In the coming days, President Barack Obama will be presented with an opportunity to tackle a foreign policy challenge frequently raised on the campaign trail: the human rights crisis in Darfur.
Since 2003, the Sudanese government and its militia allies have killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of Darfur's civilians. The government has also obstructed international efforts to stop the killing. As a consequence, the U.N. Security Council authorized the International Criminal Court to address this matter. The ICC is expected to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on war crimes charges within the next week or two.
Such action would make Mr. al-Bashir the first sitting head of state to be subjected to an arrest warrant in the court's history. The challenge for the Obama administration is to leverage the pressure the court's action will bring to bear on the Sudanese leader. Mr. Obama should publicly support the arrest warrant and make clear that the U.S. will not sit idly by if any member of the Security Council - notably China - attempts to shield Mr. al-Bashir.
In her first news conference as Mr. Obama's ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, a harsh critic of Sudan, made a point to address Darfur and its importance to the Obama administration: "We remain very deeply concerned about the ongoing genocide in Darfur. The priority at this point has to be effective protection for civilians."
Darfur activists hope the ICC pressure can force the embattled head of Sudan, or influential members of its governing party, to commit to a comprehensive peace agreement including a range of steps necessary to ensure that ordinary citizens of Darfur can return home and live in peace.
The expected warrant also opens a door for Mr. Obama and his talented foreign policy team. They can leverage the arrest warrant to work with influential partners across the globe to stop the killing and solidify a concrete peace agreement. By doing so, Mr. Obama would address a serious human rights crisis at the dawn of his presidency while also sending a clear signal that the U.S. is ready to once again lead by example.
The implementation of a peace agreement would likely include:
* A long-term U.N. peacekeeping group in the region.
* Complete demilitarization of the militia groups.
* Governance concessions by the Sudanese central authorities.
* Transfer of two other alleged war criminals - former Minister of State for the Interior Ahmed Haroun and janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb - to the ICC.
Bold leadership and action would mark a significant break from the position of President Obama's predecessor. While President George W. Bush called the killings in Darfur "genocide," his administration failed to take action to stop the violence. Human rights activists and the millions of Americans who have risen up to demand an end to the killing in Darfur have high hopes that the Obama administration will act differently.
Comments from high-ranking Sudanese officials make clear that its government is concerned about the new U.S. administration. "I know Obama's appointees," said Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer and member of the Southern People's Liberation Movement, which has a fragile power-sharing agreement with the ruling party. "And I know their policy toward Sudan. ... The policy is very aggressive and very harsh. I think we really will miss the judgments of George W. Bush."
Taking advantage of ICC action on Darfur to address the crisis would provide Mr. Obama's foreign policy team with an opportunity to make a fast start to address these crimes in a cooperative, multilateral manner. Will the new president seize the moment and show a willingness to engage key allies, such as France and the United Kingdom, along with strategically important countries such as China, South Africa and Egypt, to bring an end to crimes that have shamed the global community?
Raj Purohit, an expert in international law, teaches at American University's Washington College of Law. His e-mail is email@example.com. Howard Salter, a strategic communications specialist, was a senior public affairs officer at USAID in the Clinton administration. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.