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11 August 2004

Steps for Saving Lives in Sudan

Op-ed column in August 11 Washington Post

(This column by Senator Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican and Senate majority leader, was published in The Washington Post August 11 and is in the public domain. No republication restrictions.)

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Steps for Saving Lives in Sudan

By Bill Frist

I have spent the past few days on a fact-finding mission to the region of Darfur in western Sudan. I met the regional leaders, visited a refugee camp in Chad not far from the Sudanese border and talked with survivors -- mostly women and children -- of attacks by militias commonly known as Janjaweed. Their stories are horrific, and in most cases much the same: Janjaweed assaults are preceded by aerial attacks by government aircraft. In some cases, soldiers in government uniforms are present and references are made to "orders from Khartoum." Survivors tell of racial slurs as the militia sweeps through the villages.

The growing toll is by now familiar to many: Tens of thousands have been killed, more than a million forced from their homes, and hundreds of villages razed. The crimes committed also include mass rape, the slaughter of young boys and the destruction of village after village.

The dictatorship in Khartoum claims it has no control over the Janjaweed, but it continues to neglect the first responsibility of every government: to protect its people. Unless the genocide in Darfur is halted immediately, tens of thousands more will die before the end of the year. The rainy season makes roads impassable for relief convoys and facilitates the spread of waterborne disease. The United States has provided more than 80 percent of the supplies now flowing to Darfur and eastern Chad, and has sent more than $140 million to aid the refugees. Humanitarian supplies may soon dry up unless other nations quickly fulfill their commitments.

Further, there is a good chance that this conflict could spill over into neighboring states and create instability in the region. Sudan's actions inflame ethnic tensions and impose an exceptional burden on local communities across its borders. Sudan's policies are creating turmoil in regional governments and populaces, some of whom identify with or are ethnically related to the oppressed peoples of Sudan.

The first step toward addressing this problem is to provide adequate security for the refugees to return home and for relief workers to assist them. Khartoum must abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1556: It must disarm (and disband) the militias and bring those responsible for their crimes to justice. It must provide unfettered access to humanitarian workers. And it must begin the political process critical to permanently resolving the differences between the Khartoum regime and the non-Arab peoples of Darfur.

Despite Khartoum's claims that it cannot meet the U.N. deadline, I believe it could do so in a matter of days. But given the government's likely motives, its failure to live up to previous agreements and its past practices, we should not rely on the Khartoum regime alone to fulfill its obligations. Nor can we rely on escalatory steps such as economic sanctions to pressure Khartoum as it employs dilatory and diversionary tactics to complete its final solution.

The crisis in Darfur is a regional problem that demands an African remedy. It requires forces capable of providing security in a timely and credible manner. Such a remedy is available. Forces led by the African Union (AU) are already deploying to the region. They can be complemented by troops from Khartoum and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which stands ready to provide thousands of well-trained soldiers to protect the people of Darfur.

The Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) is in a unique position to help. During one of the world's longest running civil wars, the SPLA fought Sudanese forces to a standstill. In June the Sudanese government and SPLM signed a historic peace accord that includes creating SPLA-GOS (government of Sudan) integrated units. Creating a security force for Darfur would merely accelerate this peace-building initiative.

Having been victimized by Khartoum for decades, the southern Sudanese understand the plight of their fellow citizens in Darfur. Khartoum claims it does not have the capacity to protect the people of Darfur. The southern Sudanese are eager and ready to provide the balance of forces.

Finally, logistical support for these AU-led forces could be provided by world nations as necessary. This formula builds on available resources and serves the needs of the people of Darfur. It also serves the interests of the region. It should be pursued immediately under U.N. auspices.

As a U.S. senator and a physician who has practiced medicine throughout Sudan, I am convinced that time is not on the side of the people of Darfur nor the countries of the region. A wise man told me recently that genocide is what they call it after the killing is over; it is usually followed by a solemn promise of "never again." Action must be taken while there is still reason to act.

(The writer, a Republican from Tennessee, is the Senate majority leader.)

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