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The United Nations Security Council at long last has agreed to send a peacekeeping force to Darfur. The decision to send “blue helmets” is a critical step in the attempt to bring peace to the troubled region. But peacekeepers are only a means to an end. Real peace depends on a political settlement and this endeavor continues to be a dialogue of the deaf.

Fighting broke out in southern Sudan in February 2003, when rebels took up arms against the government in Khartoum in their quest for more autonomy. The government responded with a counterinsurgency campaign that has been considered genocidal by some observers. The intensity of the conflict has been magnified by the ethnic and religious cleavages in the east African nation; it pits blacks against Arabs, Christians against Muslims. Estimates of the number of people killed range from 200,000 to nearly half a million and more than 2 million others have been forced into camps or across the border.

The Sudan government has been condemned internationally for its use of militia, the Janjaweed, that have been especially brutal. Despite resounding international condemnation, the Khartoum government has been adamant in its denial of any wrongdoing. It dismisses the death toll as inflated — its figures indicate that just 9,000 people have died — and rejects charges that it bears any responsibility for the atrocities — that can be proven — by the Janjaweed.

While the Khartoum government bears primary responsibility for the tragedy, it has had help. Some governments critical of its actions have shied away from calling the crisis “genocide” for fear that it would require the rest of the world to take action.

Also complicit has been the government of China, which has steadfastly supported Khartoum and denounced international action on the principle that it constitutes interference in the domestic affairs of a U.N. member state. China worries about a precedent set regarding how a country can treat its own citizens. Beijing also seeks to curry favor with the government in Khartoum, which is now one of China’s major suppliers of oil. China has invested $4 billion in oil production and the development of ports and pipelines in Sudan. It is estimated that about 60 percent of Sudan’s oil is exported to China.

China’s rising presence in Sudan has not gone unnoticed. International activists have sought to embarrass Beijing — threatening to boycott the 2008 Olympic Games, China’s much-vaunted coming-out party — over its Sudan policy.

The threats appear to have worked: After brandishing its veto at the United Nations Security Council to shelter Khartoum from sanctions, Beijing earlier this year appointed a senior diplomat as special Africa envoy to focus on the crisis in Darfur. It also announced that a 275-person team of military engineers would join a U.N. peacekeeping mission, when it is dispatched.

That would have been an empty promise absent a resolution at the U.N. Security Council. After months of negotiations, Sudan agreed to terms last week. As a result, peacekeepers will be sent to Darfur to join and take over the 7,000-man African Union force already on the ground, creating a 26,000-man peacekeeping force. The deployment, the largest in U.N. history and the first joint peacekeeping mission by the AU and the U.N., will be in place by Dec. 31.

The resolution was the result of considerable compromise. Sudan objected to previous versions and forced the elimination of language that would have opened the door to sanctions if Khartoum did not comply. Given its record, prevarication and obstruction are to be expected.

The reliance on African forces to provide the bulk of the peacekeepers makes sense. Local and regional governments should be taking the lead on security issues. They are more sensitive to local concerns, although governments that have been supporting factions in the struggle must be excluded.

The key to any resolution, however, is a genuine political settlement between Khartoum and the rebels. Peacekeepers are not a solution. They are a stopgap that can only provide conditions that allow the two sides to work out their differences. Real peace depends on the government in Sudan negotiating in good faith with the southern rebels. Thus far, that has not happened. The removal of language from the resolution that would have subjected Khartoum to punishment if it continues to stall means negotiators must be more vigilant. They must be ready to return to the Security Council if the Sudanese do not show good faith. This resolution is just the beginning of the Security Council’s work.

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