Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 2 July 2004

Silence on the Arab street

By KAMEL LABIDI, The Wall Street Journal

CAIRO, July 02, 2004 — Colin Powell’s visit this week to Sudan — where he denounced the government-backed ethnic cleansing in the western region of Darfur and warned of a Rwanda-like genocide in the making — made one thing perfectly clear: The present cycle of horror and devastation in Sudan continues to prompt more concern in Western countries than in the Arab world.

The victims of this new African tragedy of ethnic slaughter — which erupted more than a year ago but until recently attracted little international attention — are hundreds of thousands of civilians of the Muslim faith. Though Muslim, they are not of the same ethnic origin as their Arab oppressors in Sudan and the majority of their neighbors in North Africa and the Middle East.

Appalling scenes of torture and killing of civilians, including in mosques; the rape of women of all ages, often in front of relatives; the burning to the ground of scores of villages, and the destruction of water sources in the drought- and poverty-stricken region of Darfur, have for months now been reported by international human-rights groups.

So far, however, only a few Arab voices, most of them in the beleaguered human-rights community, have warned against these large-scale crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Sudanese military government and the Janjaweed militiamen whom it backs and arms. Unfortunately, these voices have little influence in a region where the media is still in the tight grip of entrenched autocrats and most people are mired in illiteracy, prejudice, poverty and injustice.

It is not the first time the state-run Arab media and even civil-society advocates have remained tight-lipped as death, devastation, and human-rights abuses unfold in a "brotherly" Arab country. Sudan is member of the Cairo-based club of Arab autocrats known as the Arab League of States. The immensity of the crimes committed under the watchful eye of Gen. Omar Al-Bashir, who toppled a democratically elected government in June 1989 with the backing of radical Islamists and offered refuge in the early 1990s to Osama bin Laden, led even the toothless Arab League to send, amid international pressure, a fact-finding mission to Darfur in May. The result was an unprecedented press release — the first of its kind since the Arab League’s establishment in 1945 — acknowledging "gross human-rights violations" committed in a member state. Sadly, the League soon yielded to pressure from the Sudanese government and quietly turned its back on the press release.

But even the hint of a reprimand from another Arab state was enough to spark outrage within the Sudanese government. At the end of May, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Othman Ismail erupted in anger during a memorable news conference in Tunis following the Arab Summit, which Gen. Al-Bashir boycotted apparently to protest his counterparts’ meddling in Sudan’s business. Ismail said Sudan expected Western organizations to make "unfounded allegations," but not the Arab League.

Arab reaction to the plight of the hundreds of thousands dispossessed, abused and displaced Darfurians is reminiscent of the shocking silence both of the Arab media and civil society that followed the gassing of thousands of Kurds by Iraqi troops led by former dictator Saddam Hussein more than 15 years ago. Such atrocious campaigns of ethnic cleansing in Iraq at the end of the last century and in Sudan today would have prompted deafening official and popular protests in Arab capitals had the victims been of Arab descent and the perpetrators non-Arabs.

The majority of Arabs will be inclined to continue to turn a blind eye to crimes against humanity and gross human-rights abuses against their non-Arab neighbors or other minority groups in the region as long as they live in police states where freedom of association, assembly and expression are still severely curtailed.

Human-rights education is badly needed in the Arab world to combat injustice, prejudice and tribalism. But it will have an insignificant impact in police states where schools and universities are still run by the cronies of Arab autocrats and where the most independent-minded intellectuals continue to be silenced by the political police and radical Islamists.

- — Mr. Labidi, a Tunisian journalist based in Cairo, is former Amnesty International Human Rights Education Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, and former director of Amnesty International-Tunisia.