"Do I hope there will be a significant decline in violence? Yes. Can I be certain? No."
That was Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick's pessimistic assessment of the peace agreement he helped broker last month between the Sudanese government and the ragtag rebel groups whose uprising has provided the pretext for the three-year-old genocide in Darfur.
Negotiated under intense U.S. and international pressure, the agreement was hailed by President Bush as "the beginnings of hope for the people of Darfur." But Mr. Zoellick's lack of confidence has proved warranted.
As politicians and activists express relief that diplomacy has succeeded, the cease-fire provision of the peace agreement has gone ignored by all parties. As the attention and concern of the international community ebbs, Darfuri villagers continue to flee onslaughts from the ferocious government-backed Janjaweed militia.
That proxy force, with the aid of Khartoum's troops and Antonov bombers, has massacred hundreds of thousands of civilians since February 2003, hounding the survivors in their squalid refugee camps with a constant campaign of gang rape and murder. The only international presence in Darfur is an ill-equipped, drastically undermanned African Union monitoring force obliged to stand by while the slaughter goes on, empowered only to report violations of a previous, fictitious, cease-fire.
Far from innocent in obstructing efforts at peace, two significant armed rebel factions have refused to sign the peace agreement. These rebel groups are seizing control of as much territory as they can and, like their antagonists, have taken to intimidating and harassing humanitarian aid workers, whose supplies of food and medicine are desperately needed by the more than 2 million displaced people who have been forced from their homes.
Despite its glaring flaws, the aggressive diplomacy that birthed the peace agreement is a welcome change from the timid dithering that has characterized the international response so far. Something is better than nothing.
But if the international community trusts the perpetrators to end the genocide and opts for diplomacy as a substitute for a credible threat of military force against Khartoum, the killing will most likely continue. Without an adequate military force with a clear mandate to shoot and kill in defense of civilians, the peace accords will be worthless and any new deployment of international troops will be as impotent as the AU soldiers in Darfur.
Sudan is counting on the world's reluctance to confront it with force to maintain its murderous freedom of action. After signing the Abuja accords May 5, officials of the Khartoum regime said they would drop their objection to a U.N. peacekeeping force. Two days later, the government revised its position, saying only that the matter might now be up for discussion.
Last month, U.N. negotiators claimed a diplomatic coup when Khartoum agreed in principle to the idea of an assessment team that would prepare the way for a possible U.N. peacekeeping presence. But the regime has not yet agreed to any U.N. military force and stated explicitly that it opposes a peacekeeping mandate, approving only, in theory, a peace monitoring force with the same feeble mandate as the AU troops. Such blithe duplicity is to be expected from killers who have so little to fear.
Khartoum's assent cannot be a condition for deployment of a robust peacekeeping force. So long as the regime knows that its consent gives it leverage, it will continue to manipulate the good intentions of those who seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
Diplomacy without the credible threat of military force to back it up - without the clear message that Khartoum has no choice but to comply - is an exercise in futility, a salve for the conscience of those horrified by the genocide that will do little for its victims.
The obligation to protect others from genocide has been a fundamental ethical principle of the post-World War II international order. So goes the rhetoric, at least. But "never again" has no retroactive effect. And for Darfur, "never again" is no longer an option.
The people of Darfur are still in grave danger, still without adequate protection from rape, starvation, disease and murder. If we turn away now with the false comfort that we have done all we can, all that was needed, will we even notice if the killers prove us wrong? How many times will we relieve ourselves of the burden of acting by waiting until a genocide has run its course and then admonishing ourselves for not doing more?
Evan R. Goldstein is a contributing editor at Moment magazine. He and Hasdai Westbrook are co-editors of the blog small-d. Their e-mails are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.