For many people in the Arab world the ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ unfolding in Darfur just doesn’t exist – and the simple reason for that is that the Arab media have ignored it. So it’s little wonder that there has been no unease or disapproval voiced at the ignorance exhibited by most Arabs on the subject.
What makes things worse is a suspicion that this is the kind of unscrupulousness that borders on a denial of history; one need only recall the role of some Arabs in the African slave trade.
Let’s assume for a moment that Arab governments displaying a less than clear-cut commitment to human rights issues in Darfur is only to be expected – in fact, crimes against humanity in Darfur are just about the last thing an Arab government is going to place on its list of foreign policy priorities. But what about Arab journalists, intellectuals, political activists and artists? How is their behaviour – particularly those whose job it is to raise public awareness of such things on behalf of the UN – to be explained?
How can they justify their silence on the crisis in Darfur? No explanation, no honestly expressed shock has been forthcoming. The only rent in this curtain of silence was a statement on 17 October 2006, when at least a few Arab intellectuals expressed their disapproval of ‘the silence of the Arab world in the face of the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur’.
In contrast to what is happening in other Arab regions, what we have in Darfur is an internal Sudanese conflict that is being fought out between the central government and armed opposition groups, against a backdrop of decades of backwardness in development and government greed for power – in a region where ethnic, cultural and religious disharmony has brought a catalogue of wars, one after the other.
The fact that the political and intellectual élite of the Arab world have chosen to ignore – some even to deny – the situation, despite the vicious bloodletting, may be down to the central importance they attach to what is going on in the Middle East, particularly the conflict with Israel.
The role of the Arab media
Darfur, unlike the Middle East, is a non-event as far as the Arab media are concerned: ‘as if Darfur were really none of our business, or we didn’t want it to be any of our business,’ is how one female Arab journalist put it.
Some sections of the Arab media even insist on referring to the Darfur crisis as ‘a Zionist-American conspiracy’ to carve up Sudan and plunder its resources. This conveniently allows them to ignore the crimes being committed in the region itself. Others choose to lay overarching importance on national security, to the detriment of all other humanitarian concerns.
The Egyptian media are a good example. They have not only continually denied the existence of the humanitarian crisis in Sudan, but adopted an arrogant attitude to the subject. Egyptian press reports on the crisis of Sudanese refugees – dozens of whom were killed in December 2005 after they gathered in a square in Cairo to protest against Egyptian policy on refugees – clearly illustrated this.
The official Egyptian press vindicated the action of the security forces and were arrogant and racist in their reporting of the fate of the defenceless Sudanese, who had fled the misery of Sudan only to make the acquaintance of clubs wielded by the Egyptian security forces.
Much of the current debate is taken up with protestations over the proposed presence of UN peacekeeping forces in Darfur. Arab regimes accuse the international community of incompetence and of applying double standards with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
But the same double standards are recognizable in Arab thinking. This blinkered political rationale has cost thousands of civilian lives in Darfur, with innocent people suddenly becoming expendable pawns in the conflict being waged by the political and intellectual Arab élite against the West.
What some – in particular the Khartoum Government – have overlooked is the fact that a 10,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, made up mostly of soldiers from 60 different African and Asian countries, is already stationed in Sudan: in the South. The peace agreement of 2005 brought an end to 21 years of civil war between the Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and led to the troops being deployed.
So collaboration with the international community for the purposes of securing peace in Darfur neither contravenes international law nor undermines the sovereignty of the Sudanese leadership; it is in fact the duty of the international community.
The Arab world’s response to the Darfur crisis has been a miserable failure. It’s the moral failure, however, more than the political failure, that is the real tragedy. And it is a failure of intellectuals just as much as it is of Arab governments.
Because it is better late than never, Arab politicians, intellectuals, lawyers and journalists must act now. They must come together to protect the people of Darfur. It may, perhaps, still be just enough to help ease a little the pangs of remorse which are the lot of all who indulge in misplaced silence and ignorance.