The new United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki Moon, lists Darfur among his top priorities.
Putting an end to the violence there, which the United States calls "genocide," is also turning into the UN leader's first major test – of his credibility as a global moral force and of his ability to cajole the international community, and in this case Sudan, beyond words to action.
Mr. Ban is underscoring his commitment to resolving the conflict in Darfur by making the African Union summit, to be held in Ethiopia Monday, the focus of his first international trip. There he plans to meet Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and to press him to accept deployment of a "hybrid" African Union-UN force of 20,000 peacekeepers for the war-ravaged province.
UN officials say Ban, who has been in his job since Jan. 2, does not want to lose the "momentum" that was thought to have been made at the end of last year, when Mr. Bashir sent a letter to outgoing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in which he seemed to accept the idea of a hybrid force.
"The problem is that the Sudanese agree to things, but then they backtrack and dawdle. So the worry here is that they made a gesture but then saw they could use the change from Annan to Ban to stall," says one UN official close to the thinking in the secretary-general's office. "The idea will be to move ahead with what has already been approved," says the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ban's meeting with Bashir is a good first step, some analysts of conflict diplomacy say, but they add that he can do much more.
"The most important thing is to get countries to make significant pledges of troops for a Darfur force, so that it is something more than an idea approved last year by the Security Council," says Lee Feinstein, an expert in international institutions at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "That's something Ban can do that would send a particularly stern message of determination to the Sudanese."
Mr. Feinstein says that Ban, whose candidacy to the secretary-general's post was backed by both Washington and Beijing, should turn to China now for a troop commitment to a peacekeeping force in Darfur. Given Beijing's significant economic partnership with Khartoum, no other power could equal the message that would send, he adds.
Increasingly sensitive to its international image, China is openly discussing its growing involvement in Africa in general and in Sudan in particular. But it is also emphasizing that its cooperation toward a resolution of the Darfur conflict will be diplomatic and not military in nature.
Chinese President Hu Jintao announced this week his plans to visit Sudan next month for talks that will include the Darfur crisis.
Wang Guangya, the Chinese ambassador to the UN, who met with Ban this week in New York, says he made clear China's support for a diplomatic solution in Darfur.
"I told [Ban] we support him in setting his priority on Darfur, and that we will work with him for progress on that issue," Mr. Wang says. Referring to Sudan's recent hints of openness to outside involvement, he adds, "We have seen some important signals over the past few weeks, and I think we are seeing indications that we can expect more."
Ban also met this week with a Sudanese foreign-ministry official, registering his concern over continued aerial bombardments by the government of Sudan in north Darfur. He also brought up increasing harassment of and attacks on UN staff members in Darfur.
But pressure for more robust international action is mounting in other quarters. Several rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Save Darfur Coalition, are calling on the African Union to reject Sudan's candidacy for the presidency of the 53-member organization. In letters to AU countries, the groups said the AU's effectiveness and role in a Darfur resolution would be undermined with a Sudanese presidency.
At the same time, a bipartisan group of US senators is calling on President Bush to divulge any plans the administration has to strengthen its measures addressing the Darfur conflict. Andrew Natsios, presidential envoy for Darfur, had warned the Sudanese government in a Khartoum meeting last month that the US would move on to a new plan of more aggressive measures if Sudan did not begin opening up to a larger international force than the 7,000 soldiers the AU has in the vast western region.
Feinstein, who has authored a new paper on international responsibilities in internal conflicts like that in Darfur, says Ban must also start looking to changes that can help prevent future Darfurs. "Ban should use the advantage he has of the 'fresh start' to move ahead more long term on developing the means to prevent conflicts from becoming international tragedies, as Darfur has," he says.
Among other things, he says Ban should build on the UN General Assembly's adoption in 2005 of the so-called "responsibility to protect" doctrine, which calls on the international community to protect civilians in countries where the government is unable or unwilling to do so.