Darfur crisis rages on 4 years later
By TRACEY BACH | June 17,2007
The sanctions recently announced by President Bush against four officials and 31 oil industry companies in Sudan have put Darfur back in the headlines. The ongoing conflict has caused massive social upheaval in the western region of Sudan, with an estimated 250,000 to 400,000 dead and at least 2.5 million people displaced from their homes. It has also spilled over into neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic. For the past three years, satellite imagery and survivor accounts have clearly established the Sudanese government's pattern of attack: First the air force bombs and strafes villages, then the janjaweed (Arab fighters on horseback) swarm the villages and rape and kill those still alive while burning all remaining structures to the ground. It is a scorched-earth policy that has been called genocide by the United States.
African Union troops took up their peacekeeper post just after the union brokered an April 2004 ceasefire, but they have been largely unable to stop the attacks on survivors. The Darfur Peace Agreement of May 2006 was signed by Khartoum and some rebel groups, but it has yet to be implemented. The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants in early April for a government official (the state minister for humanitarian affairs, of all people!) and a janjaweed leader, but Sudan refuses to extradite them. The United Nations has repeatedly asked President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for permission to supplement the 7,000 African Union soldiers with a much larger contingent of U.N. peacekeepers, but to no avail. Unilateral sanctions by the United States – barring these Sudanese companies from doing business with U.S. companies and denying them access to the U.S. financial system – may put pressure on the central government to stop indiscriminate attacks on civilians and seek a negotiated settlement to end the conflict. But if past attempts are indicative, it may be too little too late.
Too little because the United States is but one of the internaToo little because the United States is but one of the international actors in the Sudan. Despite many attempts, the Bush administration, along with Tony Blair's government, has been unable to convince its U.N. Security Council colleagues to take action since first calling for internationally imposed sanctions in 2004. The proposals regularly fail when China, which buys two-thirds of Sudan's oil exports and sells weapons to Khartoum, and Russia, which arms the government soldiers, the janjaweed, and the various rebel factions, refuse to join. Lacking two of the five permanent members' votes chronically impedes effective U.N. intervention in Darfur. "Unilateral sanctions … will have no impact on the regime's calculations," says John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group. "This appears to be posturing for domestic constituencies on Washington's part."
While it's never too late to alleviate human suffering, we shouldn't forget that Darfur's humanitarian crisis has raged for four years while the world has watched. Unlike the genocide in Rwanda, which largely took place behind closed doors, the killing and raping of civilians and torching of their villages and livestock has been vividly chronicled by the mainstream press, advocacy nongovernmental organizations like Save Darfur and Genocide Intervention Network, and satellite maps and photos maintained on the Internet by humanitarian assistance organizations. If we know the statistics about the dead and displaced, if we see their poignant photos, and if we truly believe in the phrase "never again," what can we do to end the current stalemate?
While continued international diplomacy is a start, it's clear that standard diplomacy alone is not enough. An interesting confluence of events – Web-based spyware currently trained on Darfur, the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, and the 2008 Olympic Games – suggests that individual action could play a particularly strong role in Darfur right now. As Bono, U2's lead singer and Africa's leading unconventional diplomat, observed when naming the source of his power to persuade world leaders to talk with him about African debt service at the recent G-8 summit: "Of course we have power. … We don't have political power, but people who like our music vote. I mean, it's just that simple."
So how can we – voters, rock fans, Internet surfers, sports junkies, and just plain caring human beings – use this power right now to help Darfuris?
First, we can watch events on the ground just by simply tapping in to the Internet. Recently, Amnesty International announced that it will use satellite technology to track possible targets of attack. The group's U.S. chapter is inviting ordinary people like you and me to help protect 12 villages considered at risk by monitoring the images on the project's Web site at www.eyesondarfur.org. Its executive director, Larry Cox, said that the group wanted to send a message to President al-Bashir that the world was watching. Lars Bromley, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that the images could show destroyed huts, massing soldiers or fleeing refugees. If we all watched and then acted, whether it be writing to our elected officials or to the government of Sudan via human-rights groups, we would both increase our visceral understanding of the human toll in Darfur and remind those committing it that we are watching their every move.
Second, we can ask our next president to do more to end the suffering in Darfur. An election campaign presents the opportunity to question candidates about Darfur and make them state what they would do, if elected president. I was in Paris during the run-up to France's recent presidential election and witnessed firsthand an auditorium filled with Parisian voters doing just that. After stating their positions, each candidate then signed a pledge assuring that he or she would make France a leader in solving Darfur's human rights crisis. While the United States has taken the lead in calling Darfur a genocide, we can use our votes to demand that the next administration do more to stop it. As Sen. Paul Simon remarked just after the Rwandan genocide, if "every member of the House and Senate had received 100 letters from people back home saying we have to so something about Rwanda when the crisis was first developing, then I think the response would have been different."
Third, we can put more individual pressure on China for it to put institutional pressure on Khartoum to stop the Darfur carnage. It was in Paris where I first heard the whisper of the now mild din about linking China's hosting of the 2008 Olympics to its support of the Sudanese government. Everyone recognizes China's role in producing the current U.N. stalemate. Everyone also understands how attuned Beijing is right now to its public face. Thomas Friedman recently observed with a chuckle how government officials ordered almost a million cars off the road to clean up its dismal air quality right before African leaders arrived there for a summit meeting. Actress Mia Farrow knows this, and thus has dubbed the 2008 summer games the Genocide Olympics. In her March op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, she challenged Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, creative consultant to the Olympic ceremonies (going as far as asking him whether he wants "to go down in history as the Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games") and corporate sponsors like Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola and McDonalds, to take notice. They have – and so has the Chinese government, which recently appointed a special envoy to Darfur. Just as quickly as the Beijing smog diminished before hosting that African summit, so too has China's response produced a February visit by President Hu Jintao to al-Bashir and a well-publicized April tour of Darfur by Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Zhai Jun.
A global neighborhood watch. A presidential pledge to save human lives and livelihoods. An Olympic-sized protest venue for Darfur. Which will you choose?
Tracey Bach is a professor at the Vermont Law School and co-teaches a human rights course on the law against genocide