Originally published in the Chicago Tribune on May 30, 2004, MacArthur President Jonathan Fanton discusses the situation Darfur.

The world recently marked the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide with wide expressions of collective remorse for the international community's failure to stop state-sanctioned butchery in Central Africa.

Today, I am troubled by the idea that the international community is better at commemorating genocides than stopping crimes against humanity. Even as we remember Rwanda, the worlds reticence to take decisive steps in Sudan risks another moral catastrophe, and thousands of avoidable deaths in another remote African nation. 

I visited Rwanda in 2002, where I spent time at a genocide memorial located in the small town of Gikongoro.  In July 1994, 50,000 Tutsis sought refuge at a boarding school there; almost all of them met a violent death during a two-night rampage. 

I saw rooms that now house 27,000 skeletons exhumed from a mass grave, skeletons that reveal where a machete had cut a throat or sliced a skull, skeletons with clenched teeth showing the anguish of a painful death.  In one room, a tarpaulin bearing the U.N. insignia covered an open window, shielding their bones from rain.  One could not escape the irony of the United Nations providing protection in death, but not in life.

It is against that sad history that we confront Sudans fate.

The facts are stark. As documented in a new report from Human Rights Watch, government troops and government-backed Arab militias, the Janjaweed, are engaged in a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, a large region of western Sudan. Government forces and Janjaweed militias are killing, raping, and destroying the homes of black African civilians from the Fur, Masaalit, and Zaghawa ethnic groups. They are attacking villages with helicopters and planes, bombing residents, hunting down the survivors, and then burning whatever or whomever happens to remain. Some 30,000 have been killed already and more than a million have been displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands more risk death from disease and starvation as the Sudanese government blocks their access to humanitarian aid.

These crimes must be stopped. The world has a responsibility to protect Sudanese civilians from the campaign of ethnic hatred and violence coordinated by their government. And we have a duty to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe that looms on the horizon.

The unfolding tragedy need not end this way. Having studied the lessons of our collective failure in Rwanda, the world is much better equipped to take concrete, preventive measures to avert humanitarian disasters in places like Sudan. But in order to avoid greater devastation, the international community especially the United Nations Security Council must act quickly to apply the principles articulated in an important UN document, The Responsibility to Protect.

Following the Rwandan genocide and at the encouragement of Kofi Annan, the Government of Canada, with support from a group of major foundations, including MacArthur, established the International Commission on State Sovereignty and Humanitarian Intervention. The Commission asked the simple but profound question: when a state fails to protect its own people or worse, assaults them what is the international communitys obligation to act, even intervene; what steps, including intervention, are justified; and how should these actions be conducted and coordinated?

The Responsibility to Protect, lays the intellectual foundation for changing assumptions about the worlds obligations.  It articulates a primary duty for the international community: to prevent such crises, using evidence of egregious human rights abuses as an early warning.  A patient set of non-military steps is identified fact-finding missions, international appeals, political and economic sanctions, arms embargoes, seizure of assets giving the world community options it must exhaust before reacting with appropriate military means.  Many of these options still exist in Sudan, but the window of opportunity is quickly closing.

Sudan represents a test of how committed the world really is to these evolving norms and of how deeply they are taking hold, because the case for applying them is clear. Despite recent expressions of outrage over Sudans preposterous election to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the international community is once again woefully derelict in its duty to act.

The principles of the responsibility to protect are reflected in the recommendations from Human Rights Watch: the United Nations Security Council should adopt immediately a resolution demanding an enforceable ceasefire in Darfur and providing for the unrestricted delivery of humanitarian assistance to those who have been displaced, creating an environment for their safe return. An international human rights monitoring mission must then report publicly on abuses and violations of humanitarian law in Darfur. And UN member states, international humanitarian agencies, and non-governmental organizations should contribute personnel, equipment, and funding to these efforts.

Great damage has already been done in Darfur, but an even greater calamity can be avoided. For those already affected, the tragedy cannot be undone. But the international community must still fulfill its responsibility to protect those who remain defenseless in the face of aggression. The world must act in western Sudan before it is again too late.

Human Rights & International Justice, Africa, Human Rights