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Darfur is a right mess – but that does not absolve us.

Ailbhe Darcy | 19.12.2007 10:56 | Analysis | Anti-militarism | Climate Chaos | Cambridge | World

The situation in Darfur may be tangled beyond belief, but we still have an obligation to seek a solution.

Upon reading Not on Our Watch: The Mission to End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond, by Don Cheadle and John Prendergast, I felt goaded to action. In fiercely, simplistically, motivational language, this book tells you that if people continue to suffer and die in Darfur, it’s your fault: “The decisions we need to make to protect those who are suffering are clear, and the sooner we decide, the more lives will be saved.” For several weeks, I wrote an impassioned letter a day to politicians I thought were in a position to make something happen about Darfur. One by one they returned to me pat, automatic responses. Imagine my shock and delight when, the day after receiving my letter, Gordon Brown responded by declaring that he was actually going to do something about the crisis. With the French President Nicholas Sarkozy, he announced to the world that the two leaders would push for an immediate ceasefire in Darfur and a UN resolution to dispatch African Union and United Nations peacekeepers to the region. Both Britain and France, he said, were prepared to provide “substantial” economic aid “as soon as a cease-fire makes it possible.” I knew my letter had been strongly-worded, but still, I was impressed. Wow, I thought, you weren’t joking, Don and John, this book really works.

Seductive as Cheadle and Prendergast had been, the one thing that is clear about Darfur is that nothing is “clear”. Not what’s really happening, not how many people are suffering or dying, certainly not “the decisions we need to make to protect those who are suffering.” We can’t even agree on the reasons for the violence. The confusion about basic causative factors was made clear in July when BBC News reported that a vast underground lake had been discovered in the Darfur region. Delight was general. It was widely reported that the find could contribute to ending the war by eliminating competition for water resources. Setting aside the fact that the lake turned out to be bone dry, the view that the crisis in Sudan is caused by scarce resources is not itself without controversy. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has been perhaps the most prominent proponent of the notion that the conflict is – as some journalists have put it - the “world’s first climate change war.” In June he had released a statement in which he proposed that the slaughter in Darfur stemmed “at least in part from climate change,” and that it “derives, to some degree, from man-made global warming.” Al Gore Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize this year based on the premise that there is a causal connection between natural resource shortages and violent conflicts. But scientists are less and less certain that ecological factors can be considered causal in modern conflicts. Recent research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology indicates that lands where resources are heavily exploited show a clear connection to a lack of armed conflict. Nations troubled by war during the 38-year research period had lower exploitation rates of their natural resources. In other words, the findings give solid empirical support for stating that environmental scarcity is not the reason behind violent conflict.

In Alex de Waal’s introductory chapter to his book on the struggle, War in Darfur, he comments, in passing, on environmental determinism: “No scholar who has done field research in Sudan subscribes to the simple notion that drought and ecological degradation directly cause conflict.” A footnote adds that at least one “apologist for the Sudan government” has tried to encourage this explanation of the violence in Darfur. Maintaining that scarce water resources is the ‘reason’ for Darfur’s problems is about as subtle as imagining it really was my letter that got Brown and Sarkozy together to chat about Sudan.

So what is happening in Darfur? Genocide? International humanitarianism is a notoriously foggy area. The concept of ‘genocide’ as a ‘crime against humanity’ was at some level introduced to slash through that fog. The idea is that, once an event was officially termed ‘genocide’, a bona fide ‘crime against humanity’, governments would have an obligation to act. For this reason governments have often avoided using the g-word at all costs – they’ll stick to “widespread atrocities” or “mass killings.” It was a surprise when the US government termed the Darfur crisis a genocide, and it is alone among states in doing so. Even its own special envoy for Sudan, Andrew Natsios, pointedly refrains from referring to it as such. The 1984 Genocide Convention states that two criminal elements – physical and mental - must be established for a genocide to have occurred. There must be actions aimed at or resulting in the deaths of members of a national, religious or ethnic group, and the perpetrators of these acts must have the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the targeted group. Jonathan Kolieb, an international lawyer writing for the Baltimore Sun, has argued that the vicious campaign of the Sudanese armed forces and the Janjaweed militia does not satisfy these criteria. “Their intent is to forcibly put down or drive out of Darfur a secessionist movement and the insurgency that supports it…sheer scale is insufficient to transform massacres into genocide.” The UN commission charged with investigating whether any international crimes had been committed in Darfur unanimously concluded that Omar al-Bashir’s regime, while probably guilty of crimes against humanity, “has not pursued a policy of genocide.” Kolieb further argues that the term ‘genocide’, “by conjuring up images of the one-sided slaughter of innocents”, belies the complexity of the Darfur conflict.

It is arguably true that the ‘genocide’ label, and the framing of the crisis in humanitarian terms generally, has allowed the world’s most powerful countries to limit their response to expressions of concern and self-righteous demands that the UN take action. The problem with Kolieb’s argument is that it swerves towards relativism. It is muddying the waters to point out, as he does, that “several rebel groups have engaged in despicable acts themselves, such as the targeting, rape and murder of international aid workers.” One is tempted to sing out, as we did as children, that two wrongs don’t make a right! It is irrelevant to the charge of genocide whether the victims are “innocents” or not. Condemning the slaughter of a people by its government should not be denounced as “Khartoum-bashing,” as it has been by certain commentators.

Successive Khartoum regimes have played an undeniable role in miring Darfur, the isolated western dependency of Sudan’s more fertile heartland, in deep poverty. Yet more nefarious was the tendency that emerged in the eighties when Khartoum regimes began to encourage Arab militias, whose emergence was itself inspired by the possibility of seizing official positions and land from non-Arab Darfuris. Alex deWaal explains this progression from neglect of the region to out-and-out violence as the consequence of the total dominance of Khartoum and its faction-ridden elite, for whom Darfur’s remote people and land are little more than playing chips for endless power struggles. It was the policy of the government that turned multiple and relatively minor local conflicts into a general state of violent displacement and war, as the Fur, Zaghawa and other non-Arabs armed themselves in self-defence. Governmental complicity in later years has produced new armed groups, worsened conflicts over land, and further entangled Darfur’s politics with those of adjacent Chad. Meanwhile the government has suppressed information by jailing and killing witnesses, tampering with evidence and obstructing and arresting journalists.

As Justin Willis has suggested in his review of deWaal’s book for the TLS, the worst aspect of Khartoum’s culpability is that “the situation is now such that even if the current regime tried (a sizeable if, given its complex internal politics), it could not by itself bring peace to Darfur. This is a government that can break things, but cannot fix them.” Horribly, deWaal even suggests that it may be ‘many years’ before the time is right to negotiate another peace agreement, and, for all my glee when Brown and Sarkozy made their announcements, it is certainly a struggle to see what good the much-heralded UN force can do in the current environment. Justin Willis ends his review bleakly: “What is to be done? Nothing, except to wait for better times, for Darfur and Sudan are trapped beneath the rubble of political failure; pinned down by the weight of ruthless, egotistical and incompetent leaders, who apparently cannot be shifted. One can see the attraction of the climate change argument; blaming the weather is less depressing than trying to unpick this sorry mess.”

Must we really sit on our thumbs and wait it out? Images in the daily media, of burnt corpses, fighting soldiers, starving children, hardly allow us to do so in peace. And perhaps, after all, there is another angle of attack. Willis does not mention China. China has consistently opposed economic and non-military sanctions on Sudan. Amnesty International has issued reports accusing China, along with Russia, of supplying arms, ammunition and associated equipment to Sudan. This hardware has been transferred to Darfur for use by the government and the Janjaweed militias in violation of a UN arms embargo against Sudan. In June this year, Airforces Monthly Magazine confirmed that China and Iran had again financed and delivered “newer” aircraft to Sudan.

Sudan, far from lacking natural resources, has a plentiful supply of oil. It is unsurprising that China considers good relations with Sudan to be strategically essential, given China’s eagerness to guarantee fuel for its booming economy. China also has direct commercial interests in Sudan’s oil, with a Chinese state-owned company, Petrochina, controlling about two thirds of Sudan’s total oil production. Recently, however, there have been signs that China may be changing its stance on Darfur due to international pressure. Calls for sustained pressure and possible boycotts of the Olympics have come from diverse corners, including French presidential candidate Francois Bayrou, Genocide Intervention Network representative Ronan Farrow, author and Sudan scholar Eric Reeves and the Washington Post editorial board, with Sudan divestment efforts have concentrated on Petrochina. If only China could be prevailed upon to recognise its responsibilities in Darfur, it would certainly be in a better position than any other state to exert pressure for change. As Justin Willis writes, the Sudanese government “is a government whose disregard for ‘international opinion’ is both practiced and not without a certain appalling wit: faced with demands for one individual to be handed over for trial for war crimes, the government appointed him head of a commission to investigate human rights abuses.” Not so China: China might be susceptible to our threats and charms.

One of the pernicious riddles of international humanitarianism is: Just how much do we owe these faraway people, anyway? The title of Not on Our Watch recalls those banners supposedly waved by some demonstrators against the invasion of Iraq in February 2003: Not in my name. Some commentators saw this slogan as a symptom of egotistical Western culture – the ‘because I’m worth it’ generation, they sneered. Protestors, they said, were only trying to wash their hands of the dirty work, to save, as Slavoj Žižek put it in the LRB recently, their “beautiful souls.” In Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, the protagonist Henry Perowne watches anti-war demonstrators pass and is disgusted. If these people would really prefer Saddam’s torture to Bush’s bombs, he thinks, they should at least be sombre about it. But I think we danced and sang that day because we saw how many of us there were and thought we had finally managed to come out in numbers enough to save the world. We never dreamt that we would be ignored and the world would carry on as before. I find it hard to be convinced, moreover, that there can be immorality in an active attempt - however selfishly motivated - to make the world a better place.

In The Times this month, Anjana Ahuja reports on new research, conducted in Canada, that suggests that we donate to the needy to avoid feeling ashamed, rather than to feel good. Robert Fisher and colleagues from the University of Alberta studied four televised fundraising appeals over two years. They found that people donated more money when they received nothing back. Presenters who offered material incentives for giving (such as entry into a competition or some kind of freebie) attracted less money than those who emphasised where the money would go. Professor Fisher concludes that the motivation to help is not personal gain but an overwhelming sense of obligation. I find this possibility incredibly heartening. Perhaps we can find it in our hearts to feel ashamed of what is happening in Darfur.

Writing, in the preface, about the title of their book, Cheadle and Prendergast declare – perhaps over-optimistically, given the fate of those anti-war marches – that “…we know that there are thousands, maybe millions, like us who desire to tell their children and grandchildren that at a time when there was a terrible thing called genocide, to which those in power turned a deaf ear and blind eye, people like us spoke so loudly, in numbers so great, that we could not be ignored. We take our “watch” as seriously as any officer on board [a ship.]” In October 2006 – more than a year ago now – 120 survivors of the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide and the Cambodian genocide, backed by six aid agencies, submitted an open letter to the European Union, calling them to do more to end the atrocities in Darfur. We owe it to them, and to the people of Darfur, not to wait for more propitious times – to keep up the search for an answer now, however hopeless that search might seem from here.

Ailbhe Darcy
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