Never Again — Until Next Time
Armenia (1915–18), Ukraine (1932–1933), the Nazi Holocaust (1938–1945), Cambodia (1975–1979), Rwanda (1994), Bosnia (1992–1995), Darfur (2001–present). The events that took place during these periods in these countries resulted in more than 17 million deaths related to 20th century genocides or ethnic cleansing, each with little or late reaction by the community of nations. Leaders of Western democracies piously vow that “never again” will they allow such actions to take place, their hollow words translating to “Never again — until next time.”
Twenty years ago the world stood by while Rwanda became a scene of horror with the massacre of ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutu people. In 1994, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered and millions fled to neighboring countries in four months alone. The United States referred to Rwanda as a “local conflict,” and did not intervene. In his account of events in Shake Hands with the Devil, Canadian General Rome Dallaire, the U.N. commander on the ground, documented the shameful record of non-intervention by the U.N.
Nations act and react in their perceived national interest, while spending billions of dollars on U.N. peacekeeping missions that benefit participating countries and U.N. officials more than the victims.
In the present day, despite strong rhetoric, the United States and western democracies have failed to halt the Khartoum government’s consistent plan to “de-Africanize” its western state of Darfur. It was, and is, in our national interest to support a strong reaction, but the argument to do so has at best been relegated to the back pages due to our poor understanding of the conflict and its concomitant issues.
Sudan’s western department of Darfur was an independent sultanate until incorporated into greater Sudan in 1918 at the insistence of Britain. Its strong tribal society includes both African and Arab tribes, pastoralists, traders, and nomads. Geography and culture separate Darfur from the government of Sudan in Khartoum; it has more in common with neighboring countries. The government of Omar al-Bashir initiated and implemented a deliberate policy to “de-Africanize” Darfur that led to organized rebellion by the three principal non-Arab tribes: the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit. They were joined by members of other tribes — notably the southern Rezigat and Tai’sha — who refused to support Bashir.
The people of Darfur are Muslim, which makes Khartoum’s violent and inequitable treatment of them Muslim-on-Muslim crimes against humanity. The Darfuris, however, are moderate, Western-friendly Muslims, while the elite of the three Arab tribes that lead the National Congress Party and dominate Sudan — the Shaigiya, Jaaliyeen, and Dangala — lean Islamist. The destruction, slaughter, displacement and rape of Darfur have been ignored by the world’s predominately Muslim countries.
In July 2001, members of Darfur’s Fur and Zaghawa tribes met in Abu Gamra to organize their response to years of neglect and discrimination by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum led by Omar al-Bashir. In 2003, Darfur rebels attacked a Sudanese army garrison in Golo and the border town of Tine. In April of the same year, a combined rebel force from the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attacked the government air base in El Fashir, destroying planes, capturing the base commander, and shocking Khartoum. Bashir increased his actions against the population. The Sudanese army showed little interest in a war in Darfur, and Bashir came to depend on his security service — a proxy militia known as Janjaweed — and air assets. Antonovs with Ukrainian pilots bombed villages, indiscriminately rolling bombs out of their planes, destroying wells, and paving the way for the Janjaweed to force people from villages. An estimated 250,000 to 300,000 Darfuris have died and millions forced to flee to stark refugee and IDP camps. Janjaweed soldiers have raped hundreds of women and girls as young as six as they gathered firewood.
In October 2004, six weeks after the U.S. Congress passed a concurrent resolution on genocide in Darfur, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell identified Khartoum’s Darfur campaign as genocide, the first time that the executive branch had officially done so. Replying to a question on Darfur during the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Obama stated:
In a situation like Darfur, I think that the world has self-interest in ensuring that genocide is not taking place on our watch. Not only because of the moral and ethical implications, but also because chaos in Sudan ends up spilling over into Chad. It ends up spilling over into other parts of Africa, can end up being repositories of terrorist activity. Those are all things that we’ve got to pay attention to. And if we have enough nations that are willing — particularly African nations, and not just Western nations — that are willing to intercede in an effective, coherent way, then I think that we need to act.
Darfur, the “land of the Fur,” provided an opportunity to act with minimal risk and enhance American influence and image in sub-Sahara Africa, but the United States failed to act. Senator Joe Biden proposed a no-fly zone to neutralize Bashir’s air advantage, lending hope to the besieged region and poorly equipped rebel groups. It never happened. The International Criminal Court indicted Bashir in 2009, but Khartoum continues to cleanse Darfur of its African population, and with few exceptions, the indictment has been ignored. The conflict is now in its 12th year.
The U.S. and European response to the genocide was to hold countless meetings to convince selected Darfur rebel organizations to sign meaningless agreements. The lessons from both Rwanda and Darfur are clear to many Africans. Regardless of labels of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing,” Western democracies were not particularly interested in getting involved in anything beyond humanitarian assistance and giving advice on living together peacefully, democratic elections, and rule of law — none of which applies to burning home, dead livestock, raped daughters, and poisoned wells.
Bashir is unpopular in Sudan. It would not have taken much to turn the tide in Darfur after 2004, but we kicked the ball to the U.N. and African Union and threw money at the problem, hoping it would go away. A senior official of the African Union asked me in 2005, “Why Bosnia and not Darfur?” He knew the answer, but hoped for an acceptable explanation. There is none.
President Clinton remarked after leaving office that he regretted not intervening in Rwanda. President Obama and Vice President Biden have expressed their interest in Darfur. Then-Senator Biden called for the use of military force. Ambassadors Susan Rice and Samantha Power, champions of human rights, promised an end to the Darfur conflict. President George W. Bush invited SLM leader Minawi to the White House. Everyone of note is on the bandwagon, but the wagon has not moved.
I attended the 2004 ceasefire meeting in N’Djamena and subsequent meetings in Addis Ababa and Abuja. Bashir was clever, sending skilled and apparently reasonable representatives to negotiate on his behalf. He had no intention of honoring an agreement, but U.S. and European representatives demanded agreements signed by the government and rebel groups. All the while, the bombings continued. If nothing else, Bashir read the international response correctly.
Why we should have intervened — and still should
The very public and perceived failure of the U.S. in Somalia affected its willingness to commit to other missions. The U.S. failed to recognize its long-term interests in Africa and the role that an aggressive policy could play.
The people of Darfur were pro-U.S. and opposed to the Islamic extremists making their way south in Africa. The Darfuris depended on us to lead the way against the Bashir government. Sub-Sahara Africa was watching. Many were hoping that the great democracy, with no history of colonization in Africa, would intervene. When the United States kicked the ball to the U.N. and African Union, there was still hope that our active participation would lead to change. Instead, we hired contractors to build camps, provided humanitarian relief, and allocated billions of dollars to the African Union – United Nations Hybrid Operation.
We could have provided training and equipment to the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) with small teams, such as we have done recently in pursuit of Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. We could have supported a no-fly zone based in Abacha, Chad. Faith in the U.S. has dwindled, but amazingly has not been totally lost.
Washington should think more creatively about what it can do in Darfur. There is potential for action and costs to inaction. The Darfuris could represent a pro-U.S. buffer in the Sahel, as we finally recognize the dangers presented by the southward advance of al Qaeda and its affiliates. SLM and JEM both warn of the presence of radical Islamists in Darfur. Supporting Darfur could promote our influence in sub-Sahara Africa, a region that has shown economic and political growth that may lead to important markets and resources. In the meanwhile, China, India and others are competing for that influence. The displacement of millions of Darfuris and continued conflict affect regional stability, a key factor in growth. Finally, we had the opportunity to match our rhetoric and image with actions that would have involved little risk.
The clock is ticking. The U.S. media has long since lost interest in the cause, and few in Congress or the executive branch address Darfur. A senior JEM official told me that they no longer look to the U.S. to lead, and at least one SLM faction agrees. Sadly, turning the tide would not have been difficult. It required decision and leadership, and we have provided neither.
As we watch South Sudan crumble and the Bashir government continues to cleanse Darfur, it becomes clearer that “Never Again” actually means “Until Next Time.”
Janice Elmore is a retired Foreign Service Officer whose 25-year career included assignments to embassies in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Bosnia, and the Sudan with a focus on political-military and law enforcement issues.
Photo credit: hdptcar