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Why both Blair and the left have been silent on Sudan

The Iraq war has blunted the west’s appetite for foreign interventions

By David Clark, The Guardian

July 2, 2004 — If this week’s visit to Sudan by the US secretary of state Colin Powell has done nothing else, it has at least broken the deafening silence with which the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in the western region of Darfur has been greeted over the past year. Will it galvanise the international community to prevent further slaughter, or will it turn out to be another false dawn for the ideal of universal human rights? Countless lives hang on the answer.

What shouldn’t be doubted is that in the scale of human suffering, the Darfur crisis has already surpassed the one that provoked Nato to intervene in Kosovo five years ago. There are currently 150,000 refugees living in camps in neighbouring Chad, with a further 1 million internally displaced in Darfur itself. With the rainy season already upon them, many of these people will soon be impossible to reach. Their prospects appear bleak. According to Andrew Natsios of USAid: "If nothing changes, we will have a million casualties. If things improve, we can get it down to about 300,000 deaths." Estimates of the numbers of civilians already killed in the fighting run as high as 30,000.

As in the Balkans, violence and suffering are being inflicted on the innocent as a calculated act of policy. The conflict started as a rebellion against a repressive Islamist regime that has long practised ethnic and religious exclusion. Although, unlike the Christians of southern Sudan, the people of Darfur are co-religionists of the governing elite in Khartoum, they are also mainly black African, as opposed to Arab, and have suffered from years of marginalisation and discrimination.

The insurgency, which began in early 2003, has met with a brutal response in which the distinction between combatant and non-combatant has been deliberately ignored. The regime, directly and indirectly through its sponsorship of local Arab militia known as the Janjaweed, indiscriminately targets black African towns and villages, murdering large numbers of inhabitants before driving out the rest and destroying their homes in a programme of "ethnic cleansing".

Witness statements collected by NGOs working with the displaced confirm the scale and barbarity of the violence. As so often in the past, the widespread use of rape and other forms of extreme sexual cruelty against women and girls is a favoured weapon of the militias. A report by Human Rights Watch recounts the horrific experience of an 18-year-old woman who had a knife forcibly inserted into her vagina. The Janjaweed militiaman responsible is said to have told her: "You get this because you are black." Even those who have fled across the border to Chad have been pursued by their tormentors.

If all this appears shockingly reminiscent of the experiences of Rwanda and Bosnia a decade ago, so does the hand-wringing approach taken by many western governments, including our own. Read the speeches of Labour ministers on Sudan and you will hear echoes of Douglas Hurd circa 1994. The situation is an appalling tragedy for which all sides must share some blame. The regime has let the situation get out of control and must reign in the militias. Let’s put a few lightly armed monitors on the ground and have a quiet word with the warring parties to see if they can’t be brought to their senses.

The problem with this analysis is that it wholly misconceives the nature of the conflict. The tragedy of Darfur is not the result of some ghastly mistake; it is the product of a criminal enterprise purposefully orchestrated by the regime. All the authoritative reporting on Darfur, including the report of the UN high commissioner for human rights, describes exactly the same pattern of events. Attacks usually start with the bombing of crowded areas, such as village markets, by fixed-wing aircraft or attack helicopters operated by the government. They are then followed by ground assaults involving Sudanese regulars and the Janjaweed, often operating together.

Against this background it is naive to imagine that a durable settlement can be achieved by diplomacy alone. The international community can extract as many promises of cooperation and restraint as it likes. Khartoum has broken countless similar pledges before and won’t hesitate to do so again when it thinks it can get away with it. The only pressure likely to modify its behaviour in the long term is the belief that the international community would be willing to use force as a last resort.

No one is arguing for a ground invasion now, but for the threat to be effective, the intent would have to be real. The first step should be for the security council to pass a resolution authorising all necessary means to prevent further slaughter. As part of this it should enforce a no-fly zone, with further steps to follow if the regime refuses to stop its attacks on civilians or blocks relief supplies from reaching the displaced. A commission should also be established to investigate war crimes allegations and remind members of the Sudanese government that they will be held to account for their actions.

Until recently, Labour 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.

In one sense, Labour can afford to relax, safe in the belief that the political cost of this is likely to be low. The Chomsky/Pilger left, which led the charge against the Iraq war, has been morally disarmed by its insistence that the use of force by the west must always, by definition, be wrong. Like Tony Blair and George Bush, it has nothing to offer the suffering of Sudan - so it affects not to notice them. This explains the silence.

But there is one important respect in which the Sudan crisis shows how 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." Until now, the criticism most often levelled at Blair by his own party - that he has failed to be a good socialist - has bounced off him with predictably little effect. The far more dangerous criticism that can now be levelled at him is that he is no longer capable of being a good Blairite.

ยท David Clark was a special adviser at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001