Rene — Darfur: Action not words

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Darfur: Action not words
Guardian Leader
The Guardian/UK
11 Sept 2004
America’s declaration that genocide is taking place in Sudan has
injected fresh urgency – and controversy – into the international
debate about what the UN unhesitatingly calls the world’s worst
humanitarian crisis. It was only to be expected that the Khartoum
government would reject the charge, but there has also been a lukewarm
response elsewhere to Colin Powell’s statement to the Senate foreign
relations committee. The US secretary of state says genocide is
taking place on the basis of evidence that black African villagers
in Darfur are being targeted with the specific intent of destroying
“a group in whole or part”. Human rights organisations have welcomed
the shift. Britain’s official response is that grave crimes are
being committed by the government-backed Janjaweed Arab militias and
that the UN should mount an urgent investigation. Is this a case of
diplomatic sensibilities masking a brutal truth? Is it right to have
reservations about using the G word?
Situations previously characterised as genocide include the Turkish
massacre of 1.5 million Armenians during the first world war and,
less controversially, the Nazis’ extermination of six million Jews
in the second world war, when the term was coined from the Greek
word genos (race or tribe) with the Latin word cide (to kill). It
has been widely applied to Pol Pot’s Cambodia of the 1970s and made
bloody reappearances in Rwanda in 1994 and in the aftermath of the
wars of the Yugoslavian succession. Slobodan Milosevic, the former
Serbian president, is facing a genocide charge at the Hague war crimes
tribunal. Radislav Krstic, a Bosnian Serb general, was convicted of
genocide for his role in the Srebrenica massacre of 7,000 Muslim men
and boys.
Sudanese officials will admit to nothing more than a humanitarian
crisis created by ethnic strife and have contemptuously accused Mr
Powell of seeking black votes in the forthcoming US pres idential
election. Khartoum also argues that the intervention will undermine
delicate peace negotiations with Darfur rebel groups in Nigeria. Most
of the facts, though, are indisputable: 50,000 people have died since
February 2003 and over a million have been displaced. Aid workers
yesterday reported a new mass influx of refugees into one camp in
southern Darfur. Harrowing images have been on our TV screens for
long enough to fuel demands for something that goes beyond agonised
handwringing and ineffective quiet diplomacy
It is true that behind the debate in the US lies guilt about
the shameful failure to act when the first reports of genocide
emerged from Rwanda a decade ago. That is only natural. The genocide
characterisation may also be intended to galvanise the international
community -though targeted sanctions such as an assets freeze and a
travel ban on senior Sudanese officials would be more effective than
the oil embargo currently being proposed by Washington. That is opposed
by China, an importer of Sudanese oil and a security council member,
as well as by Pakistan and Algeria. And there is the familiar dilemma
that such sanctions are a notoriously blunt instrument, as the Iraqi
experience taught. But urgent though the crisis is, Washington and
London are still not trying the sort of heavy-duty arm-twisting they
tried when seeking a second UN resolution authorising war on Saddam.
Mr Powell’s intervention puts the US a step ahead of the EU, which
says it wants a UN investigation. But the real question is not about
a dictionary definition of genocide. No one can claim that Sudan
is not experiencing a terrible human tragedy. As Oxfam has been
warning in appeals for help to save lives: time is short and people
are dying. Recognising the scale of human suffering is a prerequisite
to action. Words, however resonant, are not enough.