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Darfur's moment of decision

Other editors say

The world must demonstrate that it learned from Rwanda and Somalia

Los Angeles Times

The ongoing slaughter in Sudan is as well documented as it is disturbing. The 7,000-member African Union peacekeeping force there doesn't keep much peace or protect many civilians, but it does monitor the massacres. As a result, there is voluminous evidence of widespread rape and murder by Sudanese government troops and government-armed militias, villages burned to the ground and children orphaned, mutilated or simply hacked to pieces. But little is done to stop it.

An estimated 200,000 people have been killed in Sudan's Darfur region, victims of a struggle justified by Khartoum as an effort to put down a rebellion but that looks more like ethnic cleansing by an Arab-dominated government against black African villagers. International intervention could end the violence, but the budding consensus in favor of such a move is dangerously fragile. The decision could hinge on a meeting of the African Union on Friday, when members will vote on whether to allow United Nations peacekeepers to take over the mission in Darfur.

Because the United Nations is reluctant to intervene without African permission, and because China and Russia have steadfastly blocked action by the Security Council, the fate of thousands of innocent civilians is in the hands of the African Union. Approval of a U.N. mission seemed like a certainty a month ago; now it's very much in question as the Sudanese government lobbies to keep foreign troops out of the country. On Wednesday it encouraged a protest, as 30,000 marched in Khartoum against U.N. intervention.

Although the African Union is trying hard to build a reputation for openness and respect for human rights, it is showing disturbing signs of becoming as toothless and corrupt as its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity. In January, it very nearly elected Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir to its chairmanship, instead settling for a Congolese leader deemed among Africa's most corrupt heads of state. The United States, which is pushing hard for U.N. and even NATO intervention in Sudan, needs to make clear that the African Union's international credibility will be destroyed if it doesn't approve a U.N. peacekeeping mission. That credibility is vital in a region where most governments are heavily reliant on foreign donors.

It is essential that the United Nations take action soon, with or without permission from the African Union. The United States and NATO can and must help by providing intensive air and logistical support. NATO should also send troops now for a short-term assignment, because it will take at least six months for U.N. peacekeepers to deploy; so far, NATO leaders have expressed zero appetite for the job.

Inertia and apathy ruled as killers ran amok in Rwanda and Somalia in the 1990s. Now the world has a chance to demonstrate whether it has learned from its mistakes.