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Hear the voice of death in Darfur

Observer Viewpoint | Sunday, November 14, 2004

The genocide currently taking place in Sudan necessarily raises the question – how much is human life worth? The response of the international community to this continuing crisis – especially the response of the United States – brings us to the conclusion that human life matters little. And its value is lessened when the interests of individuals with power are not at stake. For, plain and simple, if the political will existed to end the violence in Darfur, it would be ended this week.

Instead, the severity of the crisis intensifies daily. Government-sponsored militias are attacking camps for displaced people, killing all in their way and gang-raping mothers and daughters ages eight to 80. Thousands of bodies have been found in mass graves throughout the region. Millions more people have been forced out of their homes in fear of this violence and now live in refugee camps where disease is rampant and food scarce. An estimated 70,000 human lives have already been lost and hundreds of thousands more are at risk.

After 18 months of this systematic abuse of human rights, the only response from the international community has been of toothless diplomatic pressure and hollow threats. The United Nations has left the responsibility for ending the crisis in the hands of the Sudanese government, the very government responsible for ordering and arming the militias that have perpetrated the mass murder. Moreover, the United States and European Union have offered few funds for the humanitarian assistance needed for those who are displaced.

The inaction of the Bush Administration has been especially egregious. President George W. Bush took the important step of leading the world to label the atrocities “genocide.” But there are certain legal obligations of intervention that come with the genocide label, however, that are not being fulfilled or even supported by the administration. These choices have undermined these obligations and set a precedent for future conflict of looking the other way. Promises made by the international community following the Holocaust and again following the genocide in Rwanda – the promises of “Never Again”- are made hollow by this inaction.

At this point, the deaths in Darfur can’t solely be attributed to the racist regime in Khartoum; indeed, the hands of the entire world are bloody.

There are many possibilities for intervention. Arms embargoes that can prevent the government from continuing its support of the militias have not been placed on the country. Targeted sanctions can be used to freeze the assets of the regime. Government leaders can be prevented from traveling internationally. Threats of prosecution in the International Criminal Court can be made. The international community must take these actions in order to punish the Sudanese government for supporting the genocide.

Further, for an emergency on this scale, issues of sovereignty should be put aside and U.N. peacekeepers should enter the country. While the sovereignty of countries is important to maintain, inaction in the face of such violence can be an extremely dangerous precedent to set. The Darfur region is the size of France, and right now there are only approximately 3,000 ill-equipped African Union troops present. Romeo Dallaire, the former U.N. general who was on the ground when the genocide in Rwanda broke out, is calling for 44,000 troops (far fewer than the 67,000 who were flown into Yugoslavia by the United Nations). Right now, this option is not being considered. The Sudanese government has been given no reason to halt the genocide, and the threat of military intervention would carry significant weight.

Clearly, there are ways that the value of life of the citizens of Darfur can be affirmed by the international community – ways that are not yet being explored. Let us not allow this situation to be another instance of Africa being ignored by the rest of the world. What action would the international community take if this genocide was taking place in the United States or a country in Western Europe? Are some lives more valuable than others?

Though the international community has been unwilling to fulfill its responsibility to respond to this violence, putting pressure on our legislators to take greater action is something all of us can do. Lives are at stake, and you can work to help save them by joining the green ribbon campaign for awareness on campus and by communicating your concern to elected leaders.

Michael Poffenberger is a senior anthropology and peace studies major and is working with the Notre Dame Peace Coalition to raise awareness about the crisis in Sudan. Contact him at mpoffenb@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.