Jonathan Freedland
The Guardian
Wednesday March 14, 2007
An unprecedented plea from 14 UN humanitarian bodies on behalf of
the people of western Sudan has been roundly ignored
I once spoke to a journalist who had covered the war in Bosnia in the
early 1990s. He said that he and his colleagues kept heading into
harm’s way, because they believed that once the world knew of the
horrors they had witnessed, the world would be stirred to act. They
filed their reports and waited. Soon enough, they understood. The
world knew what was going on – and yet it did nothing. For some of
those reporters, this experience broke their faith in the power of
journalism. For others, it broke their faith in their fellow human
I suspect the aid workers and United Nations staff who signed
a collective statement on the plight of Darfur in January are
going through a similar heartbreak right now. Fourteen different UN
humanitarian bodies, including the World Food Programme and the World
Health Organisation, issued an unprecedented cry of despair. They
explained that their workers had “effectively been holding the line
for the survival and protection of millions, [but] that line cannot
be held much longer”. Under attack themselves, these UN workers could
no longer reach the people they sought to protect and feed. “In the
last six months alone,” they wrote, “more than 250,000 people have
been displaced by fighting, many of them fleeing for the second or
third time. Villages have been burnt, looted and arbitrarily bombed
and crops and livestock destroyed. Sexual violence against women is
occurring at alarming rates. This situation is unacceptable.”
I’m sure that when they drafted that message, they believed the world
would stir and come to their rescue. Surely it could not ignore such
a stark, desperate plea from those whose only motive is to save lives?
Well, now they know. The message came and went, reported here and
there, posted on the odd website and comprehensively ignored. The
humanitarians of Darfur have learned the lesson of the old Bosnia
press corps: that the world might know, and know in great detail –
but still the world does nothing, or waits until it’s too late.
First blame lies of course with the government of Sudan, which UN
human rights investigators this week accused of “gross and systematic”
abuses, orchestrating and participating in a campaign of violence
that has seen, at a conservative estimate, 200,000 people killed and
2 million displaced. Officially, this has been done in the course
of a civil war against rebels in Darfur, who are guilty of their
own atrocities. But the UN human rights council was quite clear:
the “principal pattern” was of violence committed by the Sudanese
government and its allies in the Arab Janjaweed militias.
Why can it not be stopped? The answer reveals much about the state
of our world, the limitations of power and the extent to which the
liberal interventionist vision articulated by Tony Blair during the
Kosovo war in 1999 – of a world in which states could no longer murder
their own people with impunity – lies in shreds.
It’s not as if the international community has done nothing. In
August last year the UN passed resolution 1706, agreeing to upgrade
the small African Union force of 7,000 troops that was attempting to
police Darfur – a territory nearly the size of France – with a UN
deployment of 22,500. Such “heavy support”, in both personnel and
hardware, would have made a vital difference, standing between the
Khartoum-backed predators and their Darfuri prey.
Trouble is – and here’s a surprise – the predators don’t want that
force to come in. And this has to be a “consensual” deployment:
it can’t happen without the permission of those who are to be
restrained. It’s as if the police knew that terrible crimes were going
on at number 73 – but were forced to stand outside, doing nothing,
because the man of the house wouldn’t let them in.
Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, is not quite as crude as that. If
the pressure is sufficient, he tends to say yes to the requests of the
international community – only to say no later, when the attention
of the world’s capitals has moved on. Bashir has turned saying no
into an art form, constantly refusing UN and other officials access
to refugee camps, townships and villages.
Jody Williams and her team of UN human rights investigators were
forced to do their work from across the border when the Sudanese
authorities denied them a full set of entry visas.
Back in the prelapsarian days of 1999, when Tony Blair went to Chicago
to evangelise for liberal interventionism, the response to this closed
door would have been to suggest that the rest of the world, led by
the west, should bust its way in. But that was before the calamity
of Iraq, which has tainted for a generation the Blairite doctrine of
muscular humanitarianism. So no one talks seriously about military
action against Khartoum now, not least because Bashir’s government
is an Islamist one – and a western war against such a regime would
look uncomfortably like confirmation of the clash of civilisations
that both Blair and President Bush insist does not exist.
Claiming to be the victim of some western vendetta against Islam
also suits Bashir, but it is bogus. For one thing, Bashir’s Darfuri
victims are themselves Muslim. But, more importantly, those seeking
to restrain him and his Janjaweed militias are hardly the hated west
– they are the African Union. It is the AU which has been impeded,
harassed and attacked, and whose expansion Bashir resists. Indeed,
the hybrid UN force he is currently barring would be overwhelmingly
African and Asian, drawn from mainly Muslim states. The first batch
of UN troops, already on standby, is from Rwanda.
But force is not the only pressure. London is pushing for narrowly
targeted sanctions, aimed at Sudan’s ruling elite, hitting the
companies they own and the luxury goods they covet. That, combined with
a no-fly zone and an arms embargo covering all Sudan – not just Darfur
– could, say its backers, force Bashir to back down. If neighbouring
Arab states put pressure on the rebel groups, the result could be a
ceasefire and an end to the terrible violence.
Yet even that course of action seems too much for the international
community. China won’t sign up, because it relies on Sudanese oil and
sells arms to Khartoum. Some African and Asian states have grumbled
that Sudan is being unfairly singled out.
More importantly, perhaps, there is little or no pressure from public
opinion. That’s partly because there has been none of the intensive
media coverage that triggered the drumbeat for action in Kosovo,
for example. The left, who one might expect to rise in fury at the
mass murder and oppression of a black African population, has also
kept its distance. That might be because it suspects those demanding
action on Darfur are driven by an anti-Islamist agenda, or because
it fears that “action” would translate into an Iraq-style invasion.
Those are some of the reasons why the world has done nothing; perhaps
there are others. But the fact of it still stains our world. At the end
of this month, leaders will gather to celebrate the 50th anniversary
of what became the European Union. They will make fine speeches,
declaring that after the horrors of the second world war the only
moral course was “never again”. If those words reach all the way to
Darfur, how hollow they will ring.
_freedland@guardian.co.uk_ (mailto:freedland@guardian.co.uk)