Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 2 March 2004

Time has come for humanitarian intervention in Darfur


By Eric Reeves

March 2, 2004 — As Darfur slides further into an engulfing catastrophe, almost certainly entailing more than 1,000 civilian casualties per week, the international community faces a critical moral decision: will planning begin for a humanitarian intervention? or is the international "community" willing to declare, if only by its silence, that present rapidly deteriorating conditions may be regrettable but are ultimately acceptable, even as Khartoum’s National Islamic Front regime pursues brutal military victory in the region?

There can be no blurring of the question: either the international community begins robust planning for such an intervention---logistically, materially, and militarily---or we must accept that so long as Khartoum remains committed to a military "solution" of Darfur’s ultimately political problems, there will be no response greater than the present compromised, deeply inadequate humanitarian efforts...no matter what the number of civilian casualties. Without immediate planning for humanitarian intervention, there will be no alternative but to acquiesce in the face of Khartoum’s clear determination to conclude the war in Darfur on its own terms.

Such planning must begin with the diplomatic efforts, especially on the part of France, that will secure the permission of Chad for the mounting of a cross-border intervention of the sort suggested a month ago by Andrew Natsios, Administrator of the US Agency for International Development:

"The United States reaffirms its commitment to addressing the immediate protection and assistance needs of those in Darfur, as well as throughout Sudan, including humanitarian cross border operations if assistance cannot be provided through Sudan." (Statement from the Press Office of USAID, February 3, 2004)

Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Petersen spoke in similarly urgent terms at the time:

"Norway is extremely concerned about the further deterioration of the already dramatic humanitarian situation in Darfur province in western Sudan in the last few days. Norway deplores the recent bombing of the town of Tine, which continues the pattern of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the serious breaches of human rights that are constantly being reported. [ ] Norway will together with other donors *do what is necessary to provide humanitarian relief* and protection for the population of Darfur [emphasis added]."
(Press release: Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 4, 2004)

But a month later the only significant developments have been Khartoum’s refusal to negotiate humanitarian access with the Darfur insurgency groups under the auspices of the Henry Dunant Center for Humanitarian Dialogue (Geneva) and the regime’s refusal to accept an American initiative for a humanitarian cease-fire. Last week, Roger Winter, Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at the US Agency for International Development, reported that the US had,

"’spoken to five of the key opposition [rebel] leaders from Darfur, including those who have taken up arms against the government [ ] to ascertain if they would attend’ a conference aiming at a cease-fire. ’They all say yes. We have asked the [Khartoum] government over the last two weeks if they would participate in such an event---as of now we have no affirmative answer that they would participate.’" (The Washington File [Bureau of International Information Programs], February 27, 2004)

There is still no indication that Khartoum is interested in or willing to accept in good faith a humanitarian cease-fire. Indeed, the opposite seems the case, as all evidence suggests a determination to pursue military victory. But this is a "military victory" that entails the deliberate destruction and displacement of those African tribal groups that Khartoum has targeted as the source of support for the two main armed insurgency groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

USAID Assistant Administrator Winter posed the essential questions, as reported in The Washington File dispatch (entitled "US Official Cites Possible ’Ethnic Cleansing’ in Sudan):

"’The question arises: Is this an ethnic cleansing in motion that is taking place there [Darfur]? I don’t have the answer for that---I’m not a human rights lawyer, [but] it sure looks like that.’"

"’Despite the comments of President Bashir and the [Khartoum] government generally, the war is still raging there [in Darfur],’ Winter said. ’And it is still the case that government-connected militias are attacking the African populations of the Darfur area. So, in some senses of the word, we see the same Arab-African conflict that we’ve seen in other parts of Sudan.’"
(The Washington File [Bureau of International Information Programs], February 27, 2004)

Winter continued by declaring that:

"’Arguably, [Darfur] is the major humanitarian crisis in the world today,’ he said. ’Since November the [Khartoum] government has not allowed humanitarian access to the war-affected population’ and very little food and medicine has made it in to the besieged public. ’No IDP [internally displaced persons] camp we visited had received any food deliveries.’

"After speaking with refugees in Darfur, Winter said, he found that what is essentially happening is that people are being driven off their land by men on camels and horseback who ride into their villages shooting and chasing them into the bush. ’When we asked the people, "Who attacked you?" they said they were popular defense forces and other government-connected militias. If you asked them, "Were there any rebels present?" they uniformly said no.’"

"What feeds into the ethnic cleansing scenario is the fact that the Khartoum government does not seem to be interested in protecting the Darfur people against the raids, Winter said. To the best of our ability to ascertain information, it seems that no real steps are being taken by the [Khartoum] government to stop the uprooting and attacking of these civilian populations.’"
(The Washington File [Bureau of International Information Programs], February 27, 2004)

Simultaneously waging a war that entails "ethnic cleansing," or genocide, and denying humanitarian access, Khartoum’s control over the fates of untold thousands of Darfur’s civilian population is essentially unchallenged. With 1 million displaced internally or into Chad, with the UN and USAID estimating that over 3 million people in Darfur are now "war-affected," the scale of the catastrophe speaks all too tragically for itself. And though we cannot know with any certainty the number of casualties, we must regard with the utmost seriousness the findings of the January Briefing from Sudan Focal Point (South Africa). These findings, based on substantial research in the region, suggest that more than 30,000 have already died---implying a casualty rate in excess of 1,000 human beings per week.

Nor is there any sign that conditions are improving---on the contrary. Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres, which recently reported "catastrophic mortality rates" in Darfur (February 17, 2004), declares in a press release from last week that,

"Every assessment conducted by teams from Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) discovers newly displaced people living in extremely precarious conditions. Nearly 17,000 people have gathered recently in Krenik and Sisi, northwest of Mornay in Sudan’s Darfur region."
(Press Release, Medecins Sans Frontieres [New York], February 26, 2004)

And the conclusions are inevitable:

"Without immediate, large-scale support from other aid organisations the already alarming situation in Darfur will continue to deteriorate. MSF’s team in Mornay [ ] is reporting a marked increase in the degree of malnutrition in just the past two months. There is an imminent risk that the nutritional situation will deteriorate even further."
(Press Release, Medecins Sans Frontieres [New York], February 26, 2004)

The Irish humanitarian organization Trócaire has today issued an urgent press release that echoes these concerns:

"Trócaire has expressed concern at the deteriorating humanitarian situation created by the recent upsurge in fighting in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Hundreds of thousands of people have now been forced to flee their homes. Sudanese state forces and government-backed militias have been involved in joint attacks on civilians, in which villages have been bombed from the air, and then attacked and burned on the ground. Besides those directly killed, gross human rights violations such as rape are being committed, and entire villages are being emptied."

Niall Toibin, Head of Trócaire’s International Department noted: "So many have fled their homes that the disruption to food production is very worrying."

Trócaire’s release notes also that:

"Civilians have been directly targeted in the attacks. This is clearly in breach of Sudan’s obligations under international humanitarian law and norms. Government forces have effectively operated alongside militia groups such as the Janjaweed, which have been funded and armed by the government."
(Trócaire Press Release, March 2, 2004)

Moreover, the UN News Center reports on an ominous new development, one that suggests how Khartoum is providing logistical support for the Arab militias (the "Janjaweed") that have been responsible for so much of the human destruction and displacement in Darfur:

"Internally displaced people in western Sudan’s strife-torn Darfur region are reporting that aid given to them by United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is being stolen by [Khartoum’s] armed militia. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is considering feeding recipients directly instead of giving them rations that could be stolen, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said today. The inhabitants of one Darfur village are so fearful of militia attacks that they have asked UN staff not to distribute aid to them in case they become a target." (United Nations [New York] NEWS February 27, 2004; UN sources confirm that the "militias" referred to in this dispatch are Khartoum’s "Janjaweed" Arab militias)

Wire reports from the region also convey additional deeply ominous information. The BBC reported yesterday (March 1, 2004) on the most recent group of 25,000 refugees to flee from Darfur into Chad:

"Some of the 25,000 refugees who fled the conflict two weeks ago told the BBC that militiamen and government forces drove them from their homes.
The BBC’s Grant Ferrett in Chad’s capital Ndjamena says the testimonies flatly contradict the Sudanese government announcement earlier this month that peace and security had been restored after a year of fighting."
(BBC, March 1, 2004)

And the reports from those fleeing are all too familiar:

"Refugees close to the town of Adre---some of whom arrived only at the weekend---say militia accompanied by uniformed government forces were involved in the latest attacks. ’I came yesterday from my village because the Arab militia attacked us, stole our cattle, money and everything else. Some of them came by military helicopter, some came on horses. Some of them were in government uniforms’ Sherif Ahmed said."
(BBC, March 1, 2004)

As the BBC also reported (February 27, 2004), most of the refugees are from northern Darfur:

"The BBC’s Grant Ferrett in the Chad capital Ndjamena says that the arrivals within the past two weeks have been in the north. The rest of the 600km border is largely controlled by forces loyal to the government in Khartoum." (BBC, February 27, 2004)

The geography of this displacement is notable for several reasons: it occurs where Khartoum does not control the border with Chad, suggesting that many more would flee but for Khartoum’s military control of the border to the south; the north of Darfur is an area where there is no humanitarian presence at all, thus no international observers of any kind---and it is in this part of the province where the war is most distinctly accelerating. This latter has been confirmed to this writer by authoritative sources from within Darfur by means of tenuous electronic and telephonic communication.

The Associated Press has also recently reported on the scale of ongoing military actions by Khartoum and its Arab militia allies (the "Janjaweed")—and the clear evidence of genocidal destruction and displacement directed against noncombatants of the African tribal groups from which the insurgency groups draw their support:

"Sudanese government forces launched a series of raids on western villages, killing at least 70 civilians and forcing tens of thousands to flee, a rebel spokesman said Saturday. The attacks began shortly before noon Friday, when about 300 militia fighters assaulted Tarne, a village 930 miles west of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, Hassan Mandela, a spokesman for the Sudanese Liberation Movement, told The Associated Press. Homes were burned, resisters were shot and thousands forced to flee, he said.

"Over the next few hours, the militia sacked five other nearby villages, Mandela said in a telephone interview from western Sudan. At least 70 people were killed in the attacks and more than 50,000 forced to flee to safer areas, he said. Mandela said there were no rebels in the villages, which are in a part of the western Darfur region controlled by the government. But the residents of the villages were largely black African Muslims, the ethnic group from which the rebels draw the bulk of their fighters, he said. The government-backed militiamen were mostly Sudanese Arabs."
(Associated Press, February 28, 2004)

The systematic nature of these attacks was also recently highlighted by the European Union, as reported in a very recent dispatch from the UN Integrated Regional Information:

"The EU said on Thursday it was ’alarmed at reports that Janjawid militias continue to systematically target villages and centres for IDPs [internally displaced persons] in their attacks.’" (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, February 27, 2004)

Though the same IRIN dispatch also indicated an increase in the percentage of those who can now be reached by humanitarian organizations (or at least a notional increase: see comments by US AID Assistant Administrator Roger Winter above), this is perversely reflective of a deterioration of conditions in Darfur. For the populations that can be accessed are virtually all near the larger towns of the province, now under Khartoum’s military control. The de facto and deliberate effects of the regime’s policies are "concentration camps": people forced by dire circumstance, as well as through direct orders from Khartoum’s military, to abandon their villages and concentrate in the large camps for displaced persons (near, for example, Kutum, Nyala, and el-Fashir).

The explosion in the populations of these highly controlled camps (a glimpse of which MSF offers in its recent releases) may increase the number of people with aid access, but it is severely compromising agricultural production throughout the province, which is already deeply endangered by virtue of massive civilian displacement. Khartoum wishes this, as it does the dependency of these populations on international aid. For such dependency insures that the civilian populations of Darfur can be more readily controlled, that these civilians can provide no support for the insurgency groups, and that the destruction of rural villages can proceed with less interference and fewer witnesses.

Many, many hundreds of villages have already been destroyed by Khartoum and its militia allies, and the process continues apace, as Amnesty International indicates today in an editorial release (March 2, 2004: http://news.amnesty.org/mav/index/ENGAFR5420320044), reiterating the central findings from its authoritative report of earlier this month (Amnesty International, "Too many People Killed for No Reason," February 3, 2004 http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAFR540082004).

And what is Khartoum’s response to these reports, from so many different sources, comporting so well with one another? The UN’s Daily Press Review for February 29, 2004 gives some sense of the brutal cynicism and cruelty the governs the regime’s response to Darfur and ongoing civilian destruction:

From Al-Khartoum and Al-Sahafa newspapers [Khartoum]:
"Government: NGOs exaggerating numbers of IDPs in Darfur"

"The Sudanese humanitarian affairs minister Ibrahim Mahmud Hamid on Saturday described the security and humanitarian situation in Darfur region as stable.’ ’The humanitarian and security situation in Darfur is now stable and all roads of access to areas in need of relief are open,’ he told a meeting he held in Khartoum."

"The Minister denied reports about growing increase in the number of the displaced people and the Sudanese refugees in Chad. He accused the organisations with exaggerating the numbers of the displaced and the humanitarian situation with the aim of bringing more funds."
(Al-Khartoum and Al-Sahafa newspapers [Khartoum], via the UN Daily Press Review of February 29, 2004)

This unfathomable cynicism and cruelty suggest how far the international community is from securing any adequate response from Khartoum concerning the human catastrophe so clearly unfolding in Darfur. There is no willingness to commit to a humanitarian cease-fire, no willingness to negotiate humanitarian access with the insurgency groups under meaningful international auspices---even as humanitarian aid remains as desperately inadequate as the UN, Doctors Without Border/Medecins Sans Frontieres, and other aid organizations have so recently suggested.

There is no morally acceptable alternative to the most urgent planning and preparation for humanitarian intervention. For the consequences of accepting the present horrific state of affairs are as clear today as they were a month ago when the United States and Norway spoke of "humanitarian cross border operations" and "do[ing] what is necessary to provide humanitarian relief and protection for the population of Darfur": the relentless, racially animated destruction of civilians primarily from Darfur’s African tribal groups, both through the predations of Khartoum and its militia allies, and the increasingly consequential denial of humanitarian access.

Not to plan for an international humanitarian intervention, given Khartoum’s amply demonstrated intransigence, is to acquiesce in the face of clear evidence of accelerating genocidal destruction.

- Eric Reeves
- Smith College
- Northampton, MA 01063

- Tel. 413-585-3326, email ereeves@smith.edu

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