The time is long overdue, but not too late, to stop the active genocide in Sudan. What can we do as Americans?

The Darfur region of Sudan is in flames. For nearly two years cynical leaders in Khartoum have been seeking to enhance their power by using the country’s armed forces and local militia to suppress the local non-Arab population. They have driven a million and a half people from their homes, holding them in concentration camps and denying them access to adequate food, water, and shelter. More than 30,000 have been killed, and a range of crimes against humanity have been committed, including the mass rape of women and the systematic destruction of villages, livestock, and crops.

If nothing is done, US officials predict that 350,000 people could be dead of starvation, disease, or murder by the end of this year.

Does all this sound familiar? Yes – it also happened in Rwanda , Bosnia , and Kosovo. An international convention drafted in 1948 after the Holocaust and ratified by the United States and other countries commits the world “to undertake to prevent” the crime of genocide. Shamefully, in Rwanda that commitment rang hollow in 1994 when 800,000 people were slaughtered in less than three months. In Bosnia and Kosovo the lesson of Rwanda was remembered, although too late for many victims. Intensive diplomatic and military efforts were organized within a UN framework by the United States and other countries in 1995 and 1999. These efforts saved hundreds of thousands of lives and established under international law a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention to stop a genocide in progress.

What can Americans do to save lives in Sudan?

First, we must put aside domestic politics. The growing genocide in Darfur is not a partisan issue but one that reaches across a broad range of constituencies, including religious, human rights, humanitarian, medical, and legal communities, among others, all of which are advocating an aggressive international response to the crisis. Many organizations with a conservative bent, particularly within the religious community, have been at the forefront of advocacy for the people of Sudan ; others have been hesitant to link up with them.

These groups must put aside their differences and join forces to increase pressure to move Sudan to the top of the international agenda. They can do this by stimulating more media coverage, organizing grassroots contacts with members of Congress, seeking support for urgent action from both presidential candidates, and connecting with counterparts in other countries.

Second, a new push for international action can be mounted on the recent visits to Sudan by Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Powell now “owns” the issue in the Bush administration, and he should be urged to exercise strong leadership on Darfur both in the administration and in the UN Security Council.

The council must immediately adopt a resolution authorizing much stronger sanctions against the Sudanese leaders if they fail to carry out their commitment to Powell to disarm the militias.

The resolution should also create the authority for a multinational military force to secure access by the people of Darfur to the humanitarian relief that the government has blocked. Third, the intervention in Darfur should be built on African support, with logistical, financial, and personnel assistance from the United States and European countries. The African Union , a coalition of African countries, recently sent a small group of observers to monitor the tenuous cease-fire in the civil war in southern Sudan . This initial commitment gives the African Union a stake in resolving the crisis and provides legitimacy to an international presence in Sudan . To be effective, however, the intervention will require a large military force to provide security both to the monitors and, more important, to the massive humanitarian relief operation needed to prevent starvation, disease, and ethnic cleansing from claiming hundreds of thousands of lives in the coming months. That force should be assembled from African countries with US and other backing.

Finally, we should recognize this as an opportunity for the United States to begin to reestablish its role in the world as a defender of human rights. As a result of the disastrous intervention in Iraq , the scandal over prisoner abuses, and unconstrained US unilateralism, American credibility on the world stage has sunk to its lowest point in a generation. In addition, a decade ago we looked the other way and did nothing as genocide swept through Rwanda . Actions, not words, are now needed to restore our human rights credentials. That’s why the United States should act now within an international framework to help rescue the people of Darfur before it’s too late for them, and for us.

John Shattuck, author of “Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America ‘s Response”, is CEO of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

Originally published in the Boston Globe