KSG Forum on Darfur

Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government held a forum on Darfur tonight, focusing on the critical question, “What can we do?” It featured some of the key figures who’ve helped make the world aware of the catastrophe taking place in western Sudan: Romeo Dallaire, Samantha Power, John Pendergast and Omer Ismail, and was hosted by Michael Ignatieff. I arrived ten minutes late and the room was packed to the rafters, as was the classroom being used for overflow.

Dallaire, the Canadian general who worked so hard to bring global attention to the genocide in Rwanda while his outmanned force tried to protect fleeing Tutsis, spoke first, drawing parallels between the situations in Rwanda a decade ago and the current situation in Darfur. His basic parallel – lots of talk, and very little action. He outlined two possible intervention scenarios for Darfur:

– If we really wanted to intervene – 44,000 troops, lots of backup, including helicopters, air and land support. The area is enormous, and there’s 9 major camps scattered over the area the size of France. At minimum, 24,000 troops are necessary to protect and maintain the delivery of humanitarian aid.

– If we wanted to cooperate with the Khartoum government, and trust that they were trying to disarm the Janjawid, we would need 10,000 troops, with a bare minimum of 4,000. This would allow us to protect observers, but wouldn’t protect Darfurians unless the government were extremely cooperative.

What Dallaire believes should have happened five months ago is meaningful intervenion by the UN. He points out that the UN deployed 17,500 troops to Sierra Leone, and 19,000 to Liberia, and that a global force deployed 65,000 to Yugoslavia. But, at the moment the AU has 300 troops on the ground to protect observers, and are scaling up to deploy 3,500 Rwandan and Nigerian troops.

Dallaire strongly believes that the US, French and British cannot deploy troops without facing criticism over colonialism or imperialism; he believes it’s critical for African nations to intervene with extensive financial and logistic support from world powers.

Samantha Power, whose Pulitzer-winning A Problem From Hell is required reading for anyone interested in the US’s (in)actions on a global stage, explained the success of Khartoum’s PR efforts. She argues that Khartoum has done a masterful job of framing the question in terms of an unruly rebel group who need to be controlled, rather than acknowledging a government ethnic cleansing campaign that happens to use a proxy army.

Power has travelled to Sudan recently and found the Khartoum regime very accessible and willing to talk. She described travelling around the country on Sudanese government helicopters with one of the leaders of the Janjawid, listening to “Arabd and nonarabs sing kumbaya for my benefit” in Potemkin villages set up to deceive journalists. She saw this as a government effort to draw a (false) distinction between the “rabble” Janjawid the government promises to stop and the forces they’re using as a proxy army.

She pointed out a simple thing humanitarian aid agencies could do to dramatically improve the situation Darfurian refugees face: provide firewood or kerosene to allow women to cook the food they’re receiving from aid agencies. Women wander increasingly far from the camps to find firewood. They often encounter Janjawid, who patrol the perimiter of the camps. Systemic rape as a tool of ethnic cleansing is a major part of the conflict in Darfur, so providing adequate fuel to women in the camps becomes a way to prevent brutal gang rapes.

One might wonder why the 300 troops in Darfur aren’t able to monitor the camps and protect the women within them. Power points out that the 300 observers are spread over 6 sites. Since they’re on 3 shifts, and not all observers carry weapons, there’s 12 or so monitors on duty at each camp, six of whom patrol the perimiter. It’s unsurprising they’re unable to provide meaningful security. Power urges that the next troops be deployed as a large “reaction force”, rather than scattered throughout the country.

Former Clinton official, and advisor to International Crisis Group, John Prendergast was asked how one gets the Khartoum regime to respond to outside pressure. He explained that the regime is not the Taliban, nor Saddam Hussein – they’re pragmatists and they’ll respond when they believe there’s political will behind rhetoric.

Prendergast pointed to pressure put on Sudan in the 1990s – in response to Sudan’s hosting of Osama Bin Ladn, the US named Sudan as a state sponsor of terror, imposed strong unilateral sanctions and pushed for UN security council sanctions. For the most part, those efforts worked – Sudan expelled Bin Ladn and took meaningful steps to oust terrorists.

There have been eighteen months of ethnic cleansing, a situation Prendergast says is unrivaled since Rwanda… and not one punative messure. In fact, the US has sanctioned the Darfur rebels, not the Khartoum government! He alleges that Powell abused the word “genocide”, by using the term to describe the situation in Darfur, then sending a diplomat to Khartoum to tell people that the term “genocide” is in reaction to “domestic concerns” in the US. This action, Prendergast argues, cut the legs out from the UN Genocide Convention.

Omer Ismail, a leading Sudanese intellectual and founder of the Sudan Democratic Forum, explained that the Khartoum government was experienced as tagging any opposition as colonialists, imperialists and enemies of Islam. They’ve turned debate about survival of their regime into a debate about the perpetuation of Islam in the world.

Ismali also pointed out that the government is extremely experienced at dragging its feet, poinging out that it took 22 months to progress from the Naivasha peace talks to actual protocols between the North and South. During those 22 months, the government pumped as much oil as possible from the South (before it lost control of the oil fields) and deployed troops to Darfur. Ismail suggests we can expect Khartoum to move as slowly as possible, because it knows the international community is afraid to push too hard, or all the concessions won regarding the North/South conflict could evaporate.

As the discussion turned towards concrete steps individuals and nations could take, Power suggested that we can seize the initiative, using East Timor as a model.

The Indonesian government agreed to a referendum, and the Timorese people asked for independence. Indonesia sic’d their militia on East Timor and we watched 2000 people being die as almost every structure on the island was burned down. At some point, the world community remebered the pledge “no more Rwandas”, and a UN-led force of 23,000 was permitted in by the Indonesian government. Power feels that it was critical that the force was a UN force and that there was a perception of international unity behind the intervention.

Prendergast agreed that an intervention must be led by the UN, headed by the secretary general. We also need a clear sense of what our objectives are in Sudan. Is it a peace deal? Security for displaced people? It needs to be about a reversal of what’s gone on – bring refugees back to their homes. Protecting the ceasefire is meaningless – the ceasefire isn’t preventing men from being killed and women from being raped.

Ismail pointed out that everyone is aware that the US is afraid to intervene because of Iraq – we’re scared of quagmires. But since the US took the lead in calling it genocide, “you better put your wallet or your gun where your mouth is”.

He argues that we need to negotiate our way into getting the UN involved. Russia and China are not interested in intervening – Russia has arms deals with the government, and China has oil deal. Furthermore, both are concerned that intervention opens the way for international intervention in Chechnya, Tibet or Taiwan.

In the meantime, we are setting up the AU to fail. If we don’t give them funding and logistical support, including satellite imagery, command support, we’re guaranteeing their failure and their elimination as a global stabilizing force.

Both Ismail and Dallaire pointed to the role of the media. Ismail pointed out that so little news from Africa makes the nightly newscast that it’s hard for Americans and Europeans to understand what’s going on. Dallaire holds the media to task for not confronting Powell with the contradiction of a genocide that we’re not preventing.

Power fielded a thorny question from a local Green party representative, who asked how the US could hope to intervene given our bloody oppression of native peoples and imperialist actions in Iraq. She quipped, “The good news is the US isn’t getting involved in Darfur, doesn’t want to be there, and doesn’t care about the situation,” before offering the serious observation that our “bloody hands” shouldn’t prevent us from doing what’s right regarding current events.

She went on to suggest that Americans pressure our legislators, who will pressure the executive. But she believes the UN is really falling down on the job. If they were serious, we’d see a ministerial conference of the middle powers – countries like Japan, Germany and others who could afford to intervene. She would prefer to see an African leader like Obasanjo or Mbeki join with Annan to push for UN involvement.

Any misrepresentations or misquotes are my fault – there was an enormous amount to absorb in a short time. I’ll post a link to the webcast once I can find one online. Many thanks to Jim Moore and Passion of the Present for making me aware that this discussion was taking place.

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