With time running out on the African Union's peacekeeping force in Darfur, the United Nations may find out if the international community has the ability to stop renewed genocide.
A decade after the world looked on as hundreds of thousands of people died in Rwanda and Bosnia, Sudan's region of Darfur is emerging as a test of whether the world can do better this time. Key governments are pressing Sudanese authorities in Khartoum to accept an extension of the African Union force's mandate that runs out at the end of the month. Such a move, international leaders hope, would give time for a more sizable UN force, already approved by the Security Council, to prepare and deploy.
But Khartoum so far shows no signs of giving in to international pressure, instead lambasting foreign intervention as neocolonialism, and commencing an offensive to take on rebel forces in the region.
The showdown, which is likely to run into next week's UN General Assembly opening session here, is shaping up as a signature 21st- century battle pitting national sovereignty against international authority and an expanding sense of humanity's right to protection.
At a Security Council session focused on the Darfur conflict Monday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the first casualty of a failure to intervene would be the people of Darfur – 200,000 of which have already been killed or allowed to starve to death. "But the government itself will also suffer if it fails in its sacred responsibility to protect its own people," Mr. Annan said.
In the unusually forceful speech, he also said, "The humanitarian gains of the last two years [in Darfur] are being rolled back." Emphasizing that "my voice alone will not convince the government" in Khartoum to call off its offensive and accept a renewed and fortified international presence, Annan urged all Council members to "rise to the occasion."
The United States has been leaning on the Sudanese government to accept the UN force. Last month, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer was kept waiting for days in Khartoum by President Omar al-Bashir, who claimed he was too busy with other matters. He finally received her, only to rebuff the American plea.
President Bush has upped the ante, offering to meet with Mr. Bashir when both leaders are expected to attend next week's General Assembly debate. But Bashir may not be anxious to meet a leader who two years ago accused his regime of genocide in Darfur, analysts say.
Since then, the international community has accepted the characterization of the violence in Darfur as genocide.
While Bashir may not be open to Western pressure, he does appear to pay closer attention to regional leaders, some UN officials say, which is why they say Annan places such strong emphasis on "the neighborhood" getting involved.
Indeed, many leaders are counting on the efforts of Egypt, which was instrumental in gaining Khartoum's acceptance of the African Union force. Egyptian officials say they believe agreement with Sudan can still be achieved, but they do not favor imposition of an international force.
"We agree that this is an international emergency that must be addressed, but we see that over the long term it will be much more beneficial to everyone to have people cooperating," says Egypt's ambassador to Washington, Nabil Fahmy.
Egypt is "sensitive" to Sudan's concerns about its sovereignty, but Ambassador Fahmy adds that Khartoum's acceptance of the African Union force is also something the international community can build on. And as a country with soldiers already in Darfur, Egypt is keen to see an international presence remain there. "Not having a force at all is not a useful formula," Fahmy says.
Yet with the clock ticking, more voices are calling for the UN to send a force even if Khartoum does not accept it. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and former Sen. Bob Dole said in an opinion piece in The Washington Post Sunday that the Bush administration should press the UN to draw up such contingency plans.
Africa specialists say there is little mystery as to what will happen in Darfur if the African Union force leaves with no international replacement. "This would create a very serious security vacuum, and a security vacuum the [Sudanese] government is very eager to fill," says Suliman Valdo, director of the Africa program of the International Crisis Group in New York.
Khartoum is already bombing civilian targets in Darfur, he says, while preparing to send in more than 25,000 troops to wipe out rebels who are not party to a negotiated peace accord, he adds.
That is not a scenario that Annan wishes to see play out as he prepares to leave his post at the end of the year, aides say. They add that Annan believes the world has made progress on humanitarian issues over the past decade, but that Darfur could be its undoing.
"One of the ideas he has promoted is that a government has the responsibility to protect its people," according to one UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But if a government can't or is unwilling to do that, then other countries have the moral responsibility to step in."
The international community can begin by enforcing steps it has already taken against the Sudanese government, Mr. Valdo says. "The world community should immediately enforce the targeted sanctions the Security Council has already approved," he says. "If they don't do that, then the humanitarian disaster is what will unfold."