Two million tragedies we can't ignore

Unless Sudan wants 20 more years of civil war, it must rein in the Janjaweed and ensure that next week's peace talks bear fruit.

By Jonathan Steele
Published June 4, 2005 7:48PM (EDT)

As Tony Blair and Gordon Brown gear up for next month's G8 summit, with its focus on Africa, the crisis of Darfur appears unlikely to get more than a passing mention. Nor is Bob Geldof's new crusade for Africa focused on it.

Yet Darfur is arguably a greater catastrophe than Ethiopia was when Live Aid held its fundraising concerts 20 years ago. In Ethiopia massive famine coincided with civil war, but the famine was caused by drought. War complicated the relief effort but was not the primary problem. In Sudan's western region of Darfur the crisis is man-made: Civil war has created famine. As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan pointed out on a visit to refugee camps last week, 2 million of the region's 6 million people have fled their homes because of attacks.

Even if they felt safe to go home, there is nothing there to eat. Less than a third of the arable land was planted this season. Vast quantities of food will be needed for at least a year, for people both in the camps and in the villages, if they return. The food can only come from donations. Of course, it is still too dangerous for most people to leave the camps. Rape and pillage go on unabated, as horseback raiders known as Janjaweed continue their ethnic cleansing. The Sudanese government has consistently denied responsibility, claiming the militias are beyond its control.

The situation has shown some improvement since early last year, when the raids began on a large scale and the outside world slowly took note. The Sudanese government allowed the African Union to send a force of just over 2,000 troops as monitors. They are not peacekeepers and have no right to stop violations. But reports from the ground say their presence has had a restraining effect in the few places where they are deployed.

International pressure has forced the government in Khartoum to give permits for U.N. relief agencies, aid workers and journalists to work in what was previously an almost closed region. As a result, the threat of famine has been partially contained for now, as those people who have managed to get to camps inside Sudan or across the border in Chad have access to food and medicine.

The United Nations Security Council has taken some useful action. An inquiry identified 51 people thought to be behind the killing and the use of rape as a deliberate weapon of war. On a sealed list, the names have been given to the new International Criminal Court after the United States, which still refuses to work with the ICC, agreed not to veto the move. The ICC will take time to prepare the case, but by lifting the sense of impunity its intervention should help to deter new crimes.

The U.N. is also pressing the Sudanese government and Darfur's two rebel movements to resume peace talks. They now promise to do so in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, next week. But signs of deterioration also abound. Visas for outsiders have become harder to get, and this week the government accused two staff members of Doctors Without Borders of "spying" and "falsifying information" after they published a report on rapes by militias. Top U.N. officials sprang to their aid, saying they too have evidence of mass rape. But the government has not backed down.

War creates general chaos, and reports are emerging of rape unconnected with the government's militia. Women and girls are suffering abuse in the refugee camps in Darfur, which are supposed to be sanctuaries, as are women who have fled to Chad. Banditry is on the rise as marauders rob World Food Program lorries.

Clashes are breaking out between ethnic groups opposed to the government. "There is hardly any fighting anymore between the two main parties -- the government and its armed militias on one hand and the Darfur rebels on the other. This is bad news for conflict resolution. The Abuja peace process will not be sufficient," Dominik Stillhart, chief of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Sudan, said Thursday. "What will be required is tribal reconciliation."

The best single measure to relieve the deepening crisis would be rapid enlargement of the African Union's monitoring force and a new mandate for it to confront the gunmen rather than merely make reports. Other foreign troops are not needed, nor is NATO. "NATO cannot be the world's gendarme," as departing French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier rightly put it. But Britain, France and other countries with African experience should provide helicopters, transport and armored cars to help the A.U.

Ultimately, the main responsibility rests with the government of Sudan. The people of Darfur are its citizens. Unless Khartoum wants another 20 years of civil war and the prospect of secession -- as it had in the south until last year's peace agreement there -- it must rein in the Janjaweed and work hard in Abuja to make the peace talks bear fruit.

Jonathan Steele

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