Another chance to combat genocide

April 01, 2004|By Eric Reeves

ANOTHER AFRICAN genocide is gathering pace in the far western Darfur region of Sudan just as the grim 10th anniversary of the slaying of perhaps 800,000 people in Rwanda is being commemorated.

The United States, the United Nations and the rest of the international community failed to halt the slaughter by Hutu militants of Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus in Rwanda in April 1994.

It was an unforgivable moral failure. And yet a lesson has not been learned. Despite the current vast civilian destruction in Darfur that is directed against African tribal groups of the region, the world is unprepared to intervene. About 6 million people live in Darfur, half of whom are affected by the war.

The National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum, which came to power in a military coup in 1989 (deposing an elected government and aborting a nascent peace agreement with southern Sudan), has been conducting war in Darfur by the most brutal means imaginable over the past 14 months. It is systematically bombing African villages and refugees, attacking undefended noncombatants, blowing up vital water wells and severely impeding humanitarian access to more than 800,000 internally displaced people.

The civil war in Darfur is not directly related to the catastrophic 20-year conflict in southern Sudan, which the National Islamic Front pursued when it came to power. Rather, it is the regime's brutal military response to an insurgency by the African tribal groups, which have been denied a fair share of national resources and political power. They are unprotected from raids by marauding Arab militias.

An end to the north-south conflict may be in sight, in large measure because of belated international pressure and diplomatic engagement. But even with the culmination of precarious negotiations under way in Kenya since July 2002, Khartoum has simultaneously accelerated its racist military campaign against the long-aggrieved people of Darfur.

Despite urgent warnings from U.N. officials and human rights organizations, despite the clear prospect of accelerating human destruction with a terrible racial animus, there is no prospect of international intervention. So the world again may be reduced to impotent hand-wringing as tens of thousands of Africans die in a new genocide.

Increasingly, this genocidal destruction is being wrought by militias of nomadic Arab groups in Darfur (the "Janjaweed," or warriors on horseback) - allied with and directly supported by Khartoum. The deep racial and ethnic animus in the savage attacks on African tribal groups (chiefly the Fur, the Massaleit and Zaghawa) has been made clear by the United Nations, Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group and myriad news reports from the long border between Sudan and Chad, where another 135,000 civilians have fled.

Though the phrase of choice has been "ethnic cleansing," a senior U.N. official recently noted that the appropriate point of reference is the Rwandan genocide. Mukesh Kapila, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Sudan until yesterday, has been remarkably forthright about the realities of Darfur.

Mr. Kapila, who was present at the Rwandan genocide, told reporters March 19: "[War in Darfur is] more than a conflict, it's an organized attempt to do away with one set of people. ... The only difference between Rwanda and Darfur is the numbers involved of dead, tortured and raped. ... This is ethnic cleansing, this is the world's greatest humanitarian crisis, and I don't know why the world isn't doing more about it."

Is the international community prepared to do more than speak about the human catastrophe in Darfur, to do more than accept the very limited humanitarian access Khartoum chooses to permit?

If the resolve exists, urgent planning and preparations must begin immediately. A cross-border operation from Chad is the most practicable. Permission will be required from Chad, but France has immense leverage with the weak Chadian government of Idriss Deby. Havens must be militarily secured within Darfur for displaced civilians, already suffering from what Doctors Without Borders describes as "catastrophic mortality rates." Corridors for humanitarian aid within Darfur must be militarily secured for desperately needed food, shelter, medical supplies and the means to restore water supplies.

Such an operation would be difficult, would require close cooperation among the United Nations, the United States, France and other European countries and would demand resources. But as challenging as such humanitarian intervention would be, the alternative is too appalling: unconstrained genocide.

Some will argue that peace talks are the appropriate goal - and they are if Khartoum is willing to negotiate. But the regime's negotiating record is one of shameful obduracy, deliberate stalling and outright duplicity.

If we wait until we know whether it will be different this time, the people of Darfur - presently dying at a rate of more than 1,000 a week - will likely pay a terrible price for our unwarranted optimism. Ten years from now we may have another grim anniversary to mark.

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and has written and testified extensively on Sudan.

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