In Sudan crisis, a duty to intervene?

Americans are pained by a crisis more easily deplored than fixed.

As public figures representing millions of evangelical Christians, Richard Cizik and Gary Edmonds generally see eye-to-eye on moral issues - except perhaps when it comes to mass killings in 2004.

Staggering reports from the Darfur region of Sudan - where as many as 1 million Africans could die this year - have increased pressure on people of conscience to respond.

Mr. Cizik is so troubled, he says, he is considering trespassing on the Sudanese Embassy steps this month to call for military intervention. "It's just not my style" to practice civil disobedience, says Cizik, a lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals. "But this situation calls for dramatic action."

Meanwhile Mr. Edmonds, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, says he too is concerned about rape, murder and starvation in Darfur, but politics limit what he can say - to the point that he dare not use the label "genocide."

"There are just sensitivities," Edmonds says. To advocate sending troops could alienate both pacifists and supporters of a peace brokered with Khartoum to protect Christians in south Sudan.

Mixed responses even among like-minded groups provide a glimpse of a nation wrestling with a faraway crisis more easily deplored than fixed.

On the one hand, daily protests and a series of high-profile arrests illustrate a growing desire for immediate action. On the other, some charitable and church groups stand with the United Nations in so far refusing to speak of "genocide" - because that would compel a no-holds-barred intervention.

As always, moral arguments weigh against practical considerations. Can the Janjaweed militia be stopped? Can thousands of refugees be saved before the rainy season? Should the US send more troops to the developing world? Can America afford to battle with yet another Arab state?

But for moral watchdogs who invoke comparisons to the Holocaust, one question looms large: Can a moral people stand by and watch one race eradicate another?

"If you see genocide happening and make speeches saying 'never again,' and then say it is happening again, there's a moral imperative to act," says Hadar Harris, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University. "But moral imperatives sometimes don't have the same resonance as political interests do. No one's going to be voted out of office because a million people were killed."

Sudan has for 20 years endured a bloody civil war, but atrocities skyrocketed in early 2003 when, according to Human Rights Watch, government-backed militias wrought revenge upon organizing rebels.

Marauding bands have systematically burned life-sustaining resources from homes to blankets, sending refugees to mountaintops and neighboring countries.

Meanwhile, other sources say Arab newcomers have arrived to till the land, reportedly in exchange for promised ownership, rounding out a process Human Rights Watch terms "ethnic cleansing" being carried out against the African Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups.

Suliman Giddo remembers his native Darfur as an area as large as Texas, where various tribes lived in peaceful co- existence. Now he has lost contact with family. His aunt fled to Chad, but he has not heard from her.

"The game is to undermine peace among the tribes" in a strategy to "Arabize" all of Sudan by 2070, said Mr. Giddo, founder of American-based Darfur Peace and Development group. "It's not like regular war. The government, with the Janjaweed, are killing people and replacing them."

Death tolls for the year have climbed rapidly to current estimates of 30,000, yet the strife went largely unnoticed in the West until this spring and summer.

Only periodic news reports had emerged from regions where journalists were prohibited. Even those reports that did document unspeakable carnage were often drowned out by larger headlines from the war on terror.

"Our eyes have been primarily on trying to stop war in Iraq and work for peace between Israelis and Palestinians," says the Rev. Bob Edgar, who opted for arrest at the Sudan Embassy last week in his role as general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

"The attention span of the Christian community was waning, not because we didn't care, but because resources were limited" due in part, he said, to dwindling church budgets.

April 2004, however, piqued consciences far beyond Sudan, as groups gathered to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, which claimed an estimated 800,000 lives. Speakers at events throughout the US used the occasion to call upon the world to intervene in Sudan before it is again too late.

Since then, the crisis has escalated, and campaigns for intervention have gradually gained currency in some mainstream circles. The United Methodist social action arm has deemed the situation "genocide." Those voluntarily arrested over the past two months include US Congressmen Charles Rangel (D of New York) and Bobby Rush (D of Illinois), Hudson Institute fellow Michael Horowitz, and radio personality Joe Madison.

Demonstrations have grabbed attention in Boston, New York, and San Antonio, Texas. On July 22, as many as 1,000 activists are expected to feign a Darfur-style massacre in Washington, D.C.'s Layfayette Square in a "die-in."

Still, as a proposed congressional resolution declaring the Darfur situation "genocide" awaits a vote and the deadly rainy season begins, speculation persists as to why many Americans remain hesitant to get involved.

"I'm not sure if [the Darfur issue] is competing with Iraq, or if because it's Africa there's a subtle racial quality" to American indifference, says the Rev. Keith Roderick, coordinator of the Sudan Campaign, a coalition of groups that advocate intervention. "Iraq has made us gun shy of the idea of preemptive intervention.... [But] the US has to take the lead."

That argument, however, hasn't persuaded the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which frequently comments on international issues and recognizes much of the Darfur violence as consisting of Muslims killing Muslims. While the group endorses humanitarian relief efforts and the prospect of military intervention from the African Union, it declines to term the situation "genocide" or to advocate for US military intervention.

"We don't have enough knowledge of the situation to make judgments," says CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.

Meanwhile, those in the US who are calling for military intervention in the Sudan have praised the Bush Administration for sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to Darfur this month and for pressuring Sudan to rein in its militias.

But the US needs to do more, says Rabbi David Saperstein, and this time, he adds, the military could probably count on broad international support.

"A sense of intervening is far more on the consciousness of the American people" as a result of policy in Iraq, says Mr. Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

Although his group has not yet taken a stand on the issue, Saperstein says he personally has become convinced that sending US troops to Iraq has created less isolationism in America and fostered a more powerful commitment to shaping a better world. "I think it makes it more thinkable to intervene and do something in Sudan."

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