Too Little, Too Late

Colin Powell’s visit to Darfur only highlights the United States’ inaction

Eric Reeves

Despite recent high-profile visits to Darfur, Sudan, by Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis continues to spin out of control. More than a year of genocidal war waged by Khartoum and its brutal Arab militia allies (the Janjaweed) against the targeted African populations has entailed the destruction of thousands of villages, systematic elimination of agricultural resources, mass executions and the deployment of rape as a weapon of war. The war has created 200,000 refugees in neighboring Chad and displaced 1.2 million people. The crisis has overwhelmed international humanitarian response, despite belated efforts to ramp up food, shelter and medical supplies.

Transport capacity is woefully inadequate. For example, in June the U.N.’s World Food Program fed only 700,000 of the 1.2 million people targeted for aid. The onset of the heavy seasonal rains has severed many transport corridors, and numerous concentration camps to which the African populations have fled are either too insecure for humanitarian presence or will not be accessible until October. Khartoum continues to obstruct aid, despite promises to the contrary.

Mortality rates are skyrocketing, with data from the U.S. Agency for International Development and humanitarian organizations indicating that 1,000 people, mainly children, are dying every day. Camps for the internally displaced have become extermination sites, with cholera, dysentery and malaria set to take huge tolls among badly weakened populations.

Though Darfur is rightly described as a humanitarian crisis, the political visits by Powell and Annan ironically highlight the most basic fact of the catastrophe: It has been engineered by Khartoum as a means of crushing the insurgency in Darfur that began in February 2003 as a response to longstanding political and economic marginalization. It is, in short, a genocide designed to consolidate central power, send an example to other marginalized populations in Sudan, and extend the Arabizing agenda of the ruling National Islamic Front.

Rather than confront these realities with credible threats of immediate humanitarian intervention, Powell and Annan are content to accept promises of improvement from Khartoum — a regime that has never, in 15 years of tyrannical rule, abided by a single agreement made with Sudanese outside the capital.

Annan refuses to characterize the realities of Darfur as genocide” or even ethnic cleansing.” He has at least had the honesty to explain that this is a politically calculated omission, since prominent members of the United Nations such as China, Russia, Pakistan and Algeria would oppose such a designation and the resulting humanitarian intervention such a designation would entail. Expedient promises from Khartoum are thus deemed sufficient.

Powell also dodges the question of genocide, though with considerably less justification. U.S. diffidence and indecision are reflected in the floating of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Darfur that does nothing more than impose a toothless arms embargo on the Janjaweed militia (but not the regime that supplies them arms and logistics). The resolution creates an expansive 30-day period in which to assess the effects of these pointless sanctions.

Perversely, the trips by Powell and Annan only highlight the unwillingness of the international community to respond with appropriate action: humanitarian intervention that features urgent military protection of the acutely vulnerable camp populations and internationalizing the rail line from Port Sudan to Darfur, which offers the only means of adequate long-term aid.

But however morally obvious intervention to halt massive genocidal destruction in Africa may be, political callousness and cowardice are triumphing. The present mortality rate of 1,000 per day is expected to rise to more than 4,000 per day in late fall. The real lesson of Rwanda would seem to be that even with sufficient time to respond, genocide in Africa remains acceptable.

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Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College. He has testified several times before Congress on the ongoing crisis in Sudan. His writings on the subject have appeared in The Nation, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and many international publications.
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