Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 8 July 2004

Too tragic to ignore

Editorial, The USA Today

July 08, 2004 — In the USA, it would be unimaginable: Bands of men descend with the speed of Harley bikers, except on horseback. They destroy homes, execute men, rape women and force survivors into squalid camps in desert areas as harsh as arid Arizona. In the faraway capital, meanwhile, officials joke about it, insisting it’s malicious exaggeration.
Switch to Africa, and those scenes, which are actually happening right now in Sudan, have less power to shock. In the western Darfur region, 1.2 million people have been driven from their homes by terrifying marauders called the Janjaweed. Even visits there by Secretary of State Colin Powell and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week haven’t raised the crisis to a level where the world pulls out all the stops.

That’s partly because Darfur reinforces fatigue-inducing stereotypes of Africa: corrupt leaders, Dark Ages-like poverty and disease, and so many hard-to-comprehend conflicts. The Iraq war further obscures the problem and limits U.S. options.

Yet a decade ago, when a mind-bogglingly brutal genocide in Rwanda, just south of Sudan, left 800,000 dead, the world vowed never to ignore such horrors again. Recently, former president Bill Clinton said his failure to act was one of his greatest regrets.

Feeble world efforts in Darfur sure have a familiar feel, though. The U.S. and U.N. may be threatening sanctions against the Janjaweed horsemen and pressing the government to secure the region for aid to get through. But the Sudanese leaders themselves have been arming the Arab militias committing the ethnic cleansing of blacks.

What’s needed is the international will right now to prevent, in the worst case, a million deaths. As it is, 300,000 are likely to lose their lives to the rampages, starvation and disease. Rains will soon make reaching the area more treacherous. The best solution is for well-armed U.N. forces to enforce security and a no-fly zone, with sanctions and a travel ban on Sudan’s leaders if they balk.

The U.S. has only suggested that it may back such drastic moves. It fears jeopardizing a remarkable agreement it recently helped craft to end a wider, near-half-century civil war in the country. But the situation is too urgent not to act.

Historically, the U.S. has paid only sporadic attention to Africa. A report to Congress today underscores reasons that’s not good enough. Among them: Poor countries in upheaval can become terrorist centers, as Sudan was for al-Qaeda. And Africa could one day provide up to 20% of U.S. oil imports.

But even without those extra reasons, standing by in the face of mass killings - the Holocaust, say, or Rwanda - is unconscionable. In the USA, Africa or anywhere else.