Global Policy Forum

The Tragedy of Darfur


By Peter Davies

Global Policy Forum
*Opinion Forum
June 15, 2004

Are we witnessing another genocide of Rwandan proportions in Western Sudan? Or is it merely "ethnic cleansing?" At the United Nations, delegates carefully avoid the "g" word, which would force them to act. Meanwhile, villagers in Darfur are being systematically murdered, raped and chased from their homes by militias sanctioned and armed by the Sudanese government. The government denies it is culpable, but it has denied access by humanitarian agencies to this desert region the size of France.

Governments at the UN, including members of the Security Council, have failed to use political pressure to end these atrocities. The Sudanese government must stop the militias, allow aid agencies into the area, and remove the bureaucratic impediments to effective aid delivery, for the scale of casualties is truly frightening. Although estimates are little more than educated guesses, the loss of life to date may exceed 50,000. In addition, the population subject to acute malnutrition and otherwise extremely vulnerable has been estimated at 1.2 million and rising daily.

After decades of civil war, Sudan signed a peace agreement with the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM), just as the Darfur massacres began. The United States, the European Union and the African Union are all hesitant to interfere in Darfur for fear of jeopardizing the peace accord and re-igniting the war in the south. A morally indefensible position.

In Geneva, a recent high-level donors meeting on Darfur appealed for $236 million to help an estimated 2.2 million victims. Jan Egeland, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator, told journalists that this was the most important emergency aid conference in recent history. Even if the relief aid is fully paid and delivered, thousands of lives will be lost. "We are late in responding," he said, "and the Janjawid [militia] attacks are so harsh that even under the best of circumstances . . . hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk unless immediate protection and relief are provided."

Many of the Darfur villagers are fleeing across the border to Chad, one of the world's poorest countries, where relief agencies are attempting to cope with the crisis. In the Darfur desert region, women and children have fled to camps where water is scarce, infectious diseases rampant and malnutrition widespread. Large numbers may die before adequate relief arrives.

This is not a famine but a disaster for which humans are responsible. In the words of Bertrand Ramcharan, the UN acting High Commissioner for Human Rights, "More than one million people are utterly vulnerable, living in a state of fear and without any means of protection . . . We know all this, we have no excuses for not knowing it. Now is the time not to assess but to act."

Former US Senator John Danforth helped negotiate the peace agreement in the Southern Sudan. President Bush has just nominated him as the new US ambassador to the United Nations. Meanwhile UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for prompt action. But governments continue to hesitate, failing to use their leverage with the government in Khartoum. Only robust and immediate political action, through the UN and through influential capitals, can stop the Sudanese Governments continuing to arm and support the Arab militias carrying out the ethnic cleansing or genocide.

It is now ten years since the Rwandan genocide. Will the nations of the world again let violence destroy tens of thousands of innocent lives while the international community hesitates? I fear that, once again, those with the capacity to act will neglect their responsibilities. Many have already perished and thousands more will die before this indescribable crisis is over.

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