Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 16 March 2009

Darfur Betrayed, Again

By John Morlino

March 14, 2009 — Following years of concerted effort by Darfur supporters, the
International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese
President Omar al-Bashir. Shortly after being charged with war crimes
and crimes against humanity, the now infamous criminal expelled more
than a dozen humanitarian aid organizations from western Sudan,
leaving an untold number of refugees in even greater peril. Which
begs the question: Has Darfur activism done more harm than good?

Since its inception, a well funded, celebrity-endorsed and media savvy
anti-genocide movement has raised awareness of the catastrophe to
unprecedented heights. Along the way, however, the vast majority of
its members have ignored the first rule of advocacy – the obligation
to speak truth to power.

With maddening consistency, activist leaders have gone out of their
way to avoid ruffling the feathers of their perceived political
allies, including the United Nations, the African Union (A.U.), NATO
and, especially, the U.S. government. As a result, this mainstream
coalition has routinely mirrored the acquiescence of the international
community, emboldening the Bashir regime to carry out a modern-day
holocaust in broad daylight.

Examples of their counterintuitive campaign strategies are legion.
Take, for instance, their response to the first significant decision
made by U.N. Security Council, early in the crisis.

With the front-loaded slaughter in full swing (a higher portion of
killings took place during the first few years), the Security Council
delegated the safety of Darfuri civilians to a woefully undermanned,
inexperienced and ill-equipped African Union observer force. In a
Kafkaesque twist, this faux peacekeeping contingent agreed to a
mandate permitting them to document, rather than prevent, the ongoing
atrocities.

By vigorously promoting funding for this so-called “African solution
for an African problem” instead of wholeheartedly denouncing it,
activists irrevocably strengthened Bashir’s hand, leaving the region
defenseless against his military personnel and proxy militia.

This disastrous precedent was followed by a series of watered down,
activist-supported Security Council Resolutions. Chief among them,
was the approval of 26,000 A.U./U.N. peacekeepers who, had they
actually existed, would require Bashir’s signature to be deployed in
Darfur. Moreover, even if those troops had fully materialized, their
numbers would have been far too small to do the job effectively. To
date, the makeshift force currently on the ground has simply changed
the color of their helmets from A.U. green to U.N. blue to reflect a
change of command.

By embracing a feel-good measure that was the longest of long shots,
the movement severely undermined its own credibility and cemented the
vulnerability of an entire people.

Equally disconcerting has been the free pass Darfur supporters have
given the Oval Office throughout the nightmare.

Save for an intrepid few, the well-documented (but under-publicized)
intelligence-sharing arrangement between the CIA and its Sudanese
counterparts for the U.S. “war on terror” remains the elephant in the
room for anti-genocide campaigners. This, despite the fact that the
agreement between the two governments remains a key motivation behind
U.S. officials’ tolerance of Bashir’s scorched earth policy.

In lieu of highlighting the hypocrisy of the only country that has
explicitly labeled the violence in western Sudan genocide, Darfur
activists instead chose to place the spotlight on China.

A full eighteen months before the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, they
launched the “Genocide Olympics” campaign. Rooted in magical
thinking, their plan was to shame the Chinese government (Sudan’s
number one oil customer and arms supplier) into pressuring Bashir to
halt the bloodshed and sign off on the deployment of the
aforementioned phantom peacekeepers.

True to form, the campaign crumbled when — in stark contrast to the
heroic series of nonviolent actions carried out at The Games by
Students for a Free Tibet — Darfur supporters abruptly called off
their Beijing protests after being admonished, in advance, by Chinese
President Hu Jintao.

During the past six years as many as 400,000 innocent men, women and
children have been killed in western Sudan. Millions more have been
left without protection and are, for the foreseeable future, cut-off
from critical aid.

Without question, holding Bashir accountable in the International
Criminal Court is a critical component of securing justice for the
people of Darfur. However, given his barbaric track record, activists
– at a minimum — had an obligation to forcefully insist that the
international community have the proper safeguards in place to ensure
refugees’ continued access to life-saving humanitarian aid, before the
arrest warrant was issued.

It is impossible to know whether years of Darfur activism has saved,
or merely agonizingly prolonged the lives of those who remain hostage
in the desert. Regardless, one cannot overlook the fact that no
social justice movement has ever succeeded without the courage to
confront the powers-that-be.

Given the massive scale of injustice in western Sudan and the sobering
reality that Darfur will never be the same, the dark history of this
tragedy may well be summarized by the following epitaph:

Like those that came before, this, too, was a genocide nobody really
wanted to stop.

John Morlino is the former director of The Darfur Pledge campaign, a
grassroots effort to end the violence in western Sudan and has written
extensively about the ongoing crisis. He also worked behind the
scenes supporting the 2008 Olympic protests in Beijing by Students for
a Free Tibet.