Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 3 July 2004

Dousing the flames of Darfur


LONDON, July 02, 2004 (The Economist) — At first glance, the satellite photographs seem unremarkable: clusters of black circles on a map, as if a child had dipped a cup in black paint and stamped it repeatedly on a page. Then you realise that each circle is a hut that has been torched. The horrors of western Sudan are distant and under-reported, but no less real for that. To crush a revolt by black Africans in the Darfur region, the Sudanese government has armed the janjaweed , an Arab militia, and instructed it to kill, rape and terrorise civilians who, being black, are presumed to sympathise with the rebels. An estimated 1.2m people have been driven from their homes. Some have fled into Chad, but most are stuck in fetid camps within Darfur, where famine looms. The US Agency for International Development predicts that without help, 1m people may die, and that 300,000 will probably die whatever is done. That is the tragedy that Colin Powell, America’s secretary of state, and Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, flew into Khartoum this week to avert.

Time is not on their side. Nor, despite its protestations, is the Sudanese government. The regime in Khartoum admits that there is a humanitarian problem in Darfur, but says its scale has been exaggerated by malevolent foreigners. And it denies involvement in ethnic cleansing, though the refugees unanimously report that the militiamen who terrorise them are supported by government troops and bombers. The best thing about the regime is that it is weak. Its fear of American power has caused it to make concessions in the past, most notably in efforts to end a separate civil war in southern Sudan. A tough approach should yield results.

Messrs Powell and Annan sounded moderately tough this week, threatening UN action if Khartoum does not rein in the janjaweed, allow relief agencies unfettered access to Darfur and start serious negotiations with the rebel movements there. One must hope that, in private conversation with Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, they spoke even more forcefully. They have several levers. To jostle the government into making peace with the southern rebels, America has proffered carrots and sticks: aid if a formal peace deal is signed (as is expected soon), and sanctions if Khartoum fails to negotiate in good faith. These carrots and sticks should be made conditional on resolving the crisis in Darfur.

America should also threaten to establish a no-fly zone over Darfur, like the one that protected the Kurds from Saddam Hussein after the first Iraq war. If Sudanese planes continue to bomb civilians, they should be shot down. With luck, threats alone will be enough to bring Khartoum into line. But if they do not, America should be prepared to follow through.

The UN Security Council, meanwhile, should authorise all measures necessary to protect the vulnerable in Darfur. This would include the dispatch of peacekeepers to police the oft-broken ceasefire there, and to make sure that food and other emergency supplies get through. The blue helmets will be needed even if the Sudanese government does everything asked of it. Though it created the janjaweed, it is far from certain that it can control it. Janjaweed commanders will not meekly lay down their arms, particularly since America has named seven as war-crimes suspects.

The rainy season is starting in Darfur, making it harder to move relief supplies overland. The world must act now. As Mr Powell noted, there will be plenty of time later to decide whether the atrocities in Darfur constitute genocide.

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