Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 6 August 2004

Darfur needs peacekeepers now


Editorial, The Economist

August 05, 2004 — Nearly a year after the horse bolted, the UN has given the people who opened the stable door 30 days to show that they are serious about trying to rein it in again. Or else they will face unspecified penalties. Last year, the Sudanese government armed a mounted Arab militia, the janjaweed, and set it to work terrorising black Africans in the western region of Darfur, who are presumed to support one or other of the rebel movements there. With the support of government bombers, the janjaweed have torched hundreds of villages and robbed, raped, tortured or killed their inhabitants. This has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis: at least 30,000 dead, 1.2m forced to flee their homes, a harvest unplanted because the planters fear being shot if they venture into their fields, and 2m people in need of food aid and medical assistance. You might have thought that such a catastrophe would demand an urgent response, but the UN is not to be rushed.

Under the terms of a Security Council resolution passed last week, the government of Sudan was given 30 days to disarm the janjaweed and stop hindering aid workers as they succour the starving. If it does not, the UN will consider "measures", which could include sanctions of some sort. There is talk of military intervention, but so far little action. The Sudanese army called the resolution a "declaration of war" and vowed to fight any "crusader" army that sets an impious foot on Sudanese soil. The Sudanese government encouraged big street demonstrations against the resolution, but also said that it would, under duress, try to comply with it.

What happens next will depend on who is serious, and who is bluffing. How harshly would outsiders punish the Sudanese government if it were to dishonour its pledges? And how will they judge if those pledges have been dishonoured? For Sudanese officials to stop hindering aid workers would require a dramatic change in their bureaucratic culture. And it is not certain that the Sudanese government could disarm the janjaweed, even it wanted to. It has promised to send 12,000 policemen to Darfur to impose peace. But some janjaweed fighters are being given police uniforms instead of being relieved of their guns. The UN says that Darfur has grown a bit calmer in the past week, but attacks against civilians continue.

The situation on the ground is confusing. It is not only the government that is hampering relief efforts. Darfur’s rain-softened roads slow food-aid lorries. The rebels have looted some deliveries, and freelance bandits have taken advantage of the general climate of impunity to pillage and murder. Two things, however, are clear. One is that unless it is credibly threatened with painful sanctions, such as an oil embargo, the Sudanese government will make no serious attempt to ease the plight of its black African citizens. The other is that even if the regime starts to behave better than it ever has before, foreign troops will still be needed in Darfur.

Military force will be needed to safeguard aid deliveries, and to reassure those who have fled their homes that it is safe to return. The refugees will never trust the Sudanese army to protect them, because they have such fresh memories of its barrel-bombs. They would welcome the 3,000 troops the African Union is thinking of sending. But these will not be enough, and will probably never arrive unless rich countries provide financial and logistical support. Since every day’s delay means hundreds more unnecessary deaths, Darfur cannot wait another month for help. It needs peacekeepers now.

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