Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 23 August 2008

Olympic-Size Hypocrisy on Darfur


By Kevin Funk and Steven Fake

August 22, 2008 — With the Olympics here, Western haranguing of China for its role in abetting what some have labeled ‘genocide’ in the Darfur region of Sudan is reaching a fevered pitch. Hardly a day passes in which US commentators fail to fill the op-ed ledger with righteous indignation over Beijing’s political, economic, and military ties with Khartoum, or its rejection of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) moves towards prosecuting Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir. Yet the favored storyline of Darfur activists is highly selective and obscures more than it reveals.

Shattering illusions of US benevolence and exceptionalism vis-à-vis China, Washington has cultivated intelligence-sharing relationships with some of the most reprehensible elements within the Khartoum regime, the same government which it accuses of genocide. Rationalized as part of the supposed “War on Terror”–in which the State Department lauds the Sudanese government as a “strong partner”1–the US has collaborated with key Sudanese government figures, such as security chief Salah Gosh.

Gosh, who was afforded a White House visit in 2005 after being flown to Washington on a CIA jet,2 served as Osama bin Laden’s “handler” during his stay in Sudan in the 1990s. He is also, in the words of retired general Wesley Clark and ENOUGH Project Co-Chair John Prendergast, “very likely a war criminal whose policies are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Darfurians.”3

Of particular relevance to the West’s current supposed preoccupation with ‘bringing justice’ to Sudan, embodied by the ICC moves against Bashir and two other government officials, is the infrequently acknowledged fact that at least some of Washington’s collaborators within the Sudanese state apparatus are also under investigation by the ICC.4 Western commentary would be easier to swallow if some mention were made of this curiosity, or of the peculiarity that Washington initially opposed referring the Darfur conflict to the ICC (in contrast to its selective support now),5 and has refused to provide the Court with any of the evidence or intelligence it has gathered on humanitarian crimes committed in Darfur.6

Western hypocrisy on Darfur is indeed boundless.

For years, commentators and activists latched onto the idea of a UN force in Darfur as a panacea for the region’s ills. In the meantime, they largely ignored the African Union (AU) deployment physically on the ground in Darfur since 2004, almost universally failing to push for increases in the anemic levels of funding provided to it by the West, ensuring the impossibility of an already difficult mission.

With their prayers answered by the re-hatting of the AU mission into a joint AU-UN force (UNAMID) as of the beginning of this year, one could have minimally hoped that the West would not allow UNAMID to suffer a comparable fate.

Yet the results have been frighteningly similar, indeed tragicomically so.

UNAMID has remarkably still not received the two dozen helicopters which it has been seeking since August of last year, despite the fact that the entire peacekeeping mission “risks failure” without them, making it “impossible [for the force] to intervene in violence,” to paraphrase Gen. Martin Luther Agwai, the mission’s commander.7

After an attack against UNAMID in early July in which 7 peacekeepers were killed, apparently by government-allied forces, Agwai again noted that he had “none of the promised tactical helicopters that might have prevented the slaughter of our men…Our long shopping list of missing equipment makes shameful reading.”8

Of course the absence is not for lack of availability. NATO nations alone could supply nearly six times the requested number of choppers.9 Summarizing the findings of a new report on this astonishing demonstration of Western and global apathy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former president Jimmy Carter wrote of the helicopters, “Many are gathering dust in hangars or flying in air shows.”10

While Darfur peacekeepers cannot get a single helicopter from the West, the U.S. and its allies have 350 deployed in Iraq.11 In the value-system of the prevailing world order, compared to a brutal five-year-old, superpower-led occupation in the heart of the world’s oil-supplying region, Darfur is an undetectable speck of dust.

As observed in a joint report issued by leading NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and several Darfur advocacy groups, “In effect the international community is abetting the government of Sudan’s policy of obstruction, handing the Sudanese government an easy excuse to explain delays and a ripe opportunity to direct attention away from its calculated inaction.” Labeling as “disgraceful” the failure of military-capable nations to properly equip the UNAMID force, the report accurately summarizes the “international community’s” true posture towards the deployment of a potentially effective peacekeeping force in Darfur as serving “to reinforce the government of Sudan’s attempts to undermine it.”

The West of course does not bear primary responsibility for the crimes in Darfur; that, of course, lies with the Sudanese government. As its principal ‘big power’ ally, and the largest consumer of its oil, China deserves to be criticized, and harshly, for its ties with the Sudanese regime, and its failure to pressure it more acutely.

Yet Western activists and commentators, even in light of a major world event like the Olympics, have relatively little maneuvering room in which to engage critically with Beijing, especially in comparison with the innate power they have to criticize and effect changes in the policies of their own governments. What would be the reaction in the West if Chinese activists were to focus the lion’s share of their energies on opposing Washington’s badly underreported supporting role in the Ethiopian invasion and ongoing occupation of Somalia?

The aggression overthrew a government that had brought the first hint of safety and stability to daily life in Somalia in more than a decade and sent the country into a humanitarian tailspin. Somalia now possesses the “largest concentration of internally displaced people in the world.”13 Half the population of the country is threatened with famine.14 The UN humanitarian coordinator for the region calls the food crisis worse than that in Darfur and aid workers consider it “one of the worst in the world.”15 Despite this, the catastrophe is “largely unseen and unnoticed by the world.”16

Yet instead of taking aim at Washington’s crimes, it would plainly be more effective for Chinese citizens to focus their energies closer to home.

The same principle holds true for Darfur activists in the West, whose energies would be better spent if directed primarily towards opposing US policies in Somalia, or the occupation of Iraq. For those working on Darfur, zeroing in on the grossly deficient US response and giving the lie to Washington’s political posturing is more likely to yield results than chasing far-removed targets.

This odd focus is reflective of the distinctive character of the Save Darfur movement. Arising not from the traditional left but from a mishmash of liberal humanitarian and religious constituencies, the Darfur movement represents both an opportunity to involve thousands of new activists in the left, and also a challenge, to overcome the elite-friendly aspects of the movement that do nothing to help Darfurians but much to further illusions of Western benevolence.

The large number of grassroots Darfur activists reflects a strong and widespread desire to organize against injustice. It arose, naturally enough, as a response to (and has also fed) the extensive Western media attention afforded to the humanitarian disaster. The media in turn took their queue from US government rhetoric, particularly as exemplified in then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2004 declaration that genocide had occurred. Driving home the point, the former US Special Envoy to Darfur acknowledged that the genocide speech was “for internal consumption within the US,” which, he clarified, meant appealing to the Christian right.17

Confirming the source of inspiration for much of the energy behind Darfur activism, Ruth Messinger, a leading activist on Darfur, asks rhetorically “why [given that there are many problems in the world] single out Darfur and why target China?” She answers her own question: “this is the first genocide, since the word was coined, where it was defined as genocide by the American government while it has been happening.”18

The establishment bias is hammered home by a comment from Jill Savitt, the director of Dream for Darfur, the group spearheading the Darfur activists’ pressure campaign on China in the 2008 Olympics. As the New York Times recounts, “she quickly shot down a suggestion to publish a newspaper op-ed essay asking President Bush to skip the opening ceremonies. ‘He’s not going to do that, and I’m not in the business of asking for things I know I’m not going to get,’ she snapped.” We are in a sad state of affairs when activists restrict their demands to those which they know will be granted.

The Save Darfur Coalition (SDC) has gone so far as to organize a joint statement by the then remaining US presidential candidates: Barack Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton. The “historic” statement manages to heap praise upon the candidates while allowing them to avoid any concrete proposals or commitments, continuing the Bush Administration tradition of hollow electoral pandering on the issue.19

Obviously whatever can be done to potentially improve the situation in Darfur from our position in the West should be pursued vigorously. The Olympics provide a valuable opportunity to press for improvements in whatever country hosts them as it focuses the world’s attention on that nation. It is only logical for the Darfur movement to take advantage of that leverage.

Darfur activists point to China’s actions in recent months - support of the joint AU-UN peacekeepers, occasional, mild criticisms of Khartoum, and its appointment of a special envoy for Darfur - as evidence of the success of the “genocide Olympics” strategy.

China is concerned about its global image and the Darfur movement can plausibly credit its influence as a source of China’s improved behavior. The extent to which this has translated to pressure on Khartoum or improved conditions on the ground it difficult to discern, though the impact of activist work is often hard to measure in concrete terms.

However, even in the context of the Olympics, the predominant opportunities for compelling action are closer to home.

Laudably, organizers have not been afraid to challenge the corporate world. Campaigners, spearheaded by Mia Farrow, are calling upon people to switch off the commercials during the Olympics in protest of the corporate sponsors (including Coca-Cola, General Electric, McDonald’s, and Microsoft). Instead, viewers were asked to watch live webcasts from a Darfurian refugee camp and an alterative to the opening ceremonies of the games – a concert featuring several big-name musicians.

While the rare domestic angle to their efforts is welcome, government is inherently more responsive to popular pressure than corporations that, in any case, are several degrees removed from Darfur.

Aside from the aforementioned bolstered support for peacekeepers, among the obvious and concrete measures to be taken by wealthy nations (and demanded by activists) is an increase in funding for humanitarian groups on the ground. While Washington often brags about its leadership in financing aid to Darfur, the sad reality is that the aid groups must constantly grapple with funding shortfalls and cutbacks in operations due to inadequate backing. For instance, in June the World Food Program (WFP) announced cuts in the number of flights servicing the humanitarian organizations in Darfur due to the failure of the international community to provide $20 million. It was, “a blow to the humanitarian effort in Sudan,” according to the WFP representative.20

To take one further example of an issue the Save Darfur movement has chosen to largely ignore, Washington has admitted only a handful of Darfurians into the United States.21 Thousands of refugees languish in wretched conditions in Egypt, Chad, and other nearby countries. Britain is no better, having denied asylum to Darfurians fleeing the violence and repatriated them to Sudan, where they will have to fend for themselves against Khartoum.22 Egypt and Israel, two more close allies vulnerable to U.S. pressure, have also revealed a “shared disregard for the plight of Sudanese fleeing Darfur,” in the words of Human Rights Watch director for the region.23

Organizing around such issues does not garner praise from legislators, funding from large corporations and wealthy donors, op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, or positive coverage from the media. Such influences push activism away from challenging the establishment and towards safer targets to be found in global competitors like China. Yet the true criterion for effective action is successfully improving conditions on the ground.

Darfur campaigners have nevertheless chosen to focus disproportionately on the China-Sudan alliance, especially in the run-up to and during the Olympics, in the process failing to devote sufficient energy to the dramatic failure of Western powers’ to take concrete steps to help resolve the Darfur crisis. That is not only hypocrisy–it is putting Darfurian lives in jeopardy.

Kevin Funk and Steven Fake are authors of the forthcoming Scramble for Africa: Darfur – Intervention and the USA, to be published in October by Black Rose Books. They have written numerous articles on Darfur for Foreign Policy in Focus, Counterpunch, and ZNet, amongst other publications. They maintain a website with their commentary at www.scrambleforafrica.org.

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