WASHINGTON — The Sudanese government's genocidal campaign to expunge African tribes from its western provinces ripples with impunity. More than 1 million people have been uprooted from their homes, 30,000 have been killed, women have been systematically raped, children kidnapped to be used as slaves, farms burned, villages looted, and water sources contaminated with decomposing corpses. The brutality punctuates the unmistakable message: Don't come back.
The situation is going to get worse. The approaching rainy season threatens to strand large numbers of the displaced without access to food, medical supplies, and other basic necessities in a barren land soon to be an impassable slop. Aid agencies estimate that 350,000 to 1 million people could die from starvation and disease, conveniently advancing the government's aims while masking culpability - a technique Khartoum has perfected from its decades-long conflict in the south. Besides, time is on the unelected government's side: A prolonged displacement of black Africansprovides the opening for Darfur to be Arabized, as nomadic Arab tribes move into the area.
Obviously, there is cause for international action. But let's be clear about the goal: This crisis is entirely politically generated - and demands a political solution.
Much effort has focused on getting emergency supplies to refugees in the desolate border area with Chad. While meritorious, this is, in effect, treating the symptom. The objective of international engagement on Darfur should be to get the displaced back home - immediately. An early return provides them with a better chance of survival. It gives them access to their salvageable crops, wild foods, jobs, and repairable water and sanitation systems; traditional social and trading networks can also be recreated. Extended exposure to the overcrowded, unhygienic, and insecure conditions in centers for refugees and displaced persons is a recipe for death and despair - not to mention a Herculean challenge for humanitarian organizations. Moreover, once Arab settlers have moved in, resolution becomes far more difficult.
The US and other international actors have called on Sudan to rein in the Arab "Janjaweed" militias responsible and to provide security for the displaced. This is the political equivalent of imploring the fox to guard the henhouse. The Sudanese government has been directly involved in the killings. And it has a long history of sponsoring local militias to destabilize regions of the country and, for that matter, neighboring African countries, with which it is at odds. This "outsourcing" of military operations provides the government a low-cost and plausibly deniable device for advancing its political aims. Counting on the government to ensure the security of a population it wants to exterminate is reminiscent of recent government-sponsored pogroms in Kosovo, Kurdish northern Iraq after the Gulf War, and East Timor.
The upshot: by the predatory and abusive violation of its citizens, the dictatorial government of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, like those of Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, has relinquished its claims of sovereignty in Darfur.
So international efforts should aim at compelling the government to vacate the region, making Darfur a UN protectorate for the moment. A "no-fly zone" should be declared for the region. World leaders have done this in other cases of forced mass displacement - and a less vigorous response in Sudan raises questions of why they turn a blind eye to genocide only in Africa.
The Bashir government has one advantage over the likes of Milosevic and Hussein, however. Khartoum knows how to read the writing on the wall: In the face of overwhelming international condemnation, Khartoum has a history of adapting its egregious behavior. It expelled an increasingly notorious Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s, made amends with its neighbors when its complicity in the assassination attempt of Hosni Mubarak in 1995 was publicized, and has positioned itself on the side of the US in the war on terror following the Sept. 11 attacks.
The key for the international community, therefore, is to make sure the writing on the wall is clear in the case of Darfur. Secretary of State Colin Powell's planned visit to Darfur Wednesday is a vital opportunity to drive home this point.
As with the other instances of the international community rolling back ethnic cleansing, decisive action is required: Action from the US - and, indispensably, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the European Union, and the African Union (AU). Politically, all of these actors must unambiguously and forcefully condemn the ethnic cleansing in Darfur. Having violated the terms of membership, Sudan should be prevented from voting in the UN. And its leaders must be held personally accountable. International travel by senior government officials and their families should be barred, their personal assets frozen, and the prospect of war-crimes charges against General Bashir and his ruling clique brandished.
The two black African rebel groups against whom the Sudanese government ostensibly launched its campaign must also be compelled to desist completely from any further aggression - which Khartoum has used as a pretext for their mass murder.
Economically, pending resolution of war-crimes charges, claims can be made against Sudan's oil exports for compensation to the victims in Darfur - as well as to reimburse the international community for the humanitarian resources expended to ameliorate this manufactured crisis. Simultaneously, sanctions against Sudan's oil exports can be instituted. Shippers caught transporting Sudanese oil would lose their tankers and cargo. The skyrocketing premiums on insurance and freight charges would surely add pressure on Sudan's primary customers - China, Malaysia, and South Korea - to curtail these purchases even if moral suasion alone would not.
Security, of course, is the major issue in returning displaced populations. While the AU has 120 peace monitors on the ground, this is inadequate to cover a region the size of France. Closer to 20,000 peacekeepers are required - backed by a UN resolution. Most could come from Africa. However, contributions from other regions would also be needed - ideal candidates being India, Britain, Canada, Australia, and the EU. The US, currently absorbed in Iraq and Afghanistan, should still provide logistical and financial support.
"Never again," is the mandate forever etched into our collective consciousness by the Holocaust. Yet, without an established international protocol for responding to genocide, honoring this mandate is never automatic - as we saw in Rwanda. Preventing it this time depends on a quorum of global leaders acting in unison. By so doing, they can prevent this disaster from becoming a catastrophe and forever staining their places in history.
• Joseph Siegle is the Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is coauthor of the forthcoming book, 'The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace.'