Friday, May 07, 2004

Ethnic Cleansing in Eastern Sudan [essay]

The world media (or the small part of it that noticed) recently marked the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. There was the requisite soul-searching about the media's role in failing to report more vigorously on the genocide while it was actually happening.

I'm not convinced this would've mattered. Western countries were given near-saturation media coverage on the situation in the Balkans; the non-reactions varied from hand washing (US govt saying "It's not our problem) to doing something to assuage one's conscience without really doing anything (Europe wagging its finger at Milosevic: "We're warning you. If you don't stop, we're going to... warn you ever more vigorously next time" and then holding interminable conferences).

The fact of the matter is that if another situation similiar to Rwanda occurred, the western media would likely act in the same way. People in western countries generally aren't that interested in what's going on in non-western countries. Sure, there are a few exceptions. The British and French tend to be moderately interested in the doings in their former African colonies because a) they maintain considerably economic ties in many of them and b) there are many African immigrants in those countries. Western Europeans tend to be disproportionately interested in the Israeli Occupied Territories. But generally speaking, most westerners care little about non-western countries, except in a tangential way. Ask them if 'x' crisis is bad and they will say "Yes, it's awful." It usually doesn't translate into anything more than that.

The media likes to engage in a bit of self-serving chest-puffing. "We don't make news, we just report it," is one myth. "All the news that's fit to print" and other mottos appeal to some notion of service.

Yet most media outlets are first and foremost businesses. As such, they give the consumers what they want, not necessarily what they need. Like I said, they are business, so that's the way businesses operate. But journalism would be better served if it acknowledged this reality. Individual journalists may aspire to a more noble cause, but do they call the shots?

In recalling the Rwandan genocide, a BBC producers remembered: Months [before the genocide erupted], the BBC newsroom had been bombarded with complaints when a small massacre in neighbouring Burundi had been shown in dreadful detail, once, on the lunchtime news. Someone had issued a directive about pictures. This was allowed to set the tone, in the BBC at least, for a story of unimaginably greater consequence.

The BBC tried to give the people a fair idea of what was going on and the people screamed that they didn't want to know. The BBC is a public broadcaster, less suspectible to economic pressures and whose very charter incorporates the notion of public service, but even it can't totally ignore what the consumers want.

So while the media and the politicians went on about how they failed Rwandans 10 years ago, they did so while similiarly failing black Africans in eastern Sudan. And they did so without the slightest hint of irony.

Apparently, everyone is much better at remembering the anniversaries of tragedies than they are at addressing them while they happen or, God forbid, try and prevent them (which, before I get bombared by people jumping to conclusions, doesn't necessarily imply a military response)

Ethnic cleansing in the province of Darfur, in the east of the Sudan, has led to what is widely described as the worst humanitarian situation in the world today. Arab militias, widely believed to be armed by the central government, have engaged in a scorched earth campaign against black residents and villages. The Arab-dominated government, which also stands accused of tolerating slavery and the slave trade in the southern (black) regions, naturally denies the ethnic cleansing allegations. "What is happening in Darfur is neither ethnic cleansing nor genocide," the country's foreign minister told the official Sudan News Agency. "It is a state of war, which resulted in a humanitarian situation."

Just an unfortunate, but unavoidable, by-product of the war, according to the regime. A by-product which is believed to have already caused 30,000 deaths and over one million Sudanese displaced from their homes.

And, chillingly, many in the UN believe it could get worse wrote: Political tension and rivalry in Khartoum [the capital] also underlies its response or lack of response, said Snyder. Over 50 percent of the government's military forces come from Darfur, but from the region's African Muslim population. Those forces have been sympathetic to the anger of their kith and kin at government favoritism toward "Arab" people there, and thus have been reluctant to fight.

Rivalries within the ruling elite have complicated things. The military government had previously formed an unholy alliance with Islamist clerics. They imposed Sharia law on the land. However, when the clerics got too powerful, the military regime engaged in a crackdown and had its leader, the parliament speaker Hassan al-Turabi, arrested.

The New York Times relayed one girl's account: Hawa Muhammad, 15, lost just about everything when the men on horseback came. They took her family's horses, donkeys and small herd of goats and sheep. They took her cooking pots and her clothing. They took her mother and her father, too. "The men on horses killed my parents," she said, referring to the Janjaweed, loose bands of Arab fighters. "Then the planes came."

Despite the slavery and ethnic cleansing allegations, Sudan somehow got elected to the United Nations' Human Rights Commission. Maybe the country will nominate North Korea as its successor. But despite the corruption of the Human Rights Commission (a body elected by member states), the UN's humanitarian organizations (staffed by bureaucrats) are under no illusions as to the situation.

"This is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with so many people in the most belligerent way being chased from their homes. Everything has been taken away from these people. This is tragic," UN World Food Programme Executive Director James Morris was quoted by UN News as saying in London on Tuesday.

"As in many other recent conflicts, rape has become a weapon of war in western Sudan, with disastrous consequences for women and girls," added Pamela Delargy, the chief of the humanitarian response unit of the UN Population Fund.

Normally, the Arab press spends most of its energy demonizing even the slightest misdeeds of Israel while barely mentioning the massive human rights abuses, economic mismanagement and corruption and total lack of democracy in most Arab countries. So I was certainly surprised and heartened to read an editorial in the Lebanese paper The Daily Star calling on the Arab League to get involved in the Darfur crisis. The paper asked: Why is Amr Moussa not in Darfur? Why is the secretary-general of the Arab League not physically present at, and diplomatically active in, the latest and most disturbing violent Arab crisis? If the Arab League has a purpose and the idea of collective Arab action has any legitimacy, then surely the situation in Darfur in western Sudan is the kind of issue that begs for active Arab intervention. The paper added that Darfur was a "horrendous example of ethnic cleansing and mass murder - crimes against humanity, by any standard - except perhaps that of the collective Arab conscience?" Though I don't know how reflective The Daily Star's editorial is of its colleagues, the position is certainly a welcome break for the normally reflexively defensive Arab press.

As California Congressman Tom Lantos wrote in The Boston Globe: The US government should have no illusions that what is taking place in Darfur is ethnic cleansing. The Sudan is a government determined to use every opportunity, whether through peace negotiations or war, to expand its grip on local resources, impose Sharia law on non-Muslims, and to propagate a hateful racial and cultural ideology to maintain political hegemony over the diverse communities in Sudan. The United States must lead the international community to pressure the Sudanese government to halt the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians, open access to humanitarian aid, and agree to a strong monitoring mechanism for the cease-fire agreement. This must include a robust role for the entities that have played key roles in the peace negotiations: the UN, the United States, the Africa Union, and the European Union.

In fairness, the world media finally does seem to be getting the Darfur story. It took a while, but the man-made nightmare in eastern Sudan is finally getting a little attention. At least as much as any international story outside of Iraq and Israel-Palestine is ever going to get today.

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