By Tod Lindberg
Published October 25, 2005
Based on accounts from the scene, it looks like things are getting worse in a hurry in Darfur. At the U.N. summit in September, countries included an affirmation of their "responsibility to protect" their populations and the necessity for collective action to protect people when a government fails in this basic responsibility -- or worse, as in the case of the Sudan government, is actively complicit in war crimes against civilians. It would be tragic if, having declared this bold new principle, governments couldn't then bring themselves to act on it effectively in Darfur.
The problem is as it was: The Janjaweed militia -- armed bands of killers, marauders and rapists of Arab origin set up to fight a burgeoning armed resistance movement -- have acted in conjunction with forces of the Khartoum government or at their behest to terrorize the black African population of Darfur, the Texas-sized western region of Sudan. The militias, often operating with assistance from helicopter gunships flown by the Sudanese military, have destroyed whole villages, driving millions of Darfuris into internally displaced persons camps or across the border into refugee camps in Chad.
The IDP camps, though the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and numerous international nongovernmental organizations have made extraordinary efforts in meeting basic needs, are powerless to improve the security situation, the prerequisite for enabling Darfuris to return home. To venture beyond the confines of a camp is to risk rape and death at the hands of the militias, and even the camps themselves are subject to attack, by Janjaweed on horseback or fighters traveling in government trucks. There have been reports that the government has painted its vehicles in the color of the African Union peacekeeping mission, a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.
The United Nations, responding to the deteriorating security situation in Western Darfur, has ordered nonessential personnel out. The U.S. Agency for International Development has closed its field office in Genina. Nongovernmental organizations are feeling similar pressure, nor is the deterioration confined to the west. "The humanitarian space is closing," one Westerner e-mailed me from Darfur. Veteran Sudan-watcher Eric Reeves (sudanreeves.org) notes that the supposed "banditry" taking place along the roads looks to humanitarian workers on the scene more like coordinated political violence, with attacks on relief convoys. The U.N. special adviser on genocide, Juan Mendez, back from a late September trip to the region, noted in his report: "Though government officials attribute these attacks to banditry and common crime, their coordinated planning and apparent use of intelligence to prepare the attacks suggest a decree of organization and fire-power that is consistent with Janjaweed activity, albeit under a different name."
Khartoum has also been taking steps to halt aid, blocking essential equipment and restricting visas. I got a taste of this when I tried to visit Darfur in the spring, in conjunction with the Gingrich-Mitchell task force on U.N. reform: As we were getting ready to leave for the airport, we found out that the Sudanese foreign minister would not after all be approving our visas. We feared then what seems to be happening now: Anyone who knows anything about the history of governments perpetrating or abetting ethnic cleansing and genocidal acts will recognize that restricting access to outsiders and forcing humanitarian organizations to curtail operations due to security concerns have often been precursors to mass murder.
The African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, though recently increased in numbers and receiving enhanced assistance from NATO and the European Union, is still undermanned and underequipped for its task, which anyway remains defined too narrowly. The AU mission suffered its first killed in action earlier this month. The AU has blamed the anti-government SLA rebels for the attack; others say the SLA was not the responsible party.
Here, too, getting equipment in place has been a problem. There are 105 armored personnel carriers at a port in Dakar, Senegal, awaiting delivery to the AU mission -- equipment that would surely extend the reach of the AU and provide protection for its forces of a kind that might have prevented the recent deaths. But the Khartoum government has been refusing to process the paperwork that would allow the transfer of the APCs to the field.
The AU decided earlier this month to refer the deteriorating security situation to the U.N. Security Council. Mr. Mendez was planning to make a presentation of his recent findings to the Security Council, but the council, with U.S. backing, declined to hear him. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said the council should be "talking more about the steps it can take to do something about the deteriorating security situation."
I don't quite see what the necessity for giving Mr. Mendez the brush-off was, but amen to moving on to the next steps. Now, what are those steps? They'll have to begin with recognition that the Darfur problem is getting worse because the Sudan government wants it to and that until the Janjaweed are disarmed and Khartoum backs off, Darfuris will remain in peril.