Forced evacuations and mass rapes; brutal ethnic killings and rampaging militias; oil profits and arms sales. The deadly mix of politics, economics, and insecurity has displaced 1.6 million people and killed tens of thousands in the Darfur region of western Sudan since early 2003. The United Nations recently described Darfur as the "world's worst humanitarian crisis."
This is not a humanitarian crisis. It is a war. Humanitarian assistance, in the absence of political and military engagement, can actually exacerbate the conflict.
The label "humanitarian crisis" conveniently absolves the rest of the world from taking political and military action in Darfur. By providing generous humanitarian assistance, governments and the UN claim to take meaningful action. But genocide cannot be resolved by donating blankets and food to the potential victims.
A purely humanitarian approach can worsen the war in three ways. First, it obscures the political and strategic importance of refugee populations as potentially destabilizing forces. Second, a humanitarian response empowers militants and fuels a war economy. And last, by dispatching aid workers rather than soldiers and politicians, governments increase the security threats faced by charitable organizations.
The crisis has now spread outside Sudan's borders and threatens to ignite a regional conflict. An estimated 200,000 Sudanese refugees have escaped from Darfur across the border into Chad. Policymakers and aid organizations lament the miserable situation of these refugees.
In addition to the human misery they embody, the refugees also have the potential to spread the conflict further. Refugees present a political obstacle to the Sudanese government and a political opportunity to the rebel forces. The mere presence of the refugees represents a potent indictment of the Sudanese regime. In response to the perceived threat, Sudanese forces have raided the refugee camps and nearby Chadian villages. If sufficiently provoked by cross-border attacks, Chad could enter the conflict. An international war will be even harder to resolve and contain than the current civil war.
The UN has broadcast desperate appeals for increased funding for basic necessities - such as tents, food, and medical care. It should also appeal for improved border security to prevent the spread of war.
Humanitarian assistance empowers the combatants when they control aid distribution. The combatants - both the Khartoum government and rebel forces - have used humanitarian assistance as a bargaining chip. The Sudanese Army and police have repeatedly raided camps for internally displaced civilians, brutally dispersing the residents. This prevents aid organizations from providing assistance - and from documenting human rights abuses committed during the raids.
Rebel groups in Darfur also routinely prevent humanitarian organizations from accessing desperate civilians. In some cases, rebels have detained aid workers until they met their captors' demands for more access to aid resources. Rebels also routinely loot relief supplies including fuel, medicine, and food. Control over the displaced people, and the aid meant to sustain them, has become an essential weapon in the conflict.
Cease-fire violations have made much of the Darfur region unsafe for aid deliveries. In December, two employees of Save the Children died when attackers deliberately targeted a clearly marked convoy of humanitarian aid vehicles. The charity Doctors without Borders also lost two staff members to violence in the past three months. As security conditions worsen, more and more aid agencies have withdrawn from the war zone.
The international response has been paltry. The UN Security Council called on the Sudanese government to disarm the militias and protect aid deliveries. But the weakly worded resolution lacked enforcement mechanisms to back up those demands. The UN General Assembly collectively avoided responsibility by refusing to vote on a measure that condemned human rights abuses in Sudan. The 1,000 African Union troops presently in Darfur do not have a mandate to use force to protect civilians. They are meant to deter war crimes simply by their presence.
Despite their official neutrality in the conflict, it is the humanitarian groups that are pressing for greater political and military action. Oxfam condemned recent Security Council resolutions as tepid responses. In retaliation, Khartoum expelled Oxfam's country director. InterAction, the American nongovernmental organization clearinghouse, implored President Bush to provide funding and support for the African Union mission.
The only point that all parties agree on is that civilians are suffering in Darfur. Therefore, as a compromise measure, the international community has deployed humanitarian organizations to fill the political and military policy vacuum. Unfortunately, treating the war purely as a humanitarian disaster only fuels the conflict.
• Sarah Kenyon Lischer is a professor of government at Sweet Briar College. Her new book, 'Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid,' will be published in February.