.
Most Sudan experts agree that a diplomatic push for peace backed by pressure-based leverage is the correct approach to bring both peace and justice to the people of Sudan. However, it does not appear that President Obama is listening to the experts. He appears to be listening to his Special Envoy who has encouraged the policy of appeasement which led to last week's disgraceful decision to send an American representative to Bashir's inauguration. It's long past time for President Obama to personally commit his attention and his administration's resources to resolving the crisis in Sudan. It is time for him to gather the opinions of a range of experts on the issue, rather than entrusting our Sudan policy to a man with no prior experience in diplomacy or in the region. It is time for the President to pay attention to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and to work to bring both peace and justice to the victims of the genocide in Darfur, as he promised them he would.