First things first in helping Darfur

Any action directed at the situation in Sudan should focus on ending the ongoing violence.

No authority has the right solution for the atrocities in Sudan. But the Bush administration’s proposal comes close. While a judicial body must hold the perpetrators in Sudan accountable, the focus should first be on stopping the violence.

A U.N. commission report last week refused to call the violence in Darfur “genocide.” Sudanese Arabs, specifically the Janjaweed militia, are using murder, forced displacement and rape, among other tactics, against African tribes, with the Sudanese government’s unofficial support. Intuitively, this seems like genocide, and the United States labeled it as such. But the commission’s report concluded the requisite specific intent was not present, at least not in the government’s actions. In other words, the Sudanese government supports violence against African tribes but does not seek their annihilation. How nice.

The report recommended the Security Council refer the matter to the International Criminal Court. While the atrocities are what the court exists to deal with, this is only a partial solution. Referring ongoing crimes against humanity to the court is like serving a serial killer with a subpoena without arresting him or her. Courts are good at holding wrongdoers accountable after the fact; they are institutionally poorly suited to stop violence.

The Bush administration proposes a three-pronged attack: an accountability tribunal (but not the International Criminal Court), economic sanctions on Sudan’s oil industry and deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force. The plan’s weakness is rejecting the court. The United States is concerned that a legitimized International Criminal Court could seek politically motivated prosecutions of U.S. citizens in the future. Politically motivated trials are as old as law. But the International Criminal Court is structured against such problems. The United States should drop its categorical rejection of the court and instead use its considerable diplomatic capital to influence its structure and, if necessary, deal with a bad-faith prosecution when one occurs.

What the U.S. plan offers, and the U.N. report sorely lacks, is a solution for the ongoing death and destruction. Economic sanctions will encourage the Sudanese government to protect all its citizens. A peacekeeping force would make them do so.

The administration should agree to not veto the use of the International Criminal Court, in exchange for the Security Council also mandating economic sanctions and threatening peacekeepers. This might be politically difficult, but it is absolutely necessary. A judicial solution might work in the long term, but it is wholly unacceptable to current and future victims in Sudan.