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Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2004


World faces another humanitarian crisis

LONDON -- While politicians and diplomats discuss what to do, many people of Sudan's Darfur region have been forced from their homes, terrorized, tortured and murdered by members of the armed Janjaweed Arab militia, who frequently rape the women they capture. The militia has apparently been aided and abetted by Khartoum.

Those who manage to escape the militia end up in refugee camps where food, water and medical supplies are limited and disease is rife. The situation has been worsened by heavy rains, making roads impassable and holding up vital aid supplies. There are reported to be 1.2 million refugees and at least 30,000 dead. Farmers have been unable to plant their crops, and some 2 million people will need food aid to survive.

The crisis in Darfur follows the devastation and deaths of the Christian population caused by the civil war in southern Sudan. In both cases Khartoum must accept the main responsibility.

The world faces another huge humanitarian disaster. The only people who are doing anything practical to help are government-run aid agencies and charities engaged in relief work including Oxfam, Save the Children, UNICEF and a number of other international charitable foundations. The French in neighboring Chad, conscious of the genocide carried out not so long ago in Rwanda, have sent troops to help the local Chad authorities.

The United Nations Security Council has met, but all it could agree on was a resolution calling on the Sudanese government to disarm the militia within 30 days. If Khartoum failed to act, the U.N. would consider "measures" that could include sanctions of some kind. This is so vague that it is practically meaningless.

The response of the Sudanese government has been a hysterical denunciation of the resolution as "a declaration of war" and a promise to destroy any "crusader" army that dares to interfere in Sudan. Yet U.N. representatives are reported to have reached an understanding with Khartoum that it will set aside safe areas and will take steps to disarm the militia. But history shows we must be skeptical about the value of Sudanese promises.

The Arab League and Arab governments, who should be taking the lead in putting pressure on the Arab-led Sudanese government, dismiss the accusations against their Sudanese friends as U.S. and British propaganda and refuse to believe the reports that continue to come in from the hard-pressed aid agencies. According to some observers, the attitude of Arab governments is due to suspicions of American motives following the attack on Iraq, the failure of U.S. policies in bringing peace to Iraq and American failure to put pressure on Israel to comply with the "road map" toward a settlement in Palestine.

Some U.S. congressmen have termed the Sudan crisis another case of genocide. There has been talk in London of the possibility of sending British troops to help keep the peace in Darfur and disarm the militia. A general is reported to have said that up to 5,000 troops could be sent if the government so decided. A small force to protect refugee camps and the delivery of aid supplies could be useful, but such a force would face real difficulties if there was resistance on the part of Khartoum.

In that case, a much larger force might be needed. It would be difficult to agree on appropriate rules of engagement for such a force, even if its objectives were limited to protection of refugees and humanitarian workers. A basic problem with military intervention by Britain is that British armed forces are already overstretched with troops serving in southern Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Northern Ireland.

Many Britons think there is just as strong a case for intervening with force in the Sudan as there was in Iraq, and that a failure to take firm action in this case suggests that humanitarian considerations had in fact little to do with the decision to attack Iraq. The British case for joining the Americans in attacking Iraq was, of course, a perceived threat from weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi government's flouting of U.N. resolutions. Following the failure to find WMD, humanitarian motives have been highlighted.

The legality of intervention could be covered by a U.N. resolution. Certainly arguments against intervention on the grounds that armed intervention infringes on the supposedly sacrosanct sovereignty of another state have now worn very thin and cannot apply when the issue is one of genocide.

The refusal of Arab governments to come out clearly in condemnation of the Sudanese failure to take effective action against the militia is mirrored by their reluctance to criticize Palestinian extremism. The establishment of the new Iraqi government ought to have led to Arab willingness to help the new regime there to re-establish law and order, but, although some encouraging noises were made following the U.S. secretary of state's recent visit to Saudi Arabia, nothing substantial has been done. As a result, Arab prestige and influence outside the Middle East are at a very low ebb.

There is little that ordinary people in Britain or Japan can do to help the people of Darfur except to send donations to the relevant aid agencies. Still, we should press our governments to increase the amount of official aid they send to Darfur and urge them to take a firmer line at the U.N. Further efforts should be made to persuade Arab governments to take a much stronger stand against the Sudanese government. Khartoum must be left in no doubt of its pariah status so long as it fails to take firm measures to disarm the militia.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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