Sauver Le Darfour dans le monde

First Rwanda, then Darfur, and next? How we can help to end these horrors

The Times, 16 Octobre 2006

IN MAY 2004, it seemed almost on a whim, the Sudanese authorities finally granted permission for two journalists and their cameramen to travel to the remote desert region of Darfur. For months there had been reports of a catastrophe unfolding there. Government-backed Arab militia were on the rampage, burning villages, driving people from the land, in an orgy of mayhem, rape and murder.
Up till then the Sudanese Government had imposed a news blackout — claiming it was merely putting down a rebellion in Darfur. We were to be the first Western journalists to be allowed officially into region. On the first day, not far from our base in southern Darfur, we saw signs of the cataclysm that had overtaken people there.

Amid the ashes of a ruined and blackened village, I picked up a child’s blue shoe. Unlike Rwanda, where mounds of corpses were left to rot in the tropical heat, here there were no bodies, no signs of graves. The occasional metal bullet casing glinted in the sun. It was eerily quiet, as if the entire countryside had been swept clean of humanity.

Throughout our stay in Darfur we racked our brains to answer these questions. Why had the Sudanese authorities allowed us in? Why would they draw the world’s attention to the desperate refugees penned into makeshift camps, with their sickening testimonies of rape, burning and execution?

We concluded that it could only be because the worst was over — the “ethnic cleansing” was almost complete. How wrong we were! As the coming months were to prove, Darfur’s nightmare was only beginning. In retrospect, our naivety is hard to believe. But there was also another factor at work. We were in denial. We simply could not believe the evil we were witnessing.

But if we journalists were utterly unprepared for the enormity of the crimes in Darfur, so too was the international organisation that had pledged that the world would “never again” see another Rwanda. In a report by the UK-based human rights organisation, Minority Rights Group International, the systematic failure of the United Nations to avert the Darfur crisis is laid bare.

Early warning signals went unheeded. The UN’s specially appointed expert on Sudan had been flagging up the escalating ethnic tensions in Darfur as far back as 2001. But as the first wave of violence engulfed the region, his mandate was ended and Sudan was removed from the watchlist of countries at risk of grave human rights abuses.

Even by late 2003, when the scale of the crisis was becoming obvious, bureaucrats were still digging in their heels. When the UN’s top aid official in Khartoum, Dr Mukesh Kapila, called for help to broker a political solution, his pleas allegedly met with reluctance “at the highest level” in the Department of Political Affairs in New York. Staggeringly, there was just one junior staff member dedicated to Darfur, and he was based hundreds of miles away in the capital, Khartoum.

By contrast, a massive humanitarian operation was beginning to gather momentum. Television pictures of the suffering in Darfur mobilised opinion and resources around the world. UN agencies working with non-governmental organisations built tents, dug pit latrines, and established a food pipeline. Many lives were saved.

But while the UN can do the Band-Aid type operation, trailblazed by Bob Geldof 20 years ago, it remains in denial about human rights crises. It is an irony that the organisation that rose from the ruins of the Second World War and the Holocaust should find itself so ill-equipped to deal with the kind of human rights atrocities that spurred its founding.

The genocide in Rwanda was not a tragic inevitability. But unbelievably, despite those pledges of “never again”, most of the factors that contributed to Rwanda still persist. There is an institutional inability to follow up reports of grave human rights abuses, and a serious lack of co-ordination between the UN’s political department in New York and the human rights mechanisms, based in Geneva.

Even when the news of massacres starts to emerge, divisions on the UN Security Council typically mean that effective action is deferred. In the case of Darfur, one crucial delaying factor was China’s massive investments in the Sudanese oilfields.

Perhaps haunted by his earlier inaction over Rwanda, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, has tried — but failed — to find a solution to the Darfur crisis. Kofi supporters believe that, at times, he has gone out on a limb over the issue. From next year the world’s leading diplomat will be the mild-mannered South Korean Foreign Minister, Ban Ki Moon. He has already said that protecting human rights will be a top priority.

If this promise is to be more than lipservice, the new Secretary-General must demonstrate political courage. Many states around the world still see it as their sovereign right to kill, oppress and persecute sections of their own population. Will the new man be up to the job of piercing the armour of state sovereignty for the sake of our common humanity?

Two years ago, just as Darfur was seizing the headlines, the first special adviser on the prevention of genocide was appointed at the United Nations. Theoretically, the job of Juan Méndez — a former Argentine political prisoner — is to beat the warning drums when early signs of human rights crises are spotted. But despite the famed profligacy of the UN, his post is a part-time one — and remains woefully underfunded.

That’s why Minority Rights is urging the creation of a genocide prevention office, to work alongside the special adviser, gathering reliable early-warning data, so that atrocities such as Darfur and Rwanda can be tackled, before it is too late.

A Rwandan general — a veteran of many African conflicts — once described to me how wars break out. “It is like walking down a hill,” he said. “First, you are taking small steps, then you are hurrying, taking bigger steps, suddenly you find yourself running, and before you know it, you are out of control, you can’t stop.”

The United Nations has to find ways to put the brakes on.

Ishbel Matheson is the director of communications at the human rights charity, Minority Rights Group International.