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Why the world is ignoring Darfur


British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made it plain that if the genocide in Rwanda were to happen again, Britain would have a duty to act. In 2001 he told the ruling Labour Party’s annual conference that there was a moral duty to prevent such carnage being repeated. President George Bush famously wrote the words ‘not on my watch’ on a memo summarizing the Clinton Administration’s inaction over Rwanda.

The United Nations now acknowledges that in the last two years 180,000 black Africans have died in the Darfur region of Sudan. The British House of Commons International Development Committee, in line with several non-governmental agencies active in western Sudan, believes the figure is nearer 400,000, with two million people displaced because of ethnic cleansing.

The Blair Government’s reaction has been to deny the scale and cause of the suffering in Darfur, to portray it as a humanitarian rather than a political problem, and to cast both ‘sides’ as equally guilty. In other words, apart from sending food to refugees, British policy in the face of mass murder and ethnic cleansing is not to confront the perpetrators, in this case the National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum.

Kofi Annan has repeatedly warned the United Nations that events in Darfur demand a tough multilateral reaction to convince the Sudanese to stop the bloodshed. However, the Security Council’s resolutions on Darfur have lacked teeth, and the massive oil interests of the Chinese and the French, both permanent Security Council members, will ensure those countries put their national self-interest first and veto any action.

Last May Annan’s staff believed they had persuaded the Canadians to lead a civilian protection force of like-minded interventionists such as the Australians, Dutch and Scandinavians. When Canada announced it wanted to send troops, the Sudanese regime feigned outrage. To general dismay, the Canadians backed down rather than arguing the case, or calling Khartoum’s bluff.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what has occurred in Darfur is genocide, as defined by the 1948 Convention. Sudan’s military junta in Khartoum has deliberately targeted the black Africans of Darfur because they want the land for their largely Arab supporters. The Coalition for International Justice, the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and others are in agreement: Sudan’s regime has burned and bombed 90 per cent of black villages in Darfur, and it has paid and armed Arab militias known as the Janjaweed to sweep across this vast, dry region, killing, raping and looting as they go.

When I interviewed dozens of women survivors in refugee camps in Darfur, they told me remarkably consistent stories about aerial attacks by Sudanese airforce Antonovs and helicopters, followed by waves of Janjaweed on horse and camel. The Janjaweed killed the men and boys, raped the women, stole cattle, torched homes and threw babies on to fires (for photographic evidence please visit www.wagingpeace.org.uk). The women walked for days to the camps, built shelters from twigs, and now face daily attack whenever they venture out for firewood.

Of the women I met, all had been attacked or raped within the last two weeks. They told me that the Janjaweed screamed racial abuse at them as they raped them. The racism did not surprise them, however, because it is common practice for Sudanese Arabs openly to refer to black Africans as ‘slaves’.

Despite Prime Minister Tony Blair’s commitment to prevent another Rwanda, and his concern about Africa, his Government shows no inclination to pressure the Sudanese regime. In off-the-record briefings, British ministers warn that the small-scale Darfur rebels are equally as responsible as the mighty Sudanese armed forces working in concert with their Janjaweed proxies. The subtext is that these savage people are all as bad as each other, and that we will only provoke an Islamic jihad if we intervene against the junta in Khartoum. Evidently, the same concern about attracting militants from around the world did not inform the Blair Administration’s thinking over Iraq. Even the House of Commons International Development Committee recently condemned ministers for deliberately downplaying events in Darfur and for misrepresenting the genocide there as a humanitarian disaster resulting from ‘ancient ethnic tribal hatreds’.

In 2004, at the height of the slaughter, officials at the British Embassy in Khartoum made it clear to me that Darfur was an irritating sideshow, and that their priority was Sudan’s north-south peace deal. In saying this they revealed who was driving British foreign policy: the White House.

Since it took power the Bush Administration has been under pressure from highly organized American Christian groups to stop Islamist Khartoum from killing southern Sudan’s black Africans, many of whom happen to be Christians. Coincidentally, there are vast oil reserves under the blood-soaked earth of southern Sudan, and everyone is keen to establish a stable economic environment there.

The future looks bleak for Darfur. The genocide and ethnic cleansing have succeeded

In an impressive display of tough, focused diplomacy, the US State Department’s John Danforth forced the Sudanese regime to come to a power-sharing agreement with southern rebels, led by General John Garang. Danforth’s unrelenting pressure on Khartoum was a textbook example of how to use the threat of military and economic action to achieve your aims without firing a shot. Britain assisted Danforth in south Sudan, and together with the Americans is determined to make sure the comprehensive peace treaty sticks, despite the death of Garang in a helicopter crash in July 2005. They believe this entails not upsetting the generals in Khartoum, rather than using other possible tactics such as the prospect of economic aid as an incentive to stop the killing in Darfur.

There was a brief period when Britain was at odds with the Bush Administration. The same Christians, in coalition with black church groups, pushed the White House to get tough with Khartoum over Darfur. In September 2004 Colin Powell, then Secretary of State, determined that genocide was happening in Darfur, and the Government of Sudan was to blame. Cynics might suggest that the November 2004 presidential elections could have had some bearing on Powell’s announcement.

Nevertheless his view was echoed by President Bush, and the governments of Germany and Canada. Unfortunately it seems that recognizing the existence of genocide no longer triggers any duty to act – a development that surely deserves wider debate. The Americans were at least applying pressure to the authors of the genocide in Khartoum.

In sharp contrast, in April 2004, during one of the deadliest periods in Darfur, the then British Ambassador, William Patey, boasted to an audience in Khartoum that British trade with Sudan was up by 25 per cent. ‘We are and shall remain good friends with Sudan,’ he assured them.

Seasoned Sudan-watchers, such as the American professor Eric Reeves of Smith College, credit the generals in Khartoum with fine diplomatic skills, pointing to the way they have run rings around Westerners for years. The junta quickly responded to American pressure on Darfur by offering to share their intelligence on al Qaeda with Washington. Osama bin Laden lived in Khartoum for five years during the 1990s, and in 1998 the Clinton Administration sent several cruise missiles to destroy a factory thought to be producing chemical weapons near Khartoum.

In April 2005 the CIA sent a private jet to collect the head of Sudanese intelligence, himself wanted for war crimes in Darfur, and ferried him to their Langley, Virginia, headquarters for debriefing on bin Laden. At the same time Bush stopped describing the events in Darfur as genocide or even mentioning the issue. It is also rumoured that the name of the head of Sudanese intelligence has been removed from the secret list of 51 individuals accused of war crimes in Darfur. In the War Against Terror it would seem that anything is negotiable.

The excuse for remaining cosy with the junta is that pressure on the Khartoum regime might endanger the north-south deal. Underlying this is a favourite mantra: we must work with the big powers in any region, whatever our reservations about their human rights record, because the worst possible outcome is instability. The foreign policy establishment lives in fear of someone redrawing maps according to the wishes of the inhabitants of the nations created in an arbitrary fashion by colonial powers.

British ministers warn that a much worse gang of thugs might replace the current mass murderers, were they to be overthrown. When questioned about his relationship with Khartoum, Chris Mullin, then Africa minister, said in November 2004: ‘In diplomacy sometimes you have to work with people with whom you might not see eye to eye on everything.’

Of the women I met, all had been attacked or raped within the last two weeks. They told me the Janjaweed screamed racial abuse at them as they raped them

At the risk of being picky, taxpayers might not see ‘eye to eye on everything’ with a junta that allows no elections and no free press; tortures hundreds of political prisoners; has encouraged and facilitated institutional racism towards its black African citizens in all walks of life for decades; has killed two million in south Sudan and another 400,000 in Darfur; imposes extreme Sharia law, and allows virtually every eight-year-old girl to be forcibly mutilated.

Anyone demanding consistency from diplomats does not appreciate the subtle arts of realpolitik. As explained to me by sundry officials and ministers, those of us outside the system simply don’t understand the complexity of Sudan. We should be grateful that humanitarian supplies are being sent. ‘There is no military solution,’ Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary in Britain contends, although he believes military intervention was the appropriate response to Saddam’s Iraq.

The future looks bleak for Darfur. The genocide and ethnic cleansing have succeeded. Now the priority is to protect the survivors in refugee camps. Sadly both the African Union and the Arab League have chosen not to condemn Sudan. The African Union has a mere 2,700 soldiers ‘monitoring’ an area the size of France with only a handful of paved roads.

Human Rights Watch believes that the Janjaweed are joining the army and police, and Médecins Sans Frontières catalogues their systematic rape of Darfur’s women. The BBC dutifully reports that the Sudanese Government is investigating reports of attacks on women, as if it were not the architect and paymaster of the whole wretched disaster.

The international community disgraced itself over Rwanda and it is doing so again in Darfur. The Canadian general turned human rights activist, Romeo Dallaire, who was present in Rwanda, believes more than 40,000 troops are needed in Darfur to protect civilians. The Sudanese junta needs international investment and respectability, which gives the ‘international community’ the power to make them stop the killing and terror. Although they deny it, Khartoum could call off the roaming bands of Janjaweed rapists and looters tomorrow. Instead the survivors of the genocide must fend for themselves. It is, in Dallaire’s words, ‘Rwanda in slow motion’ – and he should know.

Becky Tinsley is director of Waging Peace.

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