One hundred and ninety six peacekeepers from UNAMID, the joint AU/UN peacekeeping force for Darfur, are stationed in Muhajiriya, a rebel-held town of 30,000 in South Darfur. The government of Sudan has requested that UNAMID withdraw these troops, as it masses its military forces outside the town and uses airpower to bombard nearby camps for displaced persons. Thousands of civilians have gathered outside the UNAMID base in Muhajiriya, just as thousands gathered around similar bases in Rwanda and Bosnia. Khartoum’s intention is clear: a full-scale assault on Muhajiriya regardless of the cost to civilians. Given UNAMID’s mandate to protect civilians, it would be nothing short of a shameful capitulation for the UN to abandon its post or to allow the Sudanese government to militarily extort the suspension of the International Criminal Court case against President Bashir through these actions.
The international community, and the Obama administration, now faces a crucial moment. It can abandon 30,000 civilians to state-sponsored violence, or it can embrace its responsibility to protect and make sure that Muhajiriya does not become the next Srebrenica. Rather than withdrawing, UNAMID must immediately reinforce its presence in Muhajiriya, and the United States must spell out specific consequences for the Sudan if it does not immediately cease aerial bombings and abandon its plans for this offensive. This is a clear attempt by Khartoum to test the resolve of the Obama Administration in its early days, and the response of President Obama and the UN will determine the fate of thousands of Darfuris.
This is a moment of real danger, but also a real opportunity for the new administration and its partners on the Security Council to take a new and more strategic approach to the situation in Sudan.