Safeguard Darfur refugees with unarmed UN monitors

The actions that government-backed militias in Sudan have taken against the Fur and other black African peoples of the Darfur - "home of the Fur" - region over the past year are truly outrageous. So it's easy to pin bad names on the militias and their government sponsors. What's harder, but more necessary, is crafting an effective international response that can stop the atrocities and help the people of Darfur return home and rebuild their lives in safety.

Some Americans have advocated a Kosovo-style military intervention. But military action by outsiders hasn't built long-term peace in Kosovo and is even less likely to do so in Darfur. (Also, there is zero prospect of governments contributing troops for such a mission.) We should look instead at an instrument that worked much better than the Kosovo force and adapt it for Darfur: UNMOVIC, the UN's unarmed but well-equipped Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission. It was established to check allegations that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was violating commitments regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Those allegations were fairly flimsy; very few were ever proven. But the prospect of the future massive destruction of human lives, should Iraq reacquire WMD, persuaded the Security Council to invest more than $80 million a year in that MOVIC.

Now, in Darfur, there is solid evidence that 30,000 lives have been lost in recent months. Those losses certainly count as a "massive destruction" of human life. The UN should therefore establish and adequately equip a new MOVIC that would "monitor, verify, and inspect" the Sudanese government's compliance with human rights norms and with the promises it made to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to disarm the militias and return Darfuri refugees home in safety.

"Returning home in safety" is key. The region's three-month rainy season has just started, making life in the makeshift refugee camps more squalid and hazardous. Risk of waterborne diseases rises daily; starvation looms. With roads washed out, distribution of relief supplies is a logistical nightmare. The US Agency for International Development has forecast that over the next nine months, 30 percent of the people in the camps could die.

The UN has been coordinating a massive relief operation for the more than 1 million people chased violently out of their homes but still living inside Darfur, and the 130,000 other Darfuri refugees in neighboring Chad. UN humanitarian affairs chief Jan Egeland launched an urgent appeal for helicopters to deliver needed aid. "I am surprised that many countries produce many more resolutions and declarations than actual hardware for our operation," he said Monday.

The refugees say they want to go home - as soon as they can do so safely. Everyone involved in the relief work agrees that would be the best outcome. Mr. Egeland and others say they hope the refugees can be home planting crops by May or June.

But safety - and equally important, a solid expectation of safety - is the crucial ingredient. That's where the proposal for a "human rights MOVIC" comes in. Such a team would not - as in Kosovo - use military force to return refugees. Instead, it would form a well-coordinated, highly visible - but unarmed - UN presence in Darfur to monitor the government's implementation of commitments to a province-wide disarmament of militias and the safe return of refugees. So far, the "joint implementation mechanism" agreed between Mr. Annan and the Sudanese government looks far weaker than that. All that it mandates are bimonthly meetings between the UN's chief officer in Sudan and the country's foreign minister.

In Iraq, by contrast, when the Security Council got serious about Baghdad implementing its WMD commitments, an appropriately serious MOVIC operation was mounted. That operation, at its height, deployed 202 staffers inside Iraq. They had excellent communications gear, capable cars, helicopters, and a fixed-wing airplane. It's true that Hussein stalled for three years before letting that MOVIC in. But Sudan is far weaker than Hussein. If Security Council members stand together, it's unlikely that Sudan would resist for long. Security Council members could start by giving the UN the helicopters it needs to distribute emergency aid in Darfur. That would send one strong signal of commitment.

The people of Darfur have suffered too long from the failure of their government to exercise basic responsibilities. Now it's time for new ideas and new commitment. A human rights MOVIC would be a good way forward.

Helena Cobban is working on a book about violence and its legacies.

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