UN needs to be bolder on Darfur crisis

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By Tawanda Kanhema in Harare

In what counts as the boldest move since the outbreak of hostilities in Sudan’s western Darfur region, the United Nations recently denounced the Sudanese government for what it described as “serious crimes against humanity” while guardedly sweeping the bulging genocide under a threadbare carpet of arguments that the Khartoum government had no elaborate policy for the systematic elimination of the Zaghawa, Masalit, Fur and other ethnic groups.

The UN’s Darfur Report strikes a balancing act to save the Khartoum government and its affiliated militias from universal censure and embarrassment in the face of growing atrocities in the highly volatile Darfur region.

There is need for the UN to stop trifling over semantics and reaffirm its position as the custodian of international law and stop further suffering in Darfur.

In an attempt to crush a rebellion in Darfur, the Sudanese government has allegedly paid and armed Arab raiders known as the “Janjaweed” to drive the indigenous African tribes out of what they claim is Arab land. The militias have indiscriminately killed civilians, poisoned wells with human and donkey corpses in an attempt to make the villages uninhabitable.

The campaign, which receives veiled material and financial support from the Sudanese government, has displaced at least 1,6 million people from their villages and killed 320,000 people in 2004 alone (a best-case projection from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), but still, according to the UN, there is no “systematic elimination.”

The classification of atrocities committed by the Janjaweed and Sudanese government troops as genocide, however fitting, would have implied a host of responsibilities for the UN, including an expeditious intervention to stop the killings and restore peace, but the world body seems to have chosen partial detachment.

According to the UN report, the mass murder and killings that displaced more than two million people in Darfur could not be classified as genocide because the crucial element of genocide (a policy of systematic elimination) is lacking.

It argued that “no genocidal policy has been pursued and implemented in Darfur by the Government authorities, directly or through the militias under their control,” while promising not to detract from the gravity of the crimes perpetrated in that region. The massacres have gone on for two years so far.

The UN’s callous denial that the catastrophe in Darfur is of genocidal proportions while acknowledging that heinous crimes were perpetrated in the Darfur region, heavily undermines magnitude of suffering that people in Darfur have been subjected to. Militias attacked African Union observers monitoring the situation in villages flattened by Sudanese Air force jets last week.

What the UN has done, in essence, is to devalue the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in that region and in greater Sudan for that matter while indirectly condoning a ruthless purge that will continue for years while it reviews “findings” by its commissions.

The cautious report assumes a callous tone buried in semantics when it states,

“Generally speaking the policy of attacking, killing and forcibly displacing members of some tribes does not evince a specific intent to annihilate, in whole or in part, a group distinguished on racial, ethnic, national or religious grounds. Rather, it would seem that those who planned and organised attacks on villages pursued the intent to drive the victims from their homes, primarily for purposes of counter-insurgency warfare.”

The commission’s belated findings, which came nearly three months after the United States Government concluded in September 2004   that there was genocide in Darfur, strike a contrast with the reality in the area bordering Chad and Sudan. An estimated 200 000 refugees have fled to Chad, while others have been internally displaced.

The term “genocide” seems to have lost meaning to a world body hardened by conflict and rendered almost irrelevant in the face of gross violations of the UN Charter.

On March 12 last year, Sudanese planes reportedly bombed Darfur’s Ab-Layha village, made up of the Zaghawa tribe, followed by a group of about 1,000 Janjaweed militias who rode into the village on camels and horses. The raiders, who were said to be backed by Sudanese government troops in trucks, massacred at least 100 people in one morning.

“The Janjaweed poisoned wells by stuffing them with the corpses of people and donkeys. They also blew up a dam that supplied water to the farms, destroyed seven hand pumps in the village and burned all the homes and even the village school, the clinic and the mosque,” wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in “Dare We Call It Genocide?”

Kristof interviewed Zahra Abdel Karim, a 30-year-old woman who had survived the Ab-Layha massacre in which a particular effort was made to exterminate all men and boys while women were kidnapped, raped and mutilated. The Arab militias have used sexual humiliation as part of their strategy to drive African tribespeople out of Darfur.

“The Janjaweed shot to death her husband, Adam, and 7-year-old son, Rahshid, as well as three of her brothers. Then they grabbed her 4-year-old son, Rasheed, from her arms and cut his throat. The Janjaweed took her and her two sisters away on horses and gang-raped them,” she said, adding that the troops shot one sister before cutting the other’s throat.

These are only part of the atrocities that the militias have unleashed on whole villages of the Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa, Jezel and other tribes in the entire western Sudanese region. The most that the UN has done so far is to send a commission to observe the massacres and the hostilities continue unabated. The Sudanese government, by observation, still has no “policy of extermination”?.

“Such grave crimes cannot be committed with impunity. That would be a terrible betrayal of the victims, and of potential future victims in Darfur and elsewhere,” UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in his speech. The UN mandate for intervention in genocidal conflicts leaves not much allowance for “future victims” as Annan fears. The time to act is now.

While UN bureaucrats expect the patterns of wanton mass murder and persecution to dovetail with the organization’s definition of “genocide” vis a vis sustained denials and diplomatic defences by the Khartoum government and its undeclared military outfit, the massacres continue and no one pays particular attention to the purge unfolding in the depths Darfur.

In response to the UN’s stance on occurrences in Darfur as nothing more than “crimes against humanity”, the US State Department suggested the establishment of an Accountability Tribunal in Tanzania for the prosecution of perpetrators.

Between the Lines