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The Word for Mass Murder

August 15, 2004

The House of Representatives voted 422 to 0 last month to label as "genocide" Sudan's assaults on African tribes in the country's Darfur region, where tens of thousands have been killed. The European Union's fact-finding team concluded last week that the rapes, murders and other atrocities by ethnic Arab militias against black Sudanese did not amount to genocide. The State Department is studying whether the mayhem rises to the definition of genocide adopted by the United Nations on Dec. 9, 1948: "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."

What the U.N. hoped would be a trigger for action is being legalistically parsed to death.

The State Department said last week that even if the Bush administration concluded that a genocide was underway, it "would have no immediate legal consequences for the United States." Although the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide says countries signing the document "undertake to prevent and to punish" genocide, the State Department says a nation has that responsibility "in its territory." That makes it Khartoum's burden to stop the killing.

It is true that the term "genocide" could be an oversimplification of what is happening in Sudan. The Arabs of the government and the Arab militias are attacking non-Arab African tribes in Darfur, but centuries of intermarriage have blurred distinctions between the two groups. The fight is also over a share of Sudan's oil wealth, and some of the fighting involves nomadic Arab herders pitted against settled African ranchers over land and water rather than ethnicity.

While world diplomats ponder, the Darfur region of Sudan desperately needs food and protection. The U.S. can supply the food, but with well over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has all too good a reason to leave to other countries the question of whether to provide soldiers.

Some member nations of the African Union, including Tanzania, Nigeria and South Africa, have offered to send troops, but Khartoum has refused, saying its army is responsible for protecting the refugees. That's fox-in-the-henhouse time, because it was Khartoum-blessed militias and government troops that killed an estimated 30,000 and drove more than 1 million Sudanese from their homes.

If the world beyond Africa is to intervene, the responsibility falls to Europe, whose colonial past in Africa complicates the European Union's response. But if the EU cannot send troops, it should at least provide money, food and aircraft to the African nations willing to send troops. That could help provide the African Union with the bombs, bullets and helicopters it needs to stop the slaughter. Another option is to do nothing, risking Sudan's becoming a failed state and a threat to regional and international stability, just as it was a decade ago when it sheltered Osama bin Laden.

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