The world fiddles while Darfur bleeds

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

  • Darfur - refugee conditions.

    Darfur - refugee conditions.

Written by Scott Piatkowski

Last week, as I was watching the award-winning documentary Romeo Dallaire: Shake Hands With the Devil on CBC, I felt physically ill. The massive genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 was all the more tragic because, as Dallaire, Gerald Caplan and Stephen Lewis all note in the movie, the world (or at least world leaders) knew what was happening in Rwanda and simply chose to do nothing about it. The area had no real strategic value and the people dying were black Africans, so nearly a million of them were allowed to die under some of the most horrific circumstances imaginable.

Did we learn anything from Rwanda? Apparently not. As many as 200,000 people have been killed in the Darfur region of Sudan, and another two-and-a-half million are at risk. Still, no one seems to be prepared to take action to stop it (the wringing of hands by politicians doesn’t count).

Then again, limited as my own audience may be, I realized that I haven’t done as much as I could do to raise awareness of the issue. I also knew that that needed to change. While I don’t pretend to be an expert on the situation in Darfur, what I’ve read is disturbing enough.

A September 2004 article in The New York Times describes how the Sudanese government is abetting the actions of the pro-government Janjaweed death squads that roam Darfur:

The people, if one can find them, continue to tell harrowing tales of government planes swooping overhead before the rampage of the pro-government Arab militias, the Janjaweed... What is certain is that the threat of violence remains so intense, and the government's promises to secure the region so mistrusted, that no one here feels safe enough to return home. Darfurians are still on the run. So terrified do they remain that some are hiding in caves, or pitching tents of twig and cloth under the thickets that sprout from the sand. They said that in recent weeks, homes continued to be burned, livestock looted, villagers killed and women raped, events often preceded by the roar of government planes and sometimes bombings….

The extent of control or cognizance by the Sudanese government in the attacks is not wholly clear…. Under intense pressure to disarm the militias, the government has described the Janjaweed as independent outlaws, tried to distance itself from their violence and pleaded for more time to bring Darfur under control….

The most telling evidence of physical devastation comes from a United States State Department map, produced with the aid of satellite pictures in an effort to mount a case of genocide against the Sudanese government. It shows clusters of burned villages across Darfur. Some two million people are displaced, nearly all of them black Africans.

The United Nations has investigated (and is still investigating). But, incredibly, despite the fact that its recently-released 176 page report (available in full at www.un.org/news/dh/sudan/com_inq_darfur.pdf) documents horrific abuses, it won’t use the phrase genocide to describe the campaign of murder and intimidation (even though “government officials may commit acts with genocidal intent”). An article in The San Francisco Chronicle explains why the report dances around the word genocide:

A man's eyeballs are gouged out. A classroom of school girls is violated in public. Babies are tossed into fires as their mothers watch. Other victims are crucified, dragged on the ground by horses and shot in the head. The United Nations' report -- 176 pages in all -- is filled with many more such horrible details of rapes, killings, assaults and plundering. All of these are crimes -- but do they constitute "genocide"?

No, according to the U.N. report, which examined the extent of atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan, where government-backed militia called the Janjaweed ("devils on horseback") and government soldiers have terrorized civilians for more than a year. Released last week, the finding became an immediate point of contention for those who want the United Nations to do more to halt atrocities in Darfur. Avoiding the g-word is significant because if the United Nations officially labels the Darfur violence "genocide," it's required by its own charter to intervene more forcefully.

Another reason for inaction is that the United States, whose President says he ways to spread freedom around the world, is opposed to the creation of an International Criminal Court, which is where the perpetrators of the genocide would logically be tried (that’s because it’s afraid that its own soldiers might end up being tried there).

As Ann-Louise Colgan, Director of Policy Analysis and Communications at Africa Action, noted last week, “The U.S. is the only country (sic) that has rightfully recognized that what is happening in Darfur is genocide, but it is failing to take action that fits with this finding. Five months have passed since the Bush administration acknowledged that genocide was taking place in Darfur, and more than 1,000 people are still dying in Darfur each day as a result of government-sponsored violence and the related humanitarian crisis. A decade after Rwanda, is another U.S. President really going to stay silent and refuse to act as another genocide unfolds in Africa?” Unfortunately, the answer to that question is probably yes. The coalition-building efforts of the U.S. are reserved for Iraq; and its vast resources are being diverted to weaponizing space.


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