MOST Americans hear about the African nation of Sudan in the context of the heart-wrenching famine in the country's southern region, where 1.5 million people are at risk of starvation in coming months.
But the Bashir government in Sudan has more to account for than the famine. For four years it has sanctioned a wide range of human rights abuses, including executions, political imprisonment, and torture. Now it is time to bring strong international pressure to bear on Sudan for these abuses.
The United Nations and the United States Congress have recently focused on the atrocities in Sudan. Perhaps as a result, the Islamic government in Khartoum, facing swift economic decline and increasing world isolation, has shown some recent conciliatory gestures. Its unilateral cease-fire this week in the decade-long war against Christian and animist rebels in the south is only the latest example.
But Sudanese officials refuse to discuss the human rights abuses. This must change.
Since the Bashir government rose to power in 1989, hundreds of thousands of mostly non-Muslim squatters have been displaced from the edges of Khartoum where they had some access to food, water, and jobs - to desert camps where resources are even more scarce.
The Bashir regime must also answer for reports that an entire ethnic population in the Nuba mountains may have been wiped out. Human rights groups have charged rebel militias in the south with similar abuses.
The international community must follow up positive steps it has already taken. Earlier this month the United Nations Human Rights Commission voted to conduct a public investigation into rights abuses - a move that ranks Sudan among the worst cases in the world. The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa also recently held special hearings on Sudan.
Islamic extremism is much in the news, and Sudan is often seen as a haven for such influences. Humanitarian actions, however, should not be colored or mixed up with anti-Islamic concerns.
Sudan needs foreign aid: All but humanitarian assistance has been frozen, and the national debt well exceeds $12 billion.
Khartoum's sincerity should be tested. The Bashir regime must allow relief organizations access to all parts of the country.
Aid for Sudan's economy should be conditional on allowing such mobility.
Safe, unobstructed relief operations are a vital first step toward curbing rights abuses, averting large-scale famine, and bringing peace.