Thursday, April 19, 2007

Everything you think you know about Darfur is wrong

I need to preface this entry by saying that for far too long, I've been sick and tired of reading the same stupid gibberish about the disaster in Darfur. I also want to warn you that I've been on this rant before, and I'm tired of having to say it again and again.

Let me back up a bit and explain.

Here in the United States, the Darfur crisis is being covered in the news as a sort of slow motion tragedy. This, to an extent, is actually true. Then we have various famous people chiming in to demand that we ACT NOW TO STOP THE CRISIS IN DARFUR! Actually, I'm OK with this part, too. It is, frankly, an obligation for the rich and powerful to use their wealth and power to stop genocide, mass rape and looting.

Where my annoyance kicks into high gear is when I realize that neither the news outlets or the Hollywood glitterati seem to have any idea what to do about the crisis in Darfur.

Flashback to 1994, and the genocide in Rwanda, a conflict that we in the west boiled down to a absurdly simplistic, and completely mythical, "age old tribal hatred" between Hutus and Tutsis. Oh sure, we had the same public statements of shock, horror and outrage from anyone who had the opportunity to pontificate about it in public, but none of the powerful politicians or Hollywood entertainers ever took the time to consider what actually drove the genocide in Rwanda, how it happened, or how to another such incident from happening again. We hear the same gibberish about "age old hatreds" in Sudan, but that's not driving the violence. What is driving the violence is the use of civil war to amass political power. This is not a new story in Africa, and no matter how many times we see it replayed, we never catch on. This isn't "ethnic" or "racial" - it's political.

Invariably, the platitudes offered as a "response" are the same, too. Only a co-ordinated humanitarian response from the international community can bring people together and prevent genocide. It sounds great, doesn't it? And you know what? They're completely wrong.

The violence in Rwanda in was not random, nor was it based on "age old hatreds". What it did involve was the cynical use of identity politics and violence by dictator Juvénal Habyarimana for the purpose of staying in power indefinitely. What's more, when the Rwandan genocide was underway, the architects counted on not only the indifference of powerful nations, but the impotence of the "international community" to intervene. When United Nations peacekeeping commander in Rwanda Roméo Dallaire told the UN about the impending genocide and urgently requested a 5,000 man troop deployment, the organization blew him off. Then, when a small UN contingent of Belgian soldiers were massacred in Kigali, Belgium simply pulled their remaining troops out of the UN peacekeeping force, just as the Hutu Power leaders predicted. When the genocide finally ended, the United Nations bigwigs issued wistful "regrets", and left it at that.

In Sudan, dictator Omar al-Bashir is once again counting on the institutional incompetence and powerlessness of the United Nations and other international "peacekeeping bodies" to stop his government from winning, and even expanding, the war in Darfur. While al-Bashir makes token concessions on the presence of international peacekeeping troops, he's counting on all of them to withdraw immediately should any of them get killed. al-Bashir, is also fully aware that should they actually witness any fighting, their status as "peacekeepers" will prevent them from doing any actual fighting with the Sudanese government or the state sponsored militias. This is to say nothing of the rebel armies in Darfur, who may be counting on the international community to get lost, too.

After the Rwandan genocide, we were supposed to have learned "lasting lessons" about war and genocide, but what we really got were a bunch of cliches that were disconnected from reality. The first of which was "never again" - a platitude to alleviate our guilt over failing to intervene in Rwanda after we failed to live up to our first promise of "never again." The genocide in Darfur has been going on for years with no end in sight, so once again, "never again" fails.

The second "lesson" we were supposed to learn from Rwanda is that we must trust the "international community" to be the safety net we can all rely on to police the world. Oh sure, they failed in Rwanda, but surely, we've learned our lesson, right?

Wrong. The United Nations, African Union, et al are no better equipped to stop what's going on in Darfur than they were in Rwanda. What's more, the glacial pace of UN bureaucracy has become a sterling asset for dictators looking to buy time when they're carrying out a genocide. Rwanda's genocide took 100 days, give or take, during which time the United Nations couldn't even agree that a genocide was taking place. By the time they finally acknowledged something might actually be wrong, it was almost over. People have substituted saying "we must act!" for actual action.

Omar al-Bashir is playing the UN like a fiddle, with constant rounds of preliminary talks, tentative agreements, diplomatic standoffs, withdrawing from talks, rejoining talks, tentative commitments, etc. The diplomacy game is just that for a dictator - a game. Every time Sudan agrees to allow foreign peacekeepers in, and then backtracks on their promise, the negotiators chalk up a victory when the Sudanese sullenly agree to "return to the negotiating table". The concept that they're just stalling for time has not, apparently, occurred to anyone. This is what happens when more importance is placed on the negotiating process itself than the results of the process.

This brings to my last point - the lesson we actually should learn about genocide from Rwanda. The United Nations did not end the Rwandan genocide. Nor did economic sanctions, sternly worded (but empty) threats from foreign leaders, or least of all, candlelit prayer vigils thousands of miles away. They didn't make a bit of difference to Rwanda, and they're not going to help in Darfur. Does anyone actually remember who ended the Rwandan genocide?

If you said Paul Kagame and his rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front, go straight to the head of the class. It takes an army to actually stop genocide, and it always has. Kagame's military victory accomplished something worldwide hand wringing did not, and frankly, you'd think his success would mean we learned the lesson he was trying to teach us, but frankly, most of us over here still don't get it. In our almost comic horror of war in the west, we have, apparently, forgotten that it invariably requires a war to stop an even greater horror like genocide. Does anyone here actually believe that Omar al-Bashir is more afraid of "smart sanctions" and sports boycotts than he is of being attacked by powerful western armies?

Actually, don't ask me. Ask Paul Kagame.


Mutant said...

Wow. I knew I always felt the same way, but never knew why, nor how to verbalized it. Very well stated.

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