By Julie Flint, The Daily Star
LONDON, Dec 30, 2004 — It is exactly a year since Jan Egeland, the UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs, first used the words “the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis” to describe the situation in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. At that point, according to Amnesty International, hundreds of civilians had been killed, more than 600,000 people had fled the countryside to seek safety in towns, and tens of thousands more had taken refuge in Chad.
Today, according to the UN’s conservative statistics, 2.2 million people are affected by the conflict, including 1.6 million displaced and 200,000 refugees in Chad. Sudan analyst Eric Reeves, one of the few to attempt a serious analysis of mortality in Darfur, estimates that approximately 370,000 people have died since the rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) came to international attention in February 2003. Reeves puts the current mortality rate at approximately 35,000 per month and warns that this figure is likely to grow rapidly in light of food deficits forecast for early 2005, increasingly weakened populations that are only very partially served by current humanitarian operations, and accelerating violence that is severely curtailing humanitarian access and transport capacity.
The African Union (AU), which has provided the only international protection force in Darfur, has deployed fewer than 1,000 of a proposed force of 3,500 troops, police and logistical officers, and is up to full strength in only one sector of this vast region, Kapkabiya. It is poorly equipped to challenge what a confidential AU report obtained by this newspaper calls “a massive build-up of forces and logistics in Darfur” by the Khartoum government and, subsequently, by the rebels too. “The quantity of arms and ammunition brought into Darfur to meet the present build-up of troops in the region is so astronomical,” the report says, “that the issue is no longer whether there will be fighting or not but when will the fighting start.”
Even as government and rebel negotiators were talking about peace in Abuja, Nigeria, in mid-December, government forces were advancing toward one of the SLA’s main bases near the village of Labado, backed by a massive aerial bombardment that Khartoum denied was happening. At the same time, rogue rebel commanders in some areas were committing abuses – including the killings of relief workers – that risk losing the rebel movements international sympathy and local support.
The statistics show the appalling futility of the international response to the Darfur conflict – not a conflict that ranges Arab against African, as journalistic shorthand would have it, but one that pits the government of Sudan and allied militias and mercenaries against the vast majority of Darfurians – African and Arab. (It cannot be stated too often that the majority of Arab tribes in Darfur have refused to join the government war in Darfur, despite blandishments, threats and inducements that range from sacks filled with cash to cars to development programs and homes in the capital, Khartoum.)
So what has gone wrong, after so many fine words comparing Darfur to Rwanda and promising, so meaninglessly, “never again?”
First, the UN Security Council, as presently constituted, is incapable of living up to its “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security,” as set out in Article 1 of the UN Charter. The council passed its first, feeble resolution on Darfur on July 30, 2004 – 16 months after the crisis erupted – and ever since then has failed to back up earlier ultimatums with strong action. Wholly meaningless sanctions have been placed on a few leaders of the government-backed Janjaweed militia, but no sanctions were ordered against Khartoum for organizing, directing and participating directly in the conflict – with its air and ground forces and continuous logistical support for its local allies and proxies. The buck has been passed to the AU, which hasn’t been given the resources to deploy even an adequate monitoring force, far less a peacekeeping force.
Second, the Naivasha peace talks between the government of Sudan and the southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army have had a doubly detrimental effect on Darfur. Not only did the international guarantors of the Naivasha process close their eyes to the conflict in western Sudan for the best part of a year, fearful of damaging their efforts to resolve the 21-year-old war in the south, but action against the government of Sudan has been deterred by the fact that the man perceived as the key figure in the north-south talks, Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, is also thought to be the key figure in the security cabal responsible for the destruction of Darfur.
Third, there is Iraq. It has been all too easy for those who do not wish to break ranks with the government of Sudan or who wish to spit on the U.S. to say: “There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – and there’s no genocide in Darfur.”
Fourth, is the matter of genocide. The Bush administration has taken the moral high ground on Sudan and thrown its weight into imposing peace on the government and the southern rebels. In Darfur, however, the U.S. government’s main contribution to date has been the determination that genocide is occurring in Darfur – a determination, Secretary of State Colin Powell lost no time in saying, that would not alter U.S. policy. (You may well ask: Why point the accusation, then?) However, flagging the conflict as genocide seems likely to make it more intractable, and more entrenched, by widening the already lamentable divide between the West and the Arab world. Arabs decried as “terrorists” in the Middle East, in Palestine and in Iraq, are now condemned as “genocidal” in Africa. Yet Darfur does meet the legal definition of genocide, according to a 1948 convention on the matter (which includes actions that fall short of a credible attempt at the absolute annihilation of an ethnic or racial group). But in calling the war in Darfur genocide the popularly accepted bar has undoubtedly been lowered. Arabs are right to ask: “If Darfur is genocide, why not Congo and Burundi too?”
But in one absolutely key area the Arabs are wrong. Supporting the government of Sudan in the war over Darfur does not strike a blow for Arabs. In Darfur, the Rizeigat, Beni Halba, Habbaniya, Taaisha, Mahariya, Beni Hussein, Misseriya and Maaliya tribes, to name only some of Darfur’s Arab tribes, have all chosen either to cast their lot in with their African neighbors or to endeavor to remain neutral. A vote for Khartoum is a vote for mass murder and a black mark against all those who cast it.
Earlier this year, Julie Flint researched and co-authored a Human Rights Watch report on Darfur, “Darfur Destroyed.” She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR