Friday, July 02, 2004

What to do about genocide in Darfur? [essay]

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited the Darfur region of eastern Sudan. In Darfur, government backed Arab militias, called the Janjaweed, are engaging in a mass campaign of ethnic cleansing against the region's black population; a campaign which has cost an estimated 30,000 lives already and 300,000 may die by the end of the year. There are over 1 million refugees and internally displaced people. Famine looms in the region.

Though the Sudanese government denies sponsoring them. In fact, they deny that there's a serious problem at all, despite the UN and most non-governmental organizations calling it the worst humanitarian situation in the world. Sudan's Humanitarian Affairs Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid said there was no systematic violence in the region and that the problem was the rebels who attacked police stations and aid convoys.

Is there any doubt that what's going on in Darfur is ethnic cleansing/genocide (I'm still not sure what the distinction between those two words is)? One refugee, a victim of the Janjaweed, told her story. She and two other women had gone out to collect straw for their family's donkeys. They recalled thinking that the Arab militiamen who were attacking African tribes at night would still be asleep. But six men grabbed them, yelling Arabic slurs such as "zurga" and "abid," meaning "black" and "slave." Then the men raped them, beat them and left them on the ground, they said.

"They grabbed my donkey and my straw and said, 'Black girl, you are too dark. You are like a dog. We want to make a light baby,' "

Does it really matter now whether this fits the legal definition of 'genocide' or if it's "merely" mass slaughter?

To its credit, the Bush administration is not turning a totally blind eye to the situation, as evidenced by the mere fact that Secretary Powell made a very high profile visit to the region. They could very easily have buried their head in the sand like the Clinton administration did during the Rwandan genocide. A columnist for The Guardian (UK) opines that the Iraq war has blunted the west's appetite for foreign interventions, even in a humanitarian disaster that would normally have the American and European left screaming, "We do something!"

The Guardian columnists suggests Until recently, [the British] Labour [party] understood how to deal with regimes like Sudan. But instead of diplomacy backed by the credible threat of force, we now have empty promises backed by an incredible leap of faith. The reason for this change is no mystery. It can be summed up in one word - Iraq. Having cried wolf over the threat posed by Saddam, Britain and America have found themselves incapacitated in the face of a far more pressing humanitarian crisis. They are too overstretched, in military resources and in political credibility, to intervene in Sudan, so the people of Darfur will be left at the mercy of their government. But this conclusion need not be so.

He continues, But there is one important respect in which the Sudan crisis shows how [Prime Minister Tony] Blair's kaleidoscope has been irrevocably shaken by the Iraq war. It goes back to the speech he gave to the Labour conference in Brighton shortly after 9/11, when he promised that: "If Rwanda happened again... we would have a moral duty to act." Yet there is relative silence from liberal internationalists in London, while the mantle has been picked up by the much-maligned government in Washington. Or at least one man in DC.

The Bush administration has drafted a UN resolution to impose sanctions on the militias, that would authorise an arms embargo and ban on training for the Janjaweed.It would also impose a travel ban on Janjaweed members named on a list compiled by a Security Council committee set up to monitor the sanctions. The draft resolution requires the Council to decide after 30 days whether the arms embargo and travel ban against the militias should be extended to others "responsible for the commission of atrocities in Darfur".

Though no one can argue that this is a bad idea, it would be wrong to think this is enough. I doubt medieval militiamen on horseback are going to be dissuaded by being banned from travelling to Paris or Los Angeles. Sanctions should be extended to ranking members of the central government.

Secretary Powell, the only statesman and only high-ranking moderate in the Bush administration, met with the Sudanese government and delivered a strong message. "We need to see action promptly because people are dying and the death rates are going to go up significantly in the next several months. We've got to act now, not later. We can't talk. We have to see action." Most notably, he did something fairly undiplomatic, he contradicted the Sudanese officials' line that they are already doing what they can to stop the violence.

When asked if the Khartoum government has control over the militias, the secretary said "I believe they have the capacity to do that. We want to encourage them to have the will to do that and to do that right away."

Significantly, he shied away from an esoteric debate over whether Darfur constitutes genocide, something which would provoke a damaging delay in any response. Mr Powell also repeatedly described the humanitarian situation as a catastrophe, although he has tried to deflect attention away from the debate on whether the legal definition of genocide can and should be applied. He pointed out that in actually trying to address a man-made catastrophe like this, whether or not it's legally genocide is functionally irrelevant.

However, the administration may need to bear direct pressure on the regime. A senior State Department official described Khartoum as being "a state of denial, a state of avoidance. Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail in a joint press conference with Mr Powell after the initial top-level meetings, said there was no famine, no disease epidemic. There was a humanitarian problem in Darfur, he said, but his tone suggested the sense of international alarm was exaggerated.

Mr Ismail said the regime would focus on three areas:
-More police and security forces in Darfur to protect civilians and combat militias

-The lifting of restrictions on humanitarian items to speed up the process of delivering supplies before the rainy season makes routes even more hazardous

-Speeding up political negotiations, in co-operation with the African Union, to work out a solution to the crisis.

Mr Powell said the timetable agreed for action is immediate: "We're talking about days and weeks."


Powell's insistence belies the warnings of Africa Action who called his and Annan's trip "dangerously naive." The organization falls into the trap of obsessing about the 'g' word. Their director said, "The Khartoum government is clearly responsible for the genocide taking place in Darfur, and yet it continues to deny its role and to obstruct humanitarian access to the region. Rather than traveling half-way around the world to hold talks with this murderous regime, Powell could achieve much more by simply uttering one word - genocide."

Bizarrely, after her organization called the trip dangerously naive, the director said, " "Colin Powell’s trip to Sudan gives him an opportunity to witness first-hand the devastation being wrought in Darfur and the stone-walling of the Khartoum government."

What should be done? In a Washington Post op-ed, Republican Senators Mike DeWine and John McCain wrote: The U.N. Security Council should demand that the Sudanese government immediately stop all violence against civilians, disarm and disband its militias, allow full humanitarian access, and let displaced persons return home. Should the government refuse to reverse course, its leadership should face targeted multilateral sanctions and visa bans. Peacekeeping troops should be deployed to Darfur to protect civilians and expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid, and we should encourage African, European and Arab countries to contribute to these forces.
The United States must stand ready to do what it can to stop the massacres. In addition to pushing the U.N. Security Council to act, we should provide financial and logistical support to countries willing to provide peacekeeping forces. The United States should initiate its own targeted sanctions against the Janjaweed [militias] and government leaders, and consider other ways we can increase pressure on the government. We must also continue to tell the world about the murderous activities in which these leaders are engaged, and make clear to all that this behavior is totally unacceptable.

It took concerted international pressure to achieve an end to the 20-year war between the north and south in Sudan, and even greater intensity is required to save lives in Darfur.


The Sudanese government claims it is willing to accept foreign assistance to stabilize the situation in Darfur; this sounds good because they claim they aren't sponsoring the Janjaweed. The foreign minister told a press conference, "We are ready to accept help," Speaking of proposals made by Powell, the foreign minister added, "We will look at these, including the lifting of any restrictions concerning humanitarian aid, also more security arrangements to protect civilians and disarm militias.

Adding that, "We are looking seriously before the end of the visit of Secretary Powell to reach an agreed plan [on] how we can help bring the situation in Darfur to normal."

The international community should call this bluff. Immediately.

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