WASHINGTON, May 24, 2005 (IPS) -- Nine months after his administration first declared that ongoing violence in Darfur constituted ''genocide,'' U.S. President George W. Bush was urged by some 80 human rights and religious groups and prominent individuals here Tuesday to do more to protect innocent civilians in Sudan's western Darfur region.
In a letter to the White House, the activists called specifically for Washington to submit a resolution at the U.N. Security Council authorising an African Union (AU) mission there to use force to protect civilians. It also called for the administration to mobilise a ''robust international force'' to augment the AU mission.
Such a force should include troops, financial and logistical support from countries outside Africa, presumably including the United States, according to the letter, which was written by the advocacy group Africa Action and signed by the leaders of the American Jewish World Service, the Coalition for International Justice, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and the National Council of Churches USA, among many others, as well as seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
''(Bush's) senior aides say he remains engaged but has more pressing matters. But what could be more important than stopping the genocide?'' asked Africa Action director Salih Booker at a press briefing Tuesday. ''What has been done so far to stop the genocide is inadequate and morally unacceptable''.
The letter, whose signers also included the leaders of other national Jewish and Christian organisations, said that as many as 400,000 people have lost their lives in Darfur, and that another 2.5 million people have been displaced as a result of raids and bombing by government forces and government-backed Arab militias, called the Janjaweed, since the violence began in early 2003. It said the death toll could reach up to a million people by the end of the year.
The vast majority of victims have been members of African tribal groups who, though Muslim like the National Islamic Front (NIF) government and the Janjaweed, have been systematically driven off their lands in what many experts have concluded has been a campaign of ''ethnic cleansing,'' if not ''genocide'' as the Bush administration itself declared for the first time last September.
The campaign has been so brutal that it was referred by the Security Council, at the urging of a special U.N. commission, to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation and prosecution.
Thousands of people have been killed outright, tens of thousands of women and girls have suffered rape; entire villages and farms have been put to the torch, sometimes more than once. Most of the deaths have been caused by starvation or disease among the displaced. According to some estimates, the death rate in Darfur is currently running as high as 500 a day.
The Bush administration, which over the past year took the lead in getting several Security Council resolutions deploring the violence and authorising the AU mission approved, has appeared much less aggressive in recent months, although it has continued to provide substantial logistical support to the AU and humanitarian assistance for the displaced.
Senior officials have cited the likely difficulties of rallying international support behind new resolutions that would impose sanctions against Sudan or authorise the use of force by AU monitors to prevent attacks on civilians, as activists have demanded.
They argue that China, a major investor in Sudan's burgeoning oil industry, or Russia, which has sold tens of millions of dollars in weapons systems to Khartoum in recent years, are likely to veto such measures if they come to the Security Council.
In addition, the officials say they are concerned that a more-aggressive U.S. stance could also wreck a historic accord between Khartoum and southern rebel groups that officially ended a 22-year-old civil war in January.
But activists, who note that Bush himself has been silent on Darfur since the end of last year, are concerned that his reticence actually signals a policy shift spurred by growing covert cooperation between U.S. and Sudan's intelligence services in the so-called ''global war on terror''. Khartoum, which hosted al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden for several years in the 1990s, has tried to persuade Washington of its utility in that respect since shortly after the Sep.11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had secretly flown Khartoum's intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Salah Abdallah Gosh, to Washington for high-level meetings with his U.S. counterparts last month despite the fact that he has been accused of directing military attacks in Darfur, the Los Angeles Times reported recently.
The visit, which U.S. officials subsequently confirmed, outraged human rights and Africa activists.
''It's like bringing (Hitler's air force chief Hermann) Goehring and some of those Nazis here during World War Two while the genocide (against the Jews) was still going on,''. Donald Payne, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Africa subcommittee, said Tuesday.
''We've seen a shift in policy and it's very disturbing,'' he added, saying that the House leadership, acting at the administration's behest, had stripped from a 2005 spending bill bipartisan legislation that would have toughened U.S. sanctions against Sudan and called for Bush to seek multilateral sanctions, including an arms embargo, against the government at the United Nations.
Activists were also alarmed by remarks made during last month's visit to Sudan by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick who not only steadfastly declined to use the word ''genocide'' to describe what was happening in Darfur, but also suggested that the death toll was not nearly as high as cited by activists or even the United Nations.
Citing a State Department study, Zoellick estimated total deaths caused by the conflict in Darfur at between 60,000 and 160,000 -- an assessment that was dismissed as impossibly low by the Washington Post, which compared the results and methodologies of several recent studies.
While Zoellick subsequently insisted that he did not mean to play down the extent of suffering in Darfur, the administration's continuing passivity at the U.N. and its relative silence about the continuing violence have contributed to the impression that Bush, who is reported to have once written ''Not on my watch'' on a memo about Bill Clinton's failure to do anything to stop the 1994 Rwanda genocide, is unlikely to take stronger action unless and until he faces a political cost for not doing so.
Meanwhile, according to Leonard Rubinstein, PHR's executive director, ''the people of Darfur face more killing and the destruction of their livelihoods.''
''We're not doing close to enough'', he said, noting that it took the deaths of 2,000 Bosnian Muslims before the international community forcefully intervened in that country a decade ago. ''How many people will have to die before we do enough in Darfur?''.