Darfur's agony is world's shame

Financial Times, May 20, 2004

"There are no more villages to burn," a United Nations relief officer said when describing the situation in western Sudan last week. Forced displacement of people had stopped to an extent, he added, and after more than a year of war, an unsettling calm had fallen acromuch of the region of Darfur.

But just because Darfur's villages have been razed to the ground, that does not mean the horror is over for the brutalised civilians of the area. The "Janjaweed" government-backed Arab militia continues its campaign of mamurder and rape against black African tribes in Darfur. The government of Sudan not only aids the Janjaweed with money and guns but also supports the fighters tactically with aerial bombardment of villages immediately before militia raids.

The Janjaweed have corralled civilians into camps - what some rightly call "concentration camps" - where many are dying slowly from disease and malnutrition. This year's planting season has been missed, grain reserves have been deliberately targeted and destroyed and the government continues to block humanitarian aid from reaching most displaced Darfurians. Those who were not slaughtered outright are clearly being left to starve. Since early last year, this vicious campaign has claimed an estimated 30,000 civilian lives; international aid agencies say that over 1.2m people have been displaced within Sudan and at least 120,000 have fled to neighbouring Chad, making Khartoum's conduct a grave threat to regional as well as internal stability. USAID estimates that another 350,000 could die due to the desperate situation in Darfur.

In short, the government of Sudan is conducting a scorched-earth, near-genocidal war against its own citizens. Again.

We have seen this before, after all. Many of these tactics are familiar from the government's decades-long war primarily in the country's south; the scorched-earth approach is Khartoum's signature policy when dealing with rebellion. For years, it has attacked its own civilians in the course of the conflict with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA). In the past few months, however, Khartoum has turned its attention to the people of Darfur, whom it suspects of aiding two other rebel groups, the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Recent promising progrein the peace talks between the government and the SPLA actually contributed to Darfur's downfall. The SLA and, later, the JEM saw the two-party peace deal as shutting them out of Sudan's future. So they took up arms, scoring some early successes against government installations. This focused the government's wrath, sending its hired Janjaweed militia out against the civilian population of Darfur.

There are strong suspicions that the government has been stringing out the talks with the SPLA simply to provide time to redirect military resources to the Darfur front. In any case, Khartoum almost certainly calculated - correctly - that the international community would be unwilling to speak out about the turmoil in Darfur as long as a deal between the government and the SPLA was so tantalisingly close.

But the time for the international community to stand by and hope is long past. The government-supported atrocities in Darfur are too horrific and widespread to ignore.

The roaring silence from the Arab League and the Muslim world over Darfur is inexcusable. Both the Arab aggressors and the black African victims are Muslims. So one might have expected to hear something from those quarters, at least a call from the former for Arab brethren to show restraint, if not condemnation from the latter of the massacre of Muslims.

The European Union has not fared much better, offering weak words at best. A well-meaning statement by the Irish presidency of the EU last month said only that "it is essential that the Sudanese government fulfil its commitment to control the irregular armed forces known as the Janjaweed". That timid line came a week after George W. Bush said Sudan "must immediately stop local militias from committing atrocities against the local population", and also a week after Kofi Annan, United Nations secretary-general, referred to "ethnic cleansing" in Darfur and openly suggested military intervention might be required.

Europe needs to catch up quickly, acknowledge the severity of the situation in Darfur and use its weight in the UN Security Council. That weight is considerable: in addition to permanent members - France and the UK - EU member states Germany and Spain are also currently on the Security Council, as is Romania, an EU applicant. They need to push for an emergency session of the Security Council to take up the Darfur issue in a resolution, making it clear to the government of Sudan that the killing must stop, aid must be allowed to go through and displaced people permitted to return home. The Security Council should in addition authorise all measures short of force to be used against Sudan and warn Khartoum of international military intervention if it does not alter its course. Only such an ultimatum will demonstrate that the international community means it when it says "never again" - that we are not going to stand by as another manslaughter of innocents unfolds before our eyes.

We may be too late to save Darfur's burnt villages, but we can still save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Emma Bonino is a member of the European parliament and a former European commissioner; William Shawcross is an author, most recently of the book 'Allies'. Both are board members of the International Crisis Group.


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