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Darfur: Beyond the Brink of Disaster
By Erin Patrick
Migration Policy Institute
Though the crisis in Darfur is finally receiving significant international attention, both the conflict and the humanitarian catastrophe continue. What is behind UN and international reluctance to become more involved in the situation? And what are the key issues for international actors to keep in mind in constructing policies to quell the violence and reduce the civilian suffering?
A great deal of controversy surrounds the ethnicity and self-identification of the inhabitants of Darfur, the westernmost and largest province of Sudan. Inhabitants of Darfur can be superficially divided into two major groups: sedentary farmers (largely identified as African) and nomadic herders (largely identified as Arab). Such distinctions are further complicated by longstanding tribal, ethnic, and class divisions. Though the two groups have clashed frequently throughout Darfur's history, conflicts over resources and access to land were for the most part resolved through traditional tribal settlement mechanisms.
More recently, however, the conflict has become politicized and has taken on distinct ethnic and racial undertones, with Darfur serving as a base for anti-government forces. In February 2003, rebel groups attacked Sudanese troops, accusing the government of at best neglecting and at worst exploiting the region. With the outbreak of hostilities, the government was accused of arming local, predominately Arab militias called the Janjaweed to attack villages belonging primarily to the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massalit tribes. The government suspects these tribes of supporting the two major rebel groups in the region, the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Since April 2003, the Janjaweed have been systematically attacking, looting, and destroying villages. The Sudanese government has also initiated offensives, including aerial bombing, against populations in Darfur that it considers disloyal.
The violence and destruction has led to the deaths of untold numbers of civilians and caused massive displacement, including 200,000 refugees in Chad and estimates of 1.2 million internally displaced persons. The security and humanitarian situation is precarious for both groups. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has worked frantically to move refugee camps deeper into Chad as a result of ongoing cross-border raids and has begun limited operations in accessible areas of Darfur.
Despite the government of Sudan's claims to be allowing unimpeded humanitarian access, humanitarian and human rights agencies still complain of bureaucratic obstructionism and lack of access to major swathes of the region. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the few NGOs operating in the region, estimates that only 30 percent of the displaced are currently being reached by any assistance. Representatives of various humanitarian agencies are very concerned about the extent of starvation and malnutrition, particularly in children, as well as continued violence, human rights violations, acute water shortages, and disease. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has estimated that without immediate, unobstructed, and massive humanitarian relief, more than 350,000 people could die by the end of 2004. In all, 2.2 million people are at risk.
On July 30, the United Nations Security Council issued its first resolution focused on the situation in Darfur. The fact that it took the Security Council over a year to issue a single resolution on Darfur is in itself difficult for many observers to accept. The fact that the resolution does not even mention the possibility of sanctions or other UN action should the government fail to rein in the Janjaweed is, as humanitarian commentator John Prendergast has noted, "stunning."
Lack of International Action
There are a variety of reasons behind the reluctance of the UN Security Council and many individual member states to act more forcefully toward the Sudanese government. Economic interests in Sudan's oil supplies play a role. Arguably, however, the two most pressing concerns are fears of disrupting the peace process between the government of Sudan and the Southern People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and of infringing on Sudan's sovereignty.
The southern peace process is aimed at ending more than 20 years of war between the government and the largest rebel group in the southern part of the country. The last protocols of the peace framework for the south were agreed upon by the parties in late May—a development that inspired hopes for a lasting end to the conflict. However, concern on the part of many international actors of somehow disrupting or stalling the peace process has led, in many cases, to a so-called "softly, softly" approach. Though not defined, that approach has resulted in a profound reluctance to forcefully condemn the policies of the Sudanese government. It has further resulted in the inability of the UN to take or even threaten concrete action to ensure Khartoum's compliance with international demands for a halt to the violence and unobstructed access to the region for humanitarian agencies, a significant presence of human rights monitors, and a robust African Union-led protection force.
Further contributing to the hesitancy to act forcefully in face of what many observers—including the US Congress—have called genocide, are concerns over setting a precedent of infringing on state sovereignty. By most accounts, the safeguarding of Sudan's sovereignty is behind the refusal of several members of the UN Security Council, most notably China, Algeria, and Pakistan, to endorse any resolution even mentioning the word "sanctions." Therefore, although a resolution (number 1556) was finally agreed upon at the end of July, it gave no concrete indication of precisely what would happen should the government of Sudan not follow the resolution's recommendations. Beyond that, resolution 1556 was most notable for its sheer vagueness: expressing the UN's intention, for example, to "consider further actions…in the event of non-compliance." The government of Sudan has shown clearly in the past that while it does react to the threat of use of force by the international community, it rather easily ignores unspecific warnings. And in fact, that is precisely what it has done.
An Ongoing Humanitarian Crisis
Since resolution 1556 was agreed upon on July 30, UNHCR has reported an increase in the number of refugees fleeing to Chad, violence has continued nearly unabated, and nearly all refugees and internally displaced persons, still fearing for their lives, have refused to return to their villages. There are reports of forced return of IDPs to devastated villages, where they not only have no means of survival, but continue to be victimized and killed by the Janjaweed. Whereas the Sudanese government pledged several weeks ago to disarm and punish the Janjaweed, human rights organizations suggest that members of the militia are actually being recruited into the armed forces supposedly sent to protect the displaced.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis has by all accounts become much worse. The onset of the rainy season has not only made it more difficult for relief convoys to access remote refugee and IDP camps, but also has increased the prevalence of disease throughout Darfur. Humanitarian appeals have so far only been funded at 50 percent, and organizations such as the UN's World Food Program are in dire need of more resources. USAID has upwardly revised its figures of the number of affected and at-risk civilians several times, most recently to 2.2 million people.
Key Issues Moving Forward
There are several key issues to keep in the forefront of policy discussions. First is Darfur's neighbor, Chad. Though to date Chad has been a welcoming host to the 200,000 refugees, it is itself a very resource-poor country, particularly in terms of water. An additional 200,000 people in an already strained environment cannot help but put pressure on local populations, and cross-border raids by the Janjaweed only exacerbate the problems. Humanitarian agencies have recognized the urgent need to ensure that all in need, whether refugees or not, are taken care of to the extent possible. Of course, this also necessitates fulfillment of expanding humanitarian appeals. The international community—and even more so the civilians of Darfur and Chad—can ill afford a full-blown regional security and humanitarian crisis.
The second key issue is the status of the Janjaweed. Nearly all major international observers, including the UN Commission on Human Rights, the US government, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have found abundant proof that the Janjaweed was created, armed, and is supported by the government of Sudan. Khartoum denies this accusation, claiming it cannot control the Janjaweed. However, it has also said, particularly in light of resolution 1556, that it is in the process of arresting Janjaweed leaders and disarming combatants. As mentioned above, the government has reportedly recruited Janjaweed members into local police forces. This policy underscores the need for international—preferably African Union—human rights monitors and protection forces.
Third, many Sudan analysts have noted that the grievances expressed by the Darfur rebel forces—namely neglect, exclusion from power, and exploitation of local resources—are shared by other peripheral regions of Sudan, including the south, the Nuba mountains, and others. This being the case, it is difficult to see how the southern peace process can fully succeed with an ongoing war next door. It is therefore a risky endeavor to treat the two conflicts as entirely separate. Rather, the only sustainable peace process for the south, for Darfur, and for the rest of the fractious country will be one which addresses regional grievances and needs in a comprehensive manner.
Last of all is the question of whether or not what is occurring in Darfur is truly genocide. With regard to the crisis there, the most relevant section of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide is Article 2. It states, in part, that genocide is defined as "any of the following acts committed with the intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: a). killing members of the group; b). causing serious mental harm to members of the group; c). deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life meant to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part."
Following this definition as written, many observers have come to the conclusion that the conflict and man-made humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur do indeed constitute genocide. Others, however—most notably those states reluctant to impose sanctions on Sudan or to take other forceful actions—refuse to use the genocide label for fear of thereby necessitating international intervention.
There are two main facets to this issue: the first is that the oft-quoted "action requirement" of the Genocide Convention is in fact to prevent genocide before it occurs,
not to wait until there is indisputable proof that it has already occurred. By that time, of
course, it is far too late. Second, once again, is the issue of precedent. As discussed above,
several states have argued that intervening in Darfur will set a dangerous precedent of infringing
on state sovereignty. However, many analysts argue that not intervening in the face of genocide (or even of "merely" mass atrocities) sets a much more dangerous precedent—one of allowing the death of possibly more than a quarter million civilians.
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