Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 15 May 2006

A Cruel Joke is Played on Darfur


International powers are talking about urgent action to enforce peace. But where are the troops?

By Eric Reeves, The Guardian online

May 15, 2006 — Jan Egeland, the UN’s courageous chief humanitarian official, recently visited the grim Kalma camp for displaced persons in South Darfur. Though the event was overshadowed by subsequent violence, what was most remarkable was the greeting Egeland initially received. Crowds of people, undeterred by the menacing presence of Khartoum’s security forces, chanted, "Welcome, welcome, U.S.A.! Welcome, welcome, international force!"

Of course the Norwegian Egeland was not the harbinger of international humanitarian intervention, though he has certainly been the strongest voice within the UN calling for a massive strengthening of the currently deployed African Union force. The roughly 20,000 troops he has been demanding for well over half a year are nowhere in sight; and if we listen at all attentively, comments coming from NATO headquarters in Brussels, from Washington, and from officials at the UN in New York are far from encouraging.

Of course there is the obligatory posturing by the various nations with the power to stop genocide in Darfur - all signatories to the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and thus contractually obligated (per Article 1) to prevent continuation of the ultimate human crime. But we betray Darfur deeply ourselves if we mistake this posturing for serious action.

It’s easy for Tony Blair to declare that a non-existent peacemaking force must have "sufficient firepower" to guarantee the feeble accord signed last week in Abuja, and that "Britain and the US, with other NATO partners, [are] looking at the issue urgently to see what more could be done." But an assertion of "urgency" seems a cruel joke almost two years after General Sir Mike Jackson declared that the British army could field a brigade (5,000 troops) for a humanitarian mission to Darfur.

Then (August 2004) as now, Khartoum has relentlessly threatened, to superb effect, any intervention to halt the genocide. Khartoum’s genocidaires said at the time that "Any power that intervenes in Darfur will be a loser". More recently the president of the National Islamic Front Omar el-Bashir made comments putting him on the precisely the same page with Osama bin Laden: any Western troops deploying to Darfur would find it their "graveyard". To underscore its refusal to countenance any international security force in Darfur, Khartoum continues to deny visas to an assessment mission from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

Certainly there have been voices expressing prudent caution about humanitarian intervention in Darfur; but at this point in the genocide, prudence has become cowardice. Darfur is not Iraq, despite the energetic efforts by Khartoum to convince the world that this is so. The people who greeted Egeland at Kalma camp were not exceptional; I have yet to speak with any non-Arab Darfuri who would not welcome a UN-led or, preferably, NATO-led intervention. Indeed, I receive from Darfuris, in Darfur and the diaspora, constant, often anguished pleas for such intervention.

We must bear in mind that these African tribal populations make up a distinct majority in Darfur. They represent a huge built-in network of intelligence observers should the threatened migration of non-Sudanese jihadists to Darfur actually occur. Moreover, we must put this threat in the balance with the effects of humanitarian intervention. A robust brigade of NATO-quality troops, ideally (if improbably) operating with a UN mandate, serving as the core of a larger force of approximately 20,000 troops, could immediately change the security dynamic on the ground in ways critical for the almost 4 million human beings now defined by the UN as "conflict-affected" and in need of humanitarian assistance.

Such a force could produce an immediate and complete stand-down of Khartoum’s regular forces, including helicopter gunships. The Janjaweed could be put on notice that they would be destroyed if they assembled in groups larger than a couple of dozen (this would have the effect of "disarming" these brutal militias, since they function as a quasi-military force only when the aggregate in the hundreds or thousands). Camps for displaced persons could be protected from marauding remnants of the Janjaweed and other violent elements. Vital humanitarian corridors and operations could be protected. And there would be sufficient manpower available to start the process of providing security for people as they return to their lands. Crucially, staunching the flow of genocidal violence into an increasingly unstable eastern Chad could also begin.

Yes, there are risks and significant costs to such an operation; it will be neither short nor easy. But the alternative is to survey the current death toll, in excess of 450,000 from all causes, and declare that we are prepared to accept hundreds of thousands of additional deaths in the coming months as we enter the most deadly hunger gap to date (the period between spring planting and fall harvest). Food stocks are critically low, humanitarians continue to evacuate, more than 700,000 people are beyond the reach of all aid efforts in the greater humanitarian theater of Darfur and eastern Chad.
This is Rwanda in slow-motion, and the Abuja accord between one faction of the Sudan Liberation Army and Khartoum’s genocidaires provides no guarantees or guarantors that might halt Darfur’s ghastly spectacle.

Are we really prepared to accept such human destruction indefinitely?

* Eric Reeves is Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and has published extensively on Sudan. He can be reached at ereeves@email.smith.edu.

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