Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 19 February 2007

Darfur and the Genocide Glitterati


By Anne Bartlett

Feb 18, 2007 — I will not be popular for saying this, I know. But as I opened my e-mail inbox this morning, I was confronted by yet another batch of Darfur events which aimed, in one way or another, to either solve or ameliorate the crisis. More panels of the genocide glitterati pontificating on what could be done for Darfur; more hand-wringing and head shaking about the lack of action on the ground, more wine and cheese events and bands of happy African dancers for entertainment. Yet almost without exception, there were few Darfurians represented among these people, especially those who have been active in the crisis.

Advocacy is good. It is important work in which human rights abuses are highlighted and dialogue is initiated about what can be done. But without specific targets in mind, and perhaps more importantly, without engaging the people on the ground, it has limited value. This value is even further diminished when the advocacy is based on analytically elegant, yet substantively inaccurate explanations for the crisis such as: longstanding “Arab/ African” tensions, or my personal favorite, the dynamic of insurgency/counter insurgency brought on by “rebel” action.

The story of Darfur is much larger than the land itself. What has happened there is not a simple pitting of one group against another; of Arab against African. The story of Darfur is the story of Sudan as a whole. Mired in conflict for decades, it is the story of national versus regional power, of entrenched privilege, of pervasive racism and marginalization. It is the story of long held political alliances, of external geopolitical influence and the way such influences permeate Sudan, creating and maintaining fracture points that stretch the length and breadth of the country and right into the psyches of the people. The story of Darfur is a political story first, before ethnic or other tensions come into play.

Engaging the dynamics and the complexity of the region is difficult work, but is made even more difficult if Darfurians aren’t front and center of the process. There is no way to simply “solve” the Darfur crisis from the outside, since peace must first be organically produced and second, it must be sustainable. This means that effort should be concentrated in two specific areas: 1) empowering local groups so that they can speak for their own needs and rights and 2) making the National Congress Party (NCP) aware that the cost of marginalization, manipulation and war mongering will be high — prohibitively so.

Easier said than done? Perhaps. But a start would be to recognize the political history of this regime and the fact that punitive intervention is the only sort that works. This means a concerted attack against their economic base (which in reality means attacking their geopolitical support and revenue), legal pressure through ICC warrants and working with the Sudanese people to counter the regime’s strategies of misinformation. This is one side of the equation and work appears to be going in that direction.

But the other equally important side of the equation means empowering Darfurians. Little if any of the money raised by advocacy groups has been spent on building the democratic process on the ground, assisting with negotiation skills training or helping locals to figure out how to make their needs known in a constructive way. The rebels, lambasted by everyone after the Abuja negotiations, were a classic case in this regard. Coming, as they did, from local villages – doctors, farmers, teachers, students, lawyers – they were unable to deal effectively with the international political circuit, or the near impossible task of negotiating with the Sudanese government. While some of the problems could be attributed to personality issues, training would not only have been helpful, but could have stemmed a lot of the problems that were subsequently encountered in the negotiation process.

Jan Eliasson and Salim Ahmed Salim’s current trip to the region with the hope of uniting the factions is a start. So is the EU’s tougher stance against the regime’s posturing. But this also needs to be accompanied by a change of focus for the advocacy groups involved in the crisis. Enough of the genocide glitterati, the incessant meetings and pontification. Enough of the wine and cheese events, the celebrity breakfasts and protest rallies where Darfurians get a paltry 2 minutes at the end to discuss the crisis affecting their region. If only a fraction of the money spent on these events was spent on the ground or in providing leadership support, the people of Darfur would be in a much better position.

While some helpful overtures have been made in the last few days, it is patently obvious that the balance of power still lies with entrenched geopolitical interests rather than vulnerable men, women and children. Work needs to be done to change the dynamic. As Eric Reeves eloquently pointed out last week, a viral campaign against the Genocide Olympics is a good place to start. But so is a concerted campaign to “give back” to Darfur by training, facilitating and assisting its people to confront this shameful mockery of a government. To this end, how about some more scholarships to help Darfurians educationally; how about some negotiation skills training for the “rebels” (especially before the next round of talks); how about some grants to facilitate inter-tribal dialogue?

It was distressing this week to hear a Darfurian say: “the people of Darfur have to help themselves out of this crisis, because no-one else will”. Let’s not turn this crisis into a social club where everyone but the Darfurians are invited. Let’s also not forget that locals, living through this nightmare on the ground, are the real experts in this crisis.

* The author is a Director of the Darfur Centre for Human Rights and Development, London. She can be reached at albartle@uchicago.edu

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