Jan Egeland, head of United Nations humanitarian operations, describes the region as "going from real bad to catastrophic" and "headed toward total chaos."
The top U.N. aid official says the level of violence faced by humanitarian workers is "unprecedented."
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan refers to the situation as "one of the worst nightmares in recent history," "the world's worst humanitarian crisis," and "little short of hell on earth."
No, they're not talking about the crisis in the Middle East, where the United Nations has just announced plans to dispatch a 15,000-strong international force to enforce a cease-fire in southern Lebanon. These are the latest reactions of U. N. officials to the unfolding genocide in Darfur.
Sadly, the alacrity with which the U.N. has taken action in the Middle East stands in stark contrast to its dithering in Darfur, where for three years the world body has used strong language to talk about a solution but done very little of substance to quell the violence.
In May, the U.N. did help broker the Darfur Peace Treaty, requiring the Sudanese government to disarm its genocidal militias and allow U.N. troops in to restore peace. Unfortunately, not only has the Darfur treaty deal failed to bring peace, it has actually triggered an increase in violence against civilians.
Only days after the agreement was signed, Sudanese Dictator Omar al-Bashir reversed course, declaring that the installation of U.N. peacekeepers, "shall never take place." He also promised to make Darfur "a graveyard" for any outside force, further emboldening the government militias that roam the countryside, seizing every opportunity to rape, pillage and kill, their attacks becoming more frequent and more deadly each day. After a July exploratory mission to Darfur, U.N. Head of Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Gueheno warned that the risk of "major violence...after the rainy season is quite real, very real." The violence over the last 100 days has displaced more than 50,000 Dafuris, forcing many to seek refuge in Chad, Sudan's western neighbor, where hundreds of thousands are already seeking refuge.
What's more, the Sudan Liberation Movement, the only rebel faction to sign the peace agreement, now stands accused of carrying out bloody raids in northern Darfur in an attempt to punish those rebel groups that did not sign on. These attacks include rape and murder of innocent civilians, the familiar weapons of Bashir's militias.
Adding to the misery, international aid agencies report a marked increase in the number and severity of attacks on international aid workers providing water, food and medical care to the 3.5 million refugees who depend on them to survive. A new U.N. report states that more aid workers in Darfur have been killed in the past month than in the previous three years combined. Citing security concerns, aid workers have effectively ended relief efforts in many areas. Oxfam recently announced closure of two of its six offices in the north of Darfur because of the abduction of a Sudanese staff member. Meanwhile, insufficient funding has forced the World Food Program to cut food rations in half for the six million it feeds.
Spiraling violence, fewer aid workers, and the onset of the raining season have also caused a rise in malnutrition and the spread of water-borne disease, and there is an outbreak of cholera on the verge of exploding in a number of refugee camps.
While the situation on the ground deteriorates, the United Nations is sending mixed signals. On the one hand, the U.N. continues to reiterate its plan to install a large and highly mobile peacekeeping force in Darfur "as soon as possible." On the other hand, it recently pushed back until January 2007 its estimated time of arrival in Darfur.
The U.N. justifies its inaction by periodically calling for increases in funding for the African Union force already on the ground in Darfur. But the African Union cannot bring peace. Seven thousand troops currently patrol Darfur, a sprawling piece of desert the size of Texas. This means each soldier patrols an area roughly the size of Manhattan. Worse, when A.U. soldiers witness an attack, they do not have a mandate to intervene, just to observe and report. Not surprisingly Mr. Bashir has welcomed extending the A.U.'s presence in Darfur, even offering to pay for it. Meanwhile, the A.U. itself realizes how outmatched it is and, facing bankruptcy, has appealed to the U.N. to deploy its troops "as soon as possible."
Despite its lack of success, the May peace agreement is the last, best hope for peace in Darfur. Too much time and too many resources were expended (including considerable efforts by the United States) to see it come to nothing. But, as Kofi Annan and much of the international community readily admit, the window of opportunity provided by the agreement is quickly closing. A minimum of 20,000 troops is needed in Darfur, and these troops need robust rules of engagement and authorization to use force against the governmentâ€™s marauding militias and restore peace.
At a time when much of the world's diplomatic efforts are focused on the crisis in the Middle East, there is a real danger of forgetting that genocide persists in Darfur. Nicholas Kristof recently reported that the war in Lebanon has received more airtime in the media each week than the Darfur crisis has gotten in total since it commenced in 2003. There are also fewer calls for U.N. intervention in Darfur. According to LexisNexis, the media have mentioned "U.N. peacekeepers" and "Lebanon" in the same news article over one thousand times in the last month, while "Darfur" and "U.N. peacekeepers" have been mentioned together just 144 times.
It took the U.N. just four weeks to negotiate a "cessation of hostilities" in Lebanon. As the genocide in Darfur enters its fourth year, it's past time the world body enforced the peace agreement that would end the bloodshed in the most hostile place on earth.
Daniel Allott is a writer and policy analyst for American Values, a Washington, D.C. area public policy organization.