COMMENTARY: Despite Pressure From Religious Groups, No One Intervenes in Darfur

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) February is a short month for grand schemes, but it was the month that the United States had the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council, and Darfur _ the Job-like region in western Sudan _ was on the American agenda.

With strong support from Christian and Jewish groups, the plan was for the U.S. to push to get a resolution that would have U.N. troops take over from the 7,000-man African Union force that has been struggling unsuccessfully to patrol a vast and unruly area where up to 400,000 people have died and a few million have been displaced since 2003. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also appealed for the U.N. to take over, with double the forces.

What happened was exactly nothing. Or rather, worse than nothing: The Darfur crisis has spread, like a lethal blight, into neighboring Chad. A proxy war may be brewing between Chad and Sudan as Chadian rebels find Sudan a hospitable staging ground and Chad increases support for rebels in Darfur.

You could call it, at least partly, a case study in hypocrisy, which Hannah Arendt _ who also notably coined the phrase “banality of evil” _ called the “vice of vices.” If that’s too harsh, just call it a failure of will, leaders not exactly doing nothing, but willfully dithering.

As the U.S. turn as council president came to an end, Sudan had withdrawn support it had given _ probably disingenuously _ for U.N. peacekeepers to replace the AU troops. At the same time, the African Union postponed from last Friday until Tuesday a meeting at which, it was thought, the group would make a formal request for bringing in the United Nations. Some Security Council members used the absence of that request as an excuse not to deal with Darfur. Since that request may well not come, everyone will be off the hook.

Why would anyone want to allow atrocities to continue unabated in Darfur?

They don’t. They just don’t want to put themselves on the line to stop it. While all countries condemn the Sudanese government in Khartoum for its human rights violations _ which the U.S. has called genocide _ the fact is that “no one wants to go to Darfur,” says Samantha Power, a foreign policy professor on leave from Harvard University to work as an adviser in the office of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. Power won acclaim, and a Pulitzer Prize, for her 2002 book “`A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide.”

When plans for stronger intervention come up against opposition from some Security Council members, when the U.S. is stretched thin militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq, when no country is eager to send its sons and daughters to get killed trying to deal with an ever-increasing number of rebel groups in a grim corner of Africa, and when the U.S. has lost diplomatic muscle because of Iraq, no one feels compelled to go to Darfur.

“There’s apartheid in peacekeeping,” Power says. “But then, the Africans were furious about the idea of U.N. peacekeepers. They believe in `African solutions to African problems.’ But the AU doesn’t have the resources. Funding has been insufficient, and it will take a lot more than 7,000 troops _ or even 14,000 _ to do the job.”

By the end of last week, Annan was pressuring the U.S. and other Western powers to supply air cover for AU troops involved in close combat situations. The U.S. has been unenthusiastic about getting involved in combat in Sudan. John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., told the Washington Post that he didn’t think Annan had delivered an “explicit” request for U.S. air power.

Certainly the U.S. isn’t singularly to blame here. Many of the same countries that understandably resented the unilateralism of the Bush administration’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein would be more than happy for the U.S. to act unilaterally in Darfur. The U.N., which is managing 16 peacekeeping missions worldwide, isn’t eager for another one. European powers are content to look deeply concerned while not risking their own blood and treasure.

Still, some experts believe that the administration failed to lay the appropriate diplomatic groundwork to make a success of its aims for Darfur last month. Given the administration’s track record on planning adequately and carefully for other policy objectives _ such as stabilizing Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein _ this seems a reasonable hypothesis.

“There has been more public attention focused on Darfur than on any other African issue since apartheid,” says Colin Thomas-Jensen, an Africa expert with the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C.

That attention comes from Christian groups that had become interested in Sudan because of the long conflict between the Muslim north and the Christian and animist South, Jewish groups that vowed “never again,” and a public mobilized by the summer’s wave of concerts to end poverty in Africa.

“Clearly there is support for U.S. action on Darfur,” Thomas-Jensen says. “Yet the U.S. didn’t begin preparing to push for the transition to a U.N. force until a month before it was to take over the presidency. The administration set itself up to miss deadlines.”

One reason for that could be that if the U.N. does send troops, it becomes a much more expensive proposition for the U.S.

John Prendergast, another ICG expert, told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York last month that the U.S., which provides 22 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget, would be faced with a “much more expensive price tag … just one of the major reasons why the U.S. resisted and held onto this African Union-only policy for so long.”

But more troops, with a mandate to protect civilians, and harsher measures against Khartoum are the only way the situation in Darfur will change. Prendergast and others also support targeted sanctions against key members of the regime who have obstructed efforts to end the conflict.

“There have been no consequences for Khartoum, none,” Thomas-Jensen says. “Yet we know that this is a regime that responds to pressure.”

In other words, despite the chorus of “never again” after the Holocaust, once again a government is getting away with murder of its own citizens.

The sanctions issue is another one that hasn’t found consensus in the Security Council. Russia, which is worried about being charged with human rights violations itself, has traditionally been against sanctions. Qatar supports Khartoum, which, with its Arab-Muslim government, is a fellow member of the Arab League. China buys oil from Sudan, and is unwilling to jeopardize that connection.

That’s why all eyes will be on the African Union meeting on Tuesday. If the union requests U.N. peacekeepers, there’s a chance that lives may yet be saved in Darfur. If not, the U.N. envoy for Sudan, Jan Pronk, told reporters last week, it’s “back to scratch.”

We all know what happens after that. Everyone can cluck about the tragedy, blame it on someone else and call it a day until, say, the next round of Bob Geldof concerts puts public pressure on leaders to do something. At which point the clucking can begin again.


(Deborah Jerome-Cohen is deputy editorial page editor for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)

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