The crisis in Darfur is widely documented and while individuals and non-governmental organizations have mobilized to help, they are limited in their ability to bring a comprehensive solution to this problem. It falls to the nations of the international community to act in substantive ways if there is to be an end to the cycle of violence, displacement, death and despair. 10,000 people die each month as the nations of the world do far too little. Inability and unwillingness on the part of the world's nations reveal many sad truths. Collective security seems inadequate in the face of terrorism, energy dependent foreign policy, and a general indifference to the sufferings of the poor and the marginal. Far too often rhetoric does not result in action, and self-interest is far more powerful than selflessness.
There were two primary arenas which brought Sudan into the concerns of the international community prior to the current tragedy in Darfur: the ongoing civil war with the South and the presence of untapped oil resources. The civil war between the Muslim North and Christian South has occurred through much of the nation's 50 year history since independence. Christians in Western nations, particularly the United States, were greatly troubled and lobbied their governments to support their brethren who were being mistreated at the hand of the Muslim government in Khartoum. Negotiations to resolve these conflicts began in earnest in 2001, with the Naivasha Accords reached in late 2005.
Both Western nations and Sudan were motivated by more than concern for their co-religionists. The Chevron Company found oil in the southern portion of the nation in the 1970s, and although a pipeline to Port Sudan (Figure 19) was completed in the 1990s, most Western nations boycotted this resource because of the political situation. Reaching the Naivasha Accords was the prerequisite to American entrance into the Sudanese oil industry. Sudan also was a star in the universe of increasing Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorist actions of some who promoted militancy, although Bashir tried to promote a more moderate image for a few years after September 11, 2001. In recent months, Chinese support and increasing oil revenues have allowed him to resume a more combative approach with the West.
Once the world became aware of the horrors unfolding in Darfur, one would have hoped that every resource possible would have been used to combat this tragedy, but within Sudan, the United States and the United Nations, the appearance of concern masks inaction and in some cases, indifference. The reasons for this paradigm vary, but for those who suffer the daily horrors in Darfur, each day without direct intervention is a possible death sentence. Over two million people are now in refugee camps (Figure 21), breeding grounds for both disease and discontent.
The Sudanese government bears much of the culpability for unleashing the Janjaweed to combat the success of rebel groups within Darfur. The rebels used military assaults to protest marginalization by the government in Khartoum. Giving these local Arab militias carte blanche has led to enormous destruction and death, as they undertook their mission with a frightening zeal. This policy, of local militias acting on behalf of the national government, had also been the strategy to undermine rebel forces in the South.
President Bashir's first efforts were to conceal from the world what was happening in Darfur. Once he was unable to do so, he claimed that this was an insurgency, similar to what the United States encounters and suppresses in Iraq. Evidence of atrocities was countered with claims of exceptionalism, just as the US soldiers' behavior at Abu Ghraib was a deviation, not the norm. And what of the people of Sudan? Bashir has effectively assumed the position of the high moral ground, casting outside interest in suspicious and hypocritical lights. So Khartoum continues, using opposition to foreign intervention wrapped in the flag of national self-determination, claiming that to allow the entrance of foreign troops would be tantamount to a re-colonization of the country. He garners further support by claiming that the demands of the world community are too high a price to pay for its sovereignty.
The United States government is also guilty of saying much and doing little. Although individual citizens and non-governmental groups have been compassionate and generous with both money and time, the Bush Administration is limited in its ability to mobilize a response both within its own country and the global community. When first brought to light in late 2003 and early 2004, the government was concerned that highlighting problems in Darfur might undermine the delicate negotiations in Naivasha and the resolution of that decades old conflict. The State Department did study the problem and then Secretary of State Colin Powell declared events in Darfur genocide. Some observers felt he was coerced into making those claims while others maintain that he did so over White House objections.(1)
Despite continued popular concern, the US government seems distracted by more immediate matters. As the war in Iraq slogs through its fourth year, there is little popular support to send US troops on any more peacekeeping missions, regardless of the legitimacy of the cause. President Bush's maverick stance in areas from global warming to combating terrorism does not do much towards generating the sort of collective global action that might be effective. Nor does the United States seem able to prevail with other powers, such as China, who is supporting the Sudanese because of its strong interests in and dependence on Sudanese oil.
The United Nations also has been limited in its ability to affect the situation in Sudan. The situation was first brought to international attention by UN Aid workers in late 2003, and the question of whether it was indeed genocide was considered by a special committee that issued its findings in the summer of 2004. This report concluded that the events in Darfur did not constitute a genocide, but acknowledged genocidal behavior on the part of individuals. The linguistic gymnastics of diplomacy aside, the member nations did consider the problem and passed important resolutions in September, 2006 that called for an international peacekeeping force of 20,000 troops. The resolution allowed the Sudanese government to approve the admission of such troops, which it refuses to do. China, influenced by both its energy needs and fear of setting a precedent of international troops challenging a nation's sovereignty, has supported Sudan fully in this matter. China's National Petroleum Corporation owns 40% of the Sudan consortium that pumps over 400,000 barrels of oil a day from Sudanese wells (Figure 19)
(1) In his book Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, French journalist Gerard Prunier makes the claim that Powell was coerced, citing an anonymous US government official. See Prunier, p. 140, Note 42. Conversely, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof states that Powell declared genocide in Darfur despite objections from the Bush administration. See for example his November 21, 2006 column, "Boy's Wish: Kill Them All."
Claims of genocide abound but for those who suffer the daily atrocities, terminology is useful only if it spurs action. To the world, Darfur is a classic African problem-distant, esoteric, violent, rooted in complex ethnic and historical forces which few understand, and devoid of any practical interest for rich countries. Even as a humanitarian issue, it is compelling yet somehow avoidable. The question of genocide, given events of the last century, has made it important yet also served to distract people from the sources and therefore the possible solutions to this enormous problem.
The Western press perpetuated the African versus Arab explanation that unfortunately served to obscure rather than clarify the complex sources of this crisis. Yes, blacks and Arabs were killing each other in Darfur but many of the Arabs were black and loyalties were much more subjective than these labels suggest. At this point, the Janjaweed target members of their own tribes. No one is safe or beyond the reach of the horror (Figure 20) .
Has the government of Sudan participated in the systematic destruction of a portion of its people? Yes and No. The use of local power to maintain central authority has characterized this country's history, both before independence and after. Bashir's regime stays in power because he has been able to maintain the dominance of his group of Arabs over the majority of the country. The disorder unleashed is common in an Africa and indeed a world where armed men are given legitimacy as decision makers for people who have not elected them, whether they are presidents like Bashir or Janjaweed leaders like Musa Hilal.
Does the government of Sudan display enormous disregard for the welfare of its people? Yes but ethnic or racial or tribal or religious affiliation does not seem to be the source of this disregard. Bashir and his cronies want to remain in power, benefit from the enormous economic potential of its oil fields, and thumb their noses at the most powerful nations in the West with impunity. And perhaps that is the true lesson of Darfur. We knew that poor villagers could not withstand the power of the gun and the plane in Sudan. This crisis shows the impotence of the West and a world that has moved beyond the promise of collective security. The premise that people are reasonable and good, that nations will stand together to ensure an agreed upon sense of right and wrong, that every human life is precious, seems tragically antiquated in a world where weapons spread intolerance and destruction rather than preserve humanity and compassion.
1. How is the situation in Darfur both unique yet familiar in global affairs?
2. What would need to occur for there to be a real solution to the crisis in Darfur?
3. Why does the impassioned rhetoric of the world's politicians not translate into action in Darfur?
4. Why must the solution to the crisis in Darfur come from nations and not individuals?
5. Do you believe that the people of the world care about what is happening in Darfur?
- Human Rights Watch: hrw.org/doc/?=africa&c=sudan
- Understanding Sudan: understandingsudan.org/
- Flint, Julie and de Waal, Alex. Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. London: Zed Books Ltd., 2005.
- Packer, George. "Letter from Sudan: The Moderate Martyr." The New Yorker. September 11, 2006.
- Power, Samantha. "Dying in Darfur." The New Yorker. August 30, 2004.
- _____________. "Missions." The New Yorker. November 28, 2005.
- Prunier, Gerard. Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.