Unprecedented opening for Darfur action exists

It’s getting hard to think of Darfur as urgent these days. It’s not that things have slowed down. Quite the contrary. In the last year we’ve seen devastation on par with the worst of the fighting back in 2005.

The information just keeps rolling in — renewed bombings, attacks on Darfuri refugee camps, humanitarian workers under siege, more than 300,000 people displaced just since the beginning of 2008. But as we approach six years of genocide, it’s just hard to think of Darfur as urgent anymore. Genocide in Darfur has begun to feel, let’s face it, status quo. Stale. Old news.

But the truth is that committing to ending the genocide in Darfur has never been more urgent. Darfur activists are facing an unbelievable opportunity to affect real, lasting change in the region. And if we don’t seize this opportunity now, it could be a very long time before such a window opens again.

Three things are happening at once.

First, we have an American public that has been mobilized politically in record numbers. Darfur activists have a remarkable opportunity to harness this momentum while newly activated Americans are still ready to hear from us what the priority issues of the new administration need to be.

Second, we have an administration that for the first time in a long time is poised to change the prevailing attitude toward the United States within the international community. To do so will mean redefining American values toward the wider world and redefining American policy priorities.

President-elect Barack Obama has already promised his “unstinting resolve” toward ending the genocide in Darfur and, since 2006, has expressed that he sees the Darfur conflict not only as a humanitarian concern but as a national security issue, as well.

His recent nominations of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for secretary of state and Susan Rice as U.N. ambassador — both of whom have been outspoken advocates for stronger action in Darfur — are particularly encouraging, as they show that this new administration is committed to engaging with the world and to look at peace and prosperity worldwide as an issue for American national security. A bigger push by Darfur activists now will give Obama the grass-roots support — and the constant reminder — he needs to take a firm stance on Darfur.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we have a Sudanese president who for the very first time is facing a real and credible threat — prosecution by the International Criminal Court. When ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo requested an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al Bashir in July, Bashir immediately spiraled through a broad range of reactions — denial of any wrongdoing, threats to suspend all agreements with the United Nations, promises to unleash a wave of devastation in Darfur unlike any the world has seen.

But in an attempt to win an Article 16 deferral of his prosecution by the U.N. Security Council, Bashir seems to have settled on at least a contrived attempt at cooperation. So far, none of Bashir’s superficial tactics seem to have won him much regard — at least the United States still seems unwilling to grant Bashir his deferral.

Bashir’s new “peace talks” were widely discredited and boycotted by rebel groups en masse. His long-awaited arrest of militia leader Ali Kushayb resulted only in the promise of domestic trials against him — promises that are as yet unfulfilled. His recent announcement of a unilateral “immediate and unconditional cease-fire” has already faltered amid allegations (though as yet unconfirmed) of renewed bombings in rebel territory. But Bashir is, at the very least, attempting to look cooperative in the eyes of the international community.

Coupled with renewed mobilization by the U.S. grass roots and mounting pressure by the president-elect’s proposed administration, Darfur activists have the opportunity to create an atmosphere in which Bashir feels threatened enough to make real concessions in Darfur. And with International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor poised to announce charges against rebel leaders that have attacked African Union forces, we seem to have hit on a prime negotiating position.

It’s going to take all of us — a tall order in a time of economic crisis, a time where our first instinct is to turn inward and take care of our own communities. One day in the near future, however, our economic crisis will have subsided. When that time comes, who among us will want to know that we stood by and did not take advantage of this chance to save lives and end a genocide?

Indeed, the price of inaction is too heavy a burden for people of conscience to bear.

It’s urgent.