This op-ed co-authored with actor Don Cheadle originally appeared on USA Today.
After our first trip to Darfur together nearly a decade ago, we were certain that the enormity of the human rights crimes unfolding there would result in a major international response.
At the time, the largely Arab government in Sudan had armed and backed a loose collection of militias known as the Janjaweed to crush an insurgency composed of non-Arab ethnic groups suffering systemic discrimination by the regime. The result was 1,600 non-Arab villages burned, more than 300,000 deaths, and more than three million displaced by the Sudan government's scorched-earth policies.
So, as we traveled around the U.S. over the next few years, seeing the crowds get bigger and bigger as the anti-genocide movement grew, we continued to believe that international involvement to stop the Sudan government's atrocities was possible.
We were wrong. The international community responded tepidly, confounded by competing objectives, including counter-terrorism and peace-making efforts in Sudan's other war in the south.
Now that the Darfur conflict has reached its 10th anniversary and the civil war has spread to other regions of Sudan, what lessons can be learned so that the next anniversary might be more hopeful?
The first lesson is that the Sudanese people will lead any change in their country. The campaign to "Save Darfur" called for intervention to stop genocide in Africa, but couldn't compete with higher priorities in Iraq and Afghanistan. The global anti-genocide movement did, however, shine a bright spotlight on genocide's survivors, which forced the Khartoum regime to allow a U.N. peacekeeping force and life-saving humanitarian assistance into Darfur. Meanwhile, Darfuri people fought back, joining rebel groups, organizing opposition in the displaced camps, and demanding their rights.
The second lesson is that root causes must be addressed. A billion dollars a year is spent on that peacekeeping mission in Darfur and numerous peace agreements have been signed with various minor Darfur factions which have ended up further dividing Darfur. But none of these external efforts has focused on the fundamental issue that drives conflict in Darfur and other regions of Sudan: authoritarian governance.
By excluding all but a narrow clique of Sudanese from access to the power and wealth of the country, marginalized groups from the west (Darfur), south (Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains) and east have all taken up arms against that regime. The far south left in a 2011 referendum, creating South Sudan, the newest country in the world. Any peace effort should deal comprehensively with all the rebel movements, the unarmed opposition, and civil society, in search of a solution for the whole of Sudan. Until the abusive governing system in Sudan is radically reformed, there will be blood.
The third lesson is that no progress is possible without opposition unity. For many years during Sudan's north-south war, southern factions fought among themselves, undermining efforts to forge a peace deal. Finally, in the late 1990s, southern factions realized they would all hang separately if they didn't hang together, and once united were able to force negotiations that led to their successful self-determination referendum.
When we first went to Darfur, we were struck by the level of division within the Darfur rebellion. That is changing as the main Darfuri opposition is slowly coalescing, building coalitions with other rebelling regions, and beginning to articulate a collective opposition vision of future governance in Sudan in the form of a document called the New Dawn Charter.
The fourth lesson is that the U.S. has a role to play in supporting the Sudanese in crafting their own solutions. President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice all have long records of commitment to peace in Sudan. A new policy for the Obama administration is needed for a new reality on the ground in Sudan, focused on democratic transition.
Secretary Kerry could create a team of diplomats whose job it is to deepen contacts with Sudanese opposition and civil society organizations, as well as to better understand the dynamics inside the competing factions within an increasingly divided regime. The diplomats should be based in Khartoum, Juba, Addis, Doha, Cairo and Beijing, not in Washington, and be led by a senior, experienced special envoy. The team could be backed by a basket of aid resources focused on building the capacity of opposition and civil society elements, supporting Sudan's future leaders.
The final lesson is that the political constituency for peace in Sudan matters. Members of Congress, student organizations, faith-based groups, human rights advocates, and others comprising the anti-genocide movement have put Sudan's plight on the mattering map of the U.S. government over three presidencies. Great bipartisan effort has been expended in ending the north-south war, providing life-saving humanitarian aid to millions of Darfuris, and supporting the creation of the world's newest state in South Sudan.
Another great populist push is needed for Sudan. Its people still suffer, but they are coming together in support of a better future. Regardless of short-term political calculations here, we should stand with them.
The conflict in Darfur began 10 years ago. To commemorate the anniversary—remember the lives lost, acknowledge the continuing struggle of the displaced, and recognize the ongoing effort to establish justice and find peace amid ongoing conflict—Enough and its partners have launched a new effort to bring attention to the ongoing conflict in Darfur. Please visit Darfur10.org and share the special site with your friends. Read the rest of the blog posts in the Darfur 10 series.