Cleansing and Forced Displacement in Darfur
May 5, 2004
Peace at What Cost?
United Nations and other officials have called Darfur the
world’s worst humanitarian crisis and acknowledged that
the situation bears all the hallmarks of a campaign of ethnic
cleansing. Yet even though it is clear that significant international
political pressure helped to push the government and southern
rebel groups into a serious peace process, comparably strong
and outspoken political criticism of the government’s
actions in Darfur has been largely absent. Many commentators
have suggested that the international community is reluctant
to put too much pressure on Khartoum at such a fragile point
in the peace process with the south for fear of disrupting
or even killing the nascent agreement altogether. Others go
further and raise the possibility that the government may
be deliberately delaying the southern peace process in order
to give the Janjaweed time to complete their task of killing,
displacing or otherwise gaining control of non-Arab Darfurians.
No one doubts that a true peace in the south is sorely needed,
and would be a key step in helping millions of southern Sudanese
begin to recover from decades of brutal conflict, famine and human
rights abuses. But if achieving such a settlement comes at the expense
of a million or more Darfurian civilians, can it really be considered
Why has there been such limited international attention to the
crisis in Darfur? Is the Sudanese government’s denial of access
part of a political game involving the south? What is the appropriate
role of the international community in a situation in which condemning
or intervening in one crisis may serve to exacerbate another?
Answers are far from straightforward.
USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios has said, “Every sanction
that exists in world history is now in operation against Sudan.”
Without recourse to further sanctions, and with mortality and malnutrition
rates steadily increasing, the international community is faced
with the need to get relief operations on the ground in Darfur as
quickly as possible. “Relief diplomacy,” as Natsios
put it, has not worked. The Khartoum government has systematically
denied access to a variety of humanitarian actors. Much of the aid
that has been distributed is looted by the Janjaweed, to such an
extent that many uprooted civilians have refused aid rather than
risk being attacked by the militias. With no ability on the part
of neutral observers to secure delivery and distribution, this trend
can only be expected to continue. So what options remain?
| The Khartoum government has systematically denied access to a variety of humanitarian actors.
Whether or not the international community has a right or responsibility
to intervene when is it denied access to civilians in situations
of massive death, displacement and human rights violations is one
of the most complex and divisive issues in the humanitarian policy
debate. Darfur adds even more complexity to that debate, since it
seems to have been directly tied – purposefully or not –
to the peace process in the south.
Many observers have suggested that if the international community
were to intervene on behalf of those suffering in Darfur, Khartoum
would be so angered that it would in turn pull out of the peace
process in the south. Thus an operation to assist one group of civilians
could indirectly harm another. Further, the potential for such an
arrangement to even succeed is also under question. Assistance is
one thing; protection is often another. Even if international humanitarian
agencies gained full access to Darfur, their ability to stave off
Janjaweed attacks on beneficiary populations would be limited at
best, and civilians could remain in danger. Who would protect them?
This is a question that extends far beyond Sudan.
Is it justifiable to sacrifice the human rights or even the lives
of suffering civilians in Darfur for the “greater good”
of those in the south? Even if the long-term benefits of an effective
peace could eventually accrue to Darfur, the prospect would mean
little to the more than 100,000 refugees in Chad whose families
still in Darfur will be left unassisted and unprotected in order
to “save” distant co-nationals that they don’t
know, in a region where they’ve never been.
In order for any policy to succeed, it must be practical, and in
this case the “practical” is largely a question of predictability.
Unlike the internally displaced people in Darfur, refugees have
not only a legal framework and a designated agency responsible for
their care, but also a more than 50-year history of dealing with
their needs. It may not always work correctly, but the system is
in place. Those displaced within their own countries, on the other
hand, have no such system or precedent for action. When there have
been international responses to IDP crises, they have been led by
different agencies or even individual states; they have sometimes
been purely humanitarian and other times have had a military component;
sometimes the UN is involved and at other times NATO plays the lead
role. Unpredictability is the only common thread.
The lack of an agreed-upon precedent for humanitarian intervention,
and a seeming inability to create one, has hindered the international
community’s response to a long list of crises to which Darfur
is just the latest addition. Further practical considerations include
the availability of resources and the political will to sustain
the modest relief efforts that have started and the much more ambitious
relief and protection operation that is desperately needed.
A shaky middle ground has begun to emerge in the last few days:
the scattered cries of the international community have been met
with limited grants of access by the Sudanese government, and the
southern peace process remains dormant. Yet most – especially
the displaced Darfurians – would agree that this is not sufficient,
and the longer the peace process remains dormant the more difficult
it will be to revive.
All of these questions raise profound ethical issues that have
no definitive answers. The one certainty, however, is that ignoring
the true extent of and motivations behind the atrocities in Darfur
will only help to perpetuate them.