Darfur: Will the West Ever Care?

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A woman collects water whilst UN Soldiers watch on, in the town of Tabit, Northern Darfur. Source: Samuel Oakford, Vice.com

When on October 30th, 2014, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s vicious government forces mercilessly raped 221 women and girls over 36 hours, the residents of Tabit stood helpless. The small town of Tabit in Northern Darfur, Sudan, had been subjected to another atrocity.

It was not long ago that images of George Clooney’s ‘Save Darfur’ campaign were broadcast around the world, but just 9 years on, al-Bashir is once again unleashing a reign of terror throughout the Western region of Sudan. The international community must take note of this escalation. It must move away from attempting to try the President of Sudan in any International Court of Law. Instead, it should rejuvenate the passive United Nations forces in the country, and enforce a two-pronged approach of tough-talking diplomacy and sanctions.

In recent months, the Sudanese President has ordered his Rapid Support Forces militia group to oust rebel groups from Darfur. The Rapid Support Forces is a new nickname given to the notorious Janjaweed militias who swept the region in the early 2000’s. They are responsible for the countless rapes, lootings, and murders of over 400,000 civilians across Darfur since 2003. Specifically, the Rapid Support Forces are targeting groups such as the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), who arose after a devastating famine in 1987. At that time, the government aligned with various Arab tribes in Darfur, in a quest to redistribute land away from the dominant non-Arab ethnic groups in the region. This provoked conflict between Arabs and non-Arabs, subsequently leading to the creation of the SLA from the non-Arab tribes. Today, the SLA calls for an armed struggle against al-Bashir’s government, accusing the state of ignoring Darfur’s political and economic needs. The SLA envisions a democratically united political and economic system that addresses the uneven development across the country.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Rapid Support Forces targeted Tabit, a small village in Northern Darfur, after residents were accused of sympathizing with the Sudan Liberation Army. However, in reality, Human Rights Watch found Tabit residents had very little contact or allegiance with the SLA. These details have only emerged six months later thanks to Human Rights Watch’s independent investigation. The investigators only managed to gain a comprehensive report by speaking to residents via telephone due to physical access restrictions placed on them by the government. In comparison, the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) did not conduct a successful investigation into the Tabit attack. When reports were first made of the attack, UNAMID were given limited access to investigate the city. This meant no investigative report could be published.

The Sudanese government is also restricting the United Nations’ relief effort’s access to parts of Darfur where the heaviest fighting is currently taking place. The UN stated over 40,000 people have been forced to flee conflict in the region since the beginning of this year. Fresh reports of over 21 villages being burnt to the ground in Northern Jebel Marra that displaced over 50,000 people is a worrying sign, but even more critical is that the United Nations is unable to reach these regions.

Clearly, the international community needs to do more to be effective throughout the country. Does the West want to be continually criticized and lose yet more integrity if, and when, another Darfur Genocide occurs? So far signs of finding an effective solution for the region seem unlikely. Firstly, the International Criminal Court (ICC), responsible for prosecuting individuals for international war crimes, genocide, or crimes against humanity halted their investigations into alleged actions in Darfur. The ICC said it had to turn its attention to more urgent investigations. The ICC has also failed to take the Sudanese President, al-Bashir, into custody since his indictment in 2009. He is wanted for committing a range of crimes in Darfur over the past twenty years. These include overseeing ethnic cleansing, ordering mass rapes, and destroying thousands of villages. Instead, he has been able to continue his role as leader of the country, stonewalling the arrest warrant against himself.

In another lackluster move by the international community, the UN has drawn potential plans to significantly reduce the number of blue helmet peacekeepers in the region. The critical decision on whether to move forward with the plans will be made in the next few months. Moreover, currently, the UN force is ineffective at protecting innocent civilians and pays homage to al-Bashir’s demands by continually ousting international officials from the country, or refusing to let them into certain areas in need.

Instead, a rejuvenated peacekeeping force with greater resources and stronger legal capabilities is needed. First, the crisis in Darfur has to be put to the top of the policy agenda for the UN without delay. With the rise in conflict in the Middle East, it may seem a tall ask. However, the United Nations should ensure member states fund and revitalize troop numbers, weapons, humanitarian relief efforts, and intelligence operations. This would create a much more solid base where civilians are not slim pickings for government forces. To back the UN’s stance, much stronger vocal support for the UN is needed from the West, to ensure Sudan’s obligations under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) are met. Basic tenants of the UNDHR such as the right to life, liberty and security, spelled out under Article 3, have clearly been violated in the attack on Tabit. Furthermore, if the strongest member states are vocal in their disdain of al-Bashir’s policies, the president will fear UN reprisals, making him less likely to impose discretionary restrictions on investigators and relief agencies, making their work much more effective.

Another logical source of help in the Darfur crisis would be from the African Union seeing as it is on their doorstep. However, now led by Robert Mugabe, the organization’s ‘Anti-Western’ rhetoric has never been greater. The ill feeling towards Western intervention has been continually repeated by African heads of state, in particular reference towards the International Criminal Court. The Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, called the ICC “a tool to target African countries.” In fact, it is true that currently all eight cases held before the ICC originate from African states. This does not make for particularly strong African ties with the West. This highlights how the UN is the best option for intervention. It is implausible to think African nations will support any Western intervention in Darfur as it does not want to associate itself with the West.

The U.S. has already implemented some sanctions, but there are reports of lifting of these, at least to send communications hardware to the country. This sends the wrong message to al-Bashir. It exemplifies that the U.S. is prepared to help Sudanese development, without holding al-Bashir accountable for orchestrating atrocities.

Alternatively, the West should look to increase sanctions on the Sudanese government.They should impose specific trade sanctions that are directly infiltrating the Sudanese government’s security spending, such as an arms embargo on the country or imposing graver sanctions on Sudanese banks or partners who do business with the regime.

Especially, as the country’s deficit currently stands at $2.1 billion, foreign banks already refuse to give Sudan loans, grants or donations, because of fear of U.S. reprisals, which subsequently makes the Sudanese central bank’s foreign currency reserves miniscule. With this in mind, the President is unlikely to want to risk further restraints.

Although targeted sanctions alone will not topple the al-Bashir regime, they will decrease the amount the government can spend on its military and domestic security. This was shown by the effectiveness of sanctions on ending the Liberian conflict. The UN imposed an arms embargo, oil embargo, and travel sanctions on the government from 2000 onwards, which helped to weaken and isolate the barbaric Charles Taylor regime. Just like in Liberia, the funds in Sudan to support the ‘Rapid Support Forces’ would plunge, having no option but for al-Bashir to refocus his attentions to trying to keep the economy afloat as the sanctions hit.

If this was combined with tough diplomacy: such as threatening sanctions, ultimatums on reaching peace agreements, and telling Sudan it will face Western aggression such as military intervention if it does not stop committing atrocities, it may present the best way to ensure some kind of peace deal is enforced. It may not hold Bashir accountable in a court of law for war crimes, but it may halt him committing further acts.

Negotiating with a conniving dictator may be far from ideal, as one would preferably want him to be ousted from power and tried in the International Court, but currently it seems to be the only feasible way to avoid further suffering in a region ruthlessly rampaged for three decades.