Thursday, March 27, 2008

Darfur: what's not to be done?

John A asks "Intervention in Darfur - right or wrong and why and to what extent?"

Darfur, the Western region of the Sudan, is a very poor place that has been riven by civil war since 2003, a time when all eyes around the world were fixed on Iraq. This is a country that has a history of decades of religious and ethnic strife laid over the top of the struggle for control by a small elite based mainly in the East of the country.

It is estimated that the casualties of this current conflict have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced more than two million people, many of them living utterly impoverished in camps over the border in Chad. It's also the case that mutilations, rapes and ethnic cleansing have been systematically used throughout this conflict.

The Sudanese government, far from simply being unable to deal with the scale of the war is an active participant in it. Arming militias and conducting its own operations, including murdering journalists. The UN has accused Sudan's government of orchestrating and taking part in "gross violations" in Darfur.

If ever there was a time and place for extending the hand of friendship to those in dire need it is here and now. Just a few days ago the UN released a report condemning the Sudanese government for attacking villages in Darfur killing 115 people and displacing 30,000. This is not yesterday's news it is going on now - however, the newspapers chose not to currently report the crisis - what with the nude pictures of the French President's wife and other events of world shattering importance.

A few years back UN resolution 1706 called for over 20,000 UN troops to come to the aid of the 7,000 poorly equipped African Union troops already stationed in the country. Years later it has still not happened due to the fierce opposition of the Sudanese government. It's one thing to station peacekeepers tolerated by both sides (like in the Ivory Coast) its quite another thing to face the armed resistance of a government well accustomed to civil war in its own backyard. The situation has been further complicated by a series of cross border raids into and from Chad, something the UN hopes some progress is being made on.

It's too easy to label this as simply an ethnic conflict when there are so many layers of problems laid on top of each other. Poverty is at intense levels in much of the country and, with less than half the children going to school, the long term prospects for the economy do not look good. The government has long favoured the East of the country and is happy to ignore the economic, social and political needs of the Western parts of the Sudan and they are happy to repress, jail or murder those who protest. The UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon has put the conflict down, at least partly, to climate change, citing "disputes over water resources are a major cause of the conflict in Darfur".

Of course there are fears that if we "sit back" we will see a repeat of Rwandan genocide or worse. What the simple calls for military intervention miss though is that UN troops will meet resistance and become, in effect, one more armed gang - loaded with money but with no local roots. Any military intervention in the Sudan would look far less like Jar Head than Black Hawk Down.

In other words we'll hear simplistic phrases used to justify a military presence, whilst on the ground only more harm is being done, ending with humilating defeat. Without undercutting the causes of the conflict flooding the terrain with foreign fighters will do little to improve the situation.

On a positive note - it *is* possible to make a difference even in the most unfavourable terrain.
For example, the World Health Organisation has declared Somalia a polio free zone, despite the difficulties development workers have faced in the region. It is possible to improve peoples lives without sending in helicopter gun ships. When the US troops withdrew from Somalia in '95, after a few of their lads got killed in the process of massacring hundreds in Mogadishu, they left a legacy of distrust for the West - but they opened up the possibility of working in the country again, by taking their guns out of the situation.

Somalia has many, many deep problems but the WHO has been able to make a small but real difference to those who live there. The same can be true of Darfur.

The international community can and should intervene to address those severe issues around poverty, education, water and food supplies which can, over time, both improve the quality of life for those who are not yet refugees in their own country and undercut those factors feeding into the conflict. That cannot be done at the same time as the deployment of heavy weaponry. It can't even be done coupled with the task of regime change - no matter how good that sentiment might make me feel.

There is no short cut, feel good solution to the problems of Sudan. Sorry. But I do believe the West can and should do our best to sow the seeds of peace in this most unpromising of areas. There are no guarantees and there are no easy answers - but tackling the economic and social roots of the problem is key, sending in the mercenaries is not.

If you'd like to suggest a topic for the Daily (Maybe) leave a message here.

1 comment:

Jim Jay said...

And a quick addition:

there are initiatives going on that I'm talking about - like the Canadian government (God bless them) trying to improve their prison system report

And I think its only fair to mention that some people in Darfur want UN blue helmets and are quite angry that they have not arrived yet report