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Panel addresses humanitarian crisis in Sudan

Michael Busk | Thursday, February 24, 2005

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a two-part series focusing on the background of and possible solutions to the current crisis in Sudan.

Three experts on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur criticized the lack of international response to the war crimes there in a symposium Wednesday afternoon. The three also recommended the increased use of outside troops, arms embargoes and targeted sanctions against Sudan, and the prosecution of those who have perpetrated genocide through the implementation of the International Criminal Court.

John Prendergast, the former advisor to President Clinton on Africa, spoke harshly of the apathetic international reaction to the Darfur crisis, saying that the United Nations, the United States and others have used diplomatic ploys to skirt the real, complicated decisions that they would have been forced to make otherwise.

“The international community deliberately portrays the situations on the ground as more complicated than they actually are.” said Prendergast. “It’s a very deliberate, very specific way of absolving yourself of responsibility in the short-run, to say it’s just too difficult.”

Larry Minear, director of the Humanitarianism and War Project at Tufts University, declared the international humanitarian response particularly lacking.

“I don’t think there’s anyone in the humanitarian community that would call the effort robust,” Minear said. He said further that within approximately the first 12 months of the conflict, only six percent of affected Darfurians had received drinkable water from aid organizations and only eight percent had been given food.

Prendergast warned that the members of the U.N. Security Council and others would have to spend real political capital in order to secure lasting changes in the region.

“What you see the Security Council, the United States and the Europeans doing on a regular basis, you see them calling for cease-fires, rather than specifically owning up to the perpetrators, those who have perpetrated mass killings,” said Prendergast.

The result of this diplomatic maneuvering, Prendergast said, was in fact the implicit justification of the Khartoum government’s atrocities.

“The message is unambiguously clear to the killers, that they can kill whoever they want without consequence to their actions,” he said.

Instead, Prendergast said, the United States and others should acquiesce to the authority of the International Criminal Court, which would investigate human rights abuses in Darfur and bring perpetrators to justice.

What makes the diplomatic situation in Darfur so sticky is that any meaningful international action requires the support of all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China. Although Prendergast, like the two other speakers, is in favor of targeted economic sanctions and the increased use of international peacekeeping troops in Darfur, he said four out of the five permanent members of the Security Council are currently supplying arms to the Sudanese government and directly or indirectly profiting from Sudan’s crude oil exports. The result of this, he said, has been a lack of real economic sanctions and a weakening of the legitimacy of the few African Union troops currently on a peacekeeping mission in Darfur. Prendergast said the troops merely “have front row seats to the carnage,” but are unable to do anything to stop it.

However, Juan Mendez, special advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said that recently African Union troops have been given more jurisdiction to keep the peace in Darfur, to “protect people in imminent danger.”

Under the old mandate, A.U. troops were allowed only to document the Darfurian carnage. Nonetheless, Mendez said that even the new mandate is insufficient, and like Prendergast, agreed that there was a tremendous need for more peacekeeping troops to protect Darfurian civilians. Such protections are most critical in Darfurian refugee camps on the Sudanese/Chadian border, where women, leaving the protection of their make-shift shelters, are at high risk of being raped by Janjaweed marauders, Mendez said.

A Darfur issue that looms large in the coming months is an impending famine in the region, quite likely because little to no planting has taken place since the conflict began almost two years ago. Jan Egeland, the U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator, said this week that as many as four million Darfurians are in danger of starvation in the coming months.

Another topic that recurred throughout the symposium was the issue of whether or not the crisis in Darfur should be considered genocide.

Mendez discussed the U.N. Security Council committee that traveled to Darfur to investigate whether or not accusations of genocide were correct.

“It did not find a policy of genocide in the Sudanese government,” said Mendez. “But it is still possible for a court to find certain Sudanese government officials guilty of genocide, although that would have to be done in a separate criminal court.”

Francis Deng, the symposium’s third speaker and former Sudanese ambassador to the United States, put the genocide issue in perspective, saying that although the U.N. has not officially declared that genocide had been committed, it has said that war crimes on par with genocide had taken place. Deng concluded that the language used to describe the crisis was less important – if something on the level of genocide had occurred, the international community had a responsibility to do something about it, he said.

Moreover, Deng continued, the Khartoum regime has used the U.N.’s statement as a shield, declaring themselves inculpable since what happened was not officially declared genocide.

Echoing the sentiments of all the speakers, Mendez said that a solution to the crisis in Darfur would require a number of actions taken together.

“We need a package of measures,” he said, “not simply sanctions, not simply strengthening the African Union, not simply employing the International Criminal Court. But with a complete package, with all of these taken together, we might just be able to save some lives.”

Deng lectured primarily on the deeper cultural roots of the behind the violence in Darfur, explaining the complex role that race and ethnicity have played in the bloodshed, both recently in Darfur and in the southern part of the country.

“What is happening in Darfur is part of a struggle for the soul of the nation,” he said. Deng went on to say that the current Arab / black African dichotomy is a new one in Sudanese history and that the real differences between the two groups are few – that foreigners would have a difficult time differentiating between those called Arabs and those called Africans.

Deng traced the source of this racial distinction to British colonization of Sudan in the 19th century, when the British government irrationally tried to divide the nation culturally into the Arab North and non-Arab, African South. The result of this separation quickly caused a tense hierarchy to develop, with those considered Arabs being considered generally superior to those considered native Africans, he said. It is along these artificial lines that tensions between Arabs and non-Arab Africans have developed in Darfur, Deng said.