Since February 2003, the Darfur region in western Sudan has been the site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, as government-backed Janjaweed militias have killed tens of thousands of civilians and displaced more than a million people. The world’s attention briefly turned to Darfur this summer, as the reports of mass rapes, destruction of villages and targeted murders of civilians brought criticism from world leaders and visits from the likes of Colin Powell and Kofi Annan. By September, President Bush had declared the slaughter in Darfur a “genocide,” but that designation has prompted little action from the U.S. government. Sudan’s government and Darfurian rebel groups agreed to a ceasefire in April, but have consistently violated the agreement, and it’s not at all clear that the U.N. is capable of taking decisive steps to enforce it.
John Prendergast has worked on crisis issues in Africa for the past two decades, and visited Darfur twice last summer. Now a special adviser to the president of the International Crisis Group, Prendergast previously served the Clinton administration as director of African affairs for the National Security Council (1996-99) and a special adviser to the State Department (1999-01). He has also worked with various non-governmental organizations in Africa, and is the author of “Frontline Diplomacy: Humanitarian Aid and Conflict in Africa.”
He recently spoke by phone with MotherJones.com.
MotherJones.com: You personally visited Darfur in July, and again in August. What changes did you witness during that time?
John Prendergast: There was a lull, as a result of Sec. Powell and Sec. Gen. Annan’s visit to Khartoum and their trip to Darfur. The government of Sudan attempted to improve the situation in the aftermath of those visits, so there were fewer attacks and more of an effort to give the U.N. relief agencies full access to the internally displaced people, and people in need generally, in Darfur. But what was evident in July, when there was this effort to improve the situation, you could see it deteriorating even within a month. By late August, there was definitely a change in the access for the relief agencies and the Janjaweed was continuing to be supported by the government. So I think we’ve seen a fairly steady erosion in the humanitarian and human-rights situation in Darfur. The worst kinds of attacks against civilians have returned, the mass raping and the singling out of young men for execution. So those are some very troubling trends, and some trends that are pretty universally shared in terms of assessment by people on the ground in Darfur.
MJ.com: Having studied the situation extensively beforehand, what most surprised you on the ground in Sudan?
JP: In the context of Darfur, we didn’t realize how many people were actually trapped in rebel-held areas. The assumption by all the agencies, and the U.N., was that all the Darfurian population had largely been displaced, either into the refugee camps or the internally displaced camps. We found that there were lots of individuals and families still living in the rebel-held areas of Darfur. It was shocking, actually. You can’t estimate it with such a small sample, but the likely number is certainly in six figures. As far as I know, from my close contacts with all the various NGOs and U.N. agencies, there has been very little effort made to get assistance to those populations in the rebel-held areas, just because the government obstructs any kind of cross-line relief efforts into the rebel-held areas of Darfur.
Secondly, in my 20 years of traveling in war zones in Africa, the only time and place which really compared to Darfur in terms of scope and scale of these attacks, was the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The concentrated nature of attacks in Darfur — and the very systematic and rapid ethnic-cleansing campaign that the government and its allies, the Janjaweed, undertook during the latter half of 2003 and the first quarter of 2004 — really was an effective displacer of most of the population, and obviously killed a lot of people. The desire, of course, was to drive all these people who survived the first wave of attacks into these displaced camps, where the government assumed people would die in huge numbers because of epidemics, because they were sure the relief agencies wouldn’t be able to respond in time. What surprised everyone, particularly the government, was that when given access, the U.N. and the non-governmental organizations were able to respond thoroughly and rapidly, and provide the kind of inputs necessary to prevent large-scale mortality from epidemics and starvation. They did quite an amazing job at heading off what should have been a major famine in Darfur.
MJ.com: The U.S. government was initially reluctant to use the word “genocide,” but officials like Colin Powell, George Bush and John Kerry eventually did. What, if anything, did that change?
JP: The use of the term, in fact, does nothing in respect to the legal obligations of signatory states. But what it does is intensify the political pressure on the government or the state that uses the term, because it would be quite stunning if a government would use the term and then not do anything. Powell tried to head that off early. When he made the announcement that it was a genocide, he said very clearly that just because it is doesn’t mean the U.S. is going to do any more than it’s been doing now, that we’ve been doing everything we can. I thought that should have been the headline. It’s a remarkable thing that we’re using this term and yet it has no impact on our obligation.
We’ve seen no real initiative on the part of the Bush administration, once the talk was talked about genocide, to actually walk the walk in terms of a more punitive policy that would focus on what the U.N. genocide convention requires of states, which is “to do all they can to prevent and to punish those responsible.” I think the “to punish” part is particularly salient when we try to figure out what our policy should be to respond to this. Because in the 20 months or so that we’ve watched this genocide unfold, the international community and the U.N. Security Council, led by the U.S., have not imposed one punitive measure on the perpetrator of this genocide. It’s quite remarkable to me that in 100 days in 1994, when the Clinton administration didn’t respond, that was an absolute catastrophe, an unforgivable sin of omission that President Clinton himself has said he will have to live with forever. The Bush administration has had 20 months to respond to this thing, and has done the same in terms of real, serious confrontation of the killers.
MJ.com: At its November meeting in Nairobi, the U.N. Security Council passed a Sudan resolution that actually withdrew the threat of sanctions. Why has the international community been so unwilling to take even non-military action?
JP: Three reasons. Number one: oil. Three of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are heavily invested in the Sudanese oil sector. Number two: profits from arms dealing. Four of the five permanent members of the Council are either selling arms to the government of Sudan or brokering arms deals to the government. Number three: sovereignty; the sacred principle of noninterference in other governments’ affairs remains alive and well, despite all the wonderful speeches that everyone makes about “never again” and about standing up for human rights. I think Darfur has been Exhibit A in that regard. It’s not hopeless, because the U.S. or the British could really use their leverage, use their political capital to press the less-forthcoming states on the Council to be supportive of a more aggressive agenda or to just stand down and abstain. The U.S. has not chosen to use its leverage, because it fears it will undermine its efforts on Iraq. So the Iraq overhang continues to haunt the globalwide efforts to deal with a variety of problems, including the crisis in Darfur.
MJ.com: When pressed, the U.S. government responds that it’s sending money. What role is that aid playing?
JP: During the debates between Kerry and Bush, both candidates were asked by the moderator, “What will you do, now that you both say genocide is occurring Darfur?” And President Bush’s answer was basically, “We’re providing $200 million in humanitarian assistance.” What has happened there, and what that symbolizes, is that the international community, in broad terms, has begun to perfect the use of humanitarian assistance as a principal means of responding to crises — and its principal way of abdicating further responsibility for real, meaningful engagement or confrontation of the killers.
Now, the humanitarian aid organizations actually are getting assistance on the ground. They are certainly harassed and undermined frequently by the Sudan government, which has perfected its own tactics for undermining the ability of humanitarian aid organizations to do their jobs. But the government has by no means en masse intercepted the assistance. It is getting on the ground, but it’s a fight on a daily basis that the agencies go through to make sure their aid gets through to the intended beneficiaries.
MJ.com: How does the Khartoum government interfere with aid?
JP: In southern Sudan, of course, they perfected the tactic during the last 15 years [of civil war] of simply blocking aid from going to particular locations. In 1998, for example, when there was a famine in southwestern Sudan, in Bahr el Ghazal, the government simply denied access to all the relief agencies, and 250,000 people died. Now, in Darfur the government has become more clever because they got hammered for that internationally. So now what they generally do is use the insecurity as a way to prevent or restrict access. The government will say, “We think that area you want to take assistance to is unstable, so you’d better not go there.” Now most relief agencies — most, but not all — will say they don’t want to challenge that kind of thing because what if they go and something happens. So it’s a form of intimidation and a de facto restriction of access that is very effective. It’s also a strategy to send messages that relief is not going to flow unimpeded if it doesn’t flow through the appropriate channels. There are a number of these kinds of restrictions and challenges that the agencies have to overcome.
MJ.com: Sudan’s government claims it can’t rein in the Janjaweed, but how much control can it actually exert on the militias?
JP: Looking at the empirical evidence and history, we heard the same argument with respect to the Popular Defense Force, the PDF, in Bahr el Ghazal in the ‘90s. Then, slave-raiding was intensifying and there were calls internationally for Khartoum to stop aiding and abetting these slave-raiding militias. The government claimed, “We have no control over this; this is all inter-ethnic tribal fighting, not our problem.” But after the outcry was so intense, they finally cut off assistance to the militias and reined them in, and the slave-raiding that was going on stopped. That’s a great example of how this government will spin about how little they control things, but the security apparatus they built up is pretty extensive. In Darfur, they can do two things: They can stop supporting Janjaweed elements and/or they can start arresting Janjaweed commanders whose forces are undertaking these actions. If they did either one of those things, it would have a very rapid and great impact on Darfur, and the humanitarian and human-rights situations there.
MJ.com: Where the situation stands now, what can the international community do to force Khartoum to take those actions?
JP: I’m a very big supporter of using the tools we already have: the arms embargo, the asset freeze and the travel ban. You know, there’s been 21 years of war in Sudan, and nobody’s ever introduced an arms embargo against this killer government, so I would definitely throw that into the mix. An asset freeze would be aimed at senior members of the ruling party and [the] businesses they run. These things are funded with oil money, and the international community could work on freezing those assets. A travel ban would simply restrict the travel of the senior officials most responsible for this crisis. I think once you place any one of those three actions on the government, you’ll see some really quick action. They hate that kind of isolation, any measure of accountability or any measure that focuses in on their personal responsibility.
If you go back into history again, we saw this to be the case very dramatically with the Sudan government’s support of terrorism, after it hosted Al Qaida, helped incubate the commercial infrastructure of Al Qaida, and gave passports and visas to a number of terrorists over the years. They stopped most of that because they were on the receiving end of U.N. Security Council sanctions, and they hate it. They hate being perceived as a pariah or called out for negative reasons.
MJ.com: Once the situation stabilizes, what’s the next step in punishing those involved in the genocide?
JP: It’s very difficult. I think the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that’s going to report in a few weeks will propose possible options in this regard. It may be premature, but the various choices on the table will include referrals to the International Criminal Court, the establishment of a special tribunal for the actions that occurred in Darfur, or a hybrid court that would give the Sudanese government the primary responsibility — in conjunction with the U.N. — to develop a court in Sudan that would focus on accountability. These are all the choices they usually have in these situations.