Government-backed attackers have killed at least 200,000 people in the Darfur region of Sudan and forced nearly 2 million others from their homes.
Now the International Criminal Court is investigating suspected war crimes in Darfur. That raises the possibility of war crimes trials, a prospect that encouraged human-rights advocates recently meeting at the Carter Center in Atlanta.
Critics say indifference by the United States and other nations has allowed the carnage to continue in Darfur, a place where children are chained together and burned alive, where girls are raped and branded and thrown in prison for having sex outside of marriage, and where civilians are hacked or shot or burned to death or forced to walk hundreds of miles toward the prospect of death from hunger or disease.
Observers with a front-row seat to the violence wonder why more people don't seem to care.
"It's like raising your hands in despair," said Leo Roozendaal, Sudan director for CARE, the humanitarian agency with its U.S. headquarters in Atlanta. "It's terribly frustrating."
Speaking at the Carter Center last week, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour said the International Criminal Court's decision to investigate 51 people for possible war-crimes prosecution sends a signal to Sudanese authorities widely blamed for the violence.
"It's clearly a step in the right direction," she said.
As the former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, Arbour led the prosecution of Slobodan Milosevic, who as president of Serbia is accused of directing a brutal campaign of "ethnic cleansing." He remains on trial in The Hague.
"His plight today is not lost on the leaders in Darfur," Arbour said last week during a break in the human-rights conference at the Carter Center. "There's no doubt in my mind that they're very keenly aware of his fate."
Former President Jimmy Carter echoed that assessment.
"I suspect the perpetrators of the abuses in Darfur are very nervous now as they contemplate the possibility at least that the International Criminal Court could be a forum in which they might be tried for these crimes," he said.
President Bush opposes the International Criminal Court, established three years ago over U.S. objections as the world's first international tribunal for war criminals. Bush worried about politically motivated prosecution of U.S. soldiers in the court, but the United States cleared the way for the court's Darfur investigation by abstaining during a United Nations vote on the case.
Late last year, Bush referred to the killings in Darfur as genocide, an unusual step because a treaty obligates the United States to "prevent and punish" genocide. Former President Bill Clinton avoided the word when members of the Hutu ethnic group slaughtered 800,000 minority Tutsis in 1994 in Rwanda.
Bush sent former Secretary of State Colin Powell to Darfur and has provided humanitarian aid.
"The administration relative to the European governments has been out in front on Darfur," said Mark Snyder, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that seeks to prevent conflict. "It just hasn't done enough."
Critics see haunting echoes of weak U.S. responses to genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda.
"It's hard to imagine that 10 years from now we will look back on the hundreds of thousands of people dying in Darfur and think our response was anything but a failure," said Jerry Fowler, staff director for the Committee on Conscience at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
Advocates of more forceful action say the United States should help pay to equip and transport African troops to Darfur, where 2,000 soldiers have been deployed as monitors under the auspices of the African Union, which represents the interests of 53 nations.
That force has been effective in areas where it has been deployed, but it is too small to stop the killing throughout Darfur, a region the size of France. The force has been slow to equip and deploy, partly because the nations sending troops lack money.
The killings in Darfur began in February 2003, when insurgents from three black tribes rebelled against the government. The Sudanese military responded, U.S. officials say, by arming and training Arab tribal militias with long-standing grudges against their black neighbors.
The militias, known as the Janjaweed, have gone from village to village killing and raping. Human-rights advocates say the Sudanese military and the Janjaweed often attack jointly. Sometimes, advocates say, attackers hurl corpses into wells to poison water supplies.
When the violence began in Darfur, Bush had been working for a few years to end a separate civil war in Sudan that has killed about 2 million people since 1983. The United States did not pressure Sudan more forcefully on Darfur, Snyder said, because it worried that doing so would jeopardize north-south talks that culminated with a Jan. 9 peace deal.
Roozendaal of CARE said Bush should appoint an envoy to tackle Darfur as he did to encourage peace in the civil war.
Meanwhile, a growing chorus of voices is pushing Bush on Darfur.
Conservative Christians have joined with progressive Christians, the Congressional Black Caucus and Sen. Bill Frist, the Republican majority leader and possible presidential candidate in 2008.
Ordinary people are getting involved, too.
Local activists will collect soccer equipment on June 25 at a Soccer for Peace event at Emory University. They plan to ship the equipment to Darfur in hopes that it will be used by African Union troops and Sudanese refugees.
At the United Nations, the Security Council has imposed an arms embargo and a no-fly zone in Darfur, but the no-fly zone is not yet a reality. It requires Sudan to gain approval for military flights from a U.N. committee that does not yet exist.
One reason Bush may not want to push too hard on Darfur is that Sudan, which harbored Osama bin Laden in the early 1990s, is cooperating in the war on terrorism.
Another reason the violence continues, Arbour said, is that the problem defies a quick fix.
"There is no one magic solution," she said.
Mark Bixler writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: [email protected]