Darfur – Arab racism & Islamist oppression

UN peacekeepers are needed urgently, but the key to lasting peace in Darfur is the overthrow of the Islamist dictatorship

By Peter Tatchell

After the horrors of Rwanda, Tony Blair and other world leaders promised they would never again allow genocide to happen. Despite these fine words, another genocide is happening right now in Darfur and the international community is failing to protect the victims.

If these massacres were happening to white people in Surrey or Sweden, you can be sure there would be swift intervention to halt the killing. One cannot help wonder whether the global indifference to the slaughter in Darfur has anything to do with the fact that the victims are black and live in far away Africa. We would not tolerate this killing on our doorstep. Why are we tolerating it in Darfur?

Over the last three years, the death rate in Darfur has been, on average, the equivalent of a 9/11 every week. The world has sat back and watched as around 400,000 people have died and two million others have been displaced. Over three million Darfurians are living a knife edge existence, with many dependent on international aid for their survival.

How many more have to die before we do something effective to stop the slaughter?

Calling for international action to save lives in Darfur isn’t neo-imperialism, as some on the left allege. It is international solidarity and justice – the liberation of the oppressed. Doing nothing, which is what sections of left would prefer, is collision with the oppressors. Some people might also see it as racist for the supposedly ‘anti-imperialist left’ to leave black Africans to die in their hundreds of thousands.

The UN, as the guardian of universally-agreed international human rights laws, has a moral and legal duty to take immediate and effective action to stop the massacres. Support for a UN peacekeeping force is a key demand of many of those participating in Sunday’s Global Day for Darfur, which includes a London protest outside the Sudanese Embassy, followed by a march to Downing Street

Despite the Darfur Peace Agreement, signed in May, the violence has not ceased. The Islamist government of Sudan and its Janjaweed proxies last month launched fresh offensives in defiance of the peace agreement. They continue their rampage of rape, torture, mutilation and slaughter against black Darfurians; razing villages, burning crops and killing cattle – provoking mass displacement, homelessness, starvation and death (albeit on a lesser scale than two years ago).

Darfur is a needless, preventable humanitarian tragedy, aided by the complacency and inaction of the international community – especially the shameful nit-picking and delays by the United Nations.

Last year’s UN report on Darfur was all words and no action. Its condemnation of the mass killing, torture and rape did not go far enough. The UN could not even agree on whether the slaughter in Darfur was genocide. While tens of thousands were dying, the UN quibbled over words and definitions. It even fudged the issue of whether the human rights abusers in Sudan should face prosecution by the International Criminal Court; suggesting only that this might be a possibility at some point in the future.

The UN’s report was a cruel betrayal of black Africans suffering slaughter by Arab supremacists. Whatever way you look at it, the killings have an element of racial motivation and the UN’s failure to long ago condemn them as genocide and ethnic cleansing was, in effect, appeasement of the Sudanese government and the Janjaweed militia.

According to the 1948 Genocide Convention and the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the nations of the world are supposed to act when genocide and war crimes happen. The do-little response of recent years is de facto complicity.

The massacres in Darfur are, of course, inseparable from the systemic totalitarianism and human rights abuses of the Khartoum regime against all Sudanese. The government of Sudan is an Arab-dominated dictatorship led by Islamist fundamentalists, notably the President, Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir. He seized power in a military coup in 1989; banning political parties, suppressing the press and dissolving parliament. Al-Bashir now enforces a harsh form of Shariah law, which stipulates the death penalty for a wide range of so-called moral crimes, like adultery and homosexuality. Detention without trial, torture and executions are facts of life in Sudan, according to local human rights monitors.

Sudan hosted Osama bin Laden and terrorist training camps in the 1990s, albeit for only few years before kicking them out under western pressure. The al-Bashir regime has a long history of brutally suppressing socialists, trade unionists, womens’ rights activists, lawyers, journalists and student leaders.

Viewed from these perspectives, the terror in Darfur is merely a particularly savage extension of the brutality that is endemic to the dictatorship in Khartoum.

Although the existing African Union (AU) peace-keeping force in Darfur is well-intended and better than nothing, it is seriously undermanned, underfunded and outgunned. It is not big enough to protect the civilian population in a region the size of France, and it does not have sufficient powers, vehicles and weapons to keep the peace.

At long last, recognising these limitations, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1706 at the end of August. This authorises the sending into Darfur of an additional, stronger, better equipped UN peacekeeping force, to augment the existing AU troops. Welcoming this decision, the AU asked the government of Sudan to facilitate the implacement of UN peacekeepers.

The Sudanese leaders responded by rejecting the AU’s request, refusing to accept UN peacekeepers, launching fresh attacks on the people of Darfur and obstructing the delivery of international aid.

Some aid workers have been killed and others have been forced to flee the fighting, leaving tens of thousands of refugees short of vital food and medical supplies. If the violence continues, there is a real danger that many aid agencies will pull out of Darfur; which could provoke a humanitarian catastrophe.

The Darfur crisis is a litmus test of the global community’s commitment to enforce international law and challenge murderous, tyrannical regimes. Right now, world leaders have failed that test. They are sitting back and allowing the killing to continue. Tyrants can see that they can get away with mass murder. At this rate, there will be many more Rwandas and Darfurs in the future. The feeble action against the killers of Darfur gives dictators everywhere comfort and encouragement that they can commit genocide with impunity.

One question many Darfurians are asking: If Slobodan Milosevic could be arrested and put on trial in The Hague, why can’t the butchers of Khartoum be bought to justice?

Despite the failings of the past, it is not too late. The international community, through the UN, should act now to take effective action to protect the people of Darfur:

  • Enforce a no-fly zone over Darfur to halt the Sudanese bombing of African villages
  • Fund the enlargement of the African Union peace-keeping force and augment it with UN peace-keepers, in order to protect the civilian population and aid workers, keep the warring factions apart, disarm the militias and protect the civilian population
  • Increase humanitarian aid – food, clothing, shelter and medical care – to the victims of the conflict, and assist the rebuilding of shattered communities
  • Impose sanctions targeted against the Sudanese government leaders and the leaders of the Janjaweed militia, including an arms embargo, an assets freeze and arraignment before the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, genocide, torture and crimes against humanity.

Ultimately, the best hope for Darfur – and for all the people of Sudan – is ending the Islamist dictatorship in Khartoum. Without a government committed to democracy and human rights, there can be no ethnic equality and social justice. All Sudanese – Arabs and Africans, northerners and southerners – have a common interest in working together to secure the overthrow of the tyrannical al-Bashir regime and to create a democratic, secular and federal Sudan.

This is an edited version of Peter Tatchell’s Comment Is Free article, published on The Guardian website, Friday 15 September 2006