It seems an eternity since the bloodshed began. Back then, oil was $30 a barrel, Saddam was still sitting, however uneasily, on his throne in the Baghdad Presidential Palace and the Oakland Raiders were the second best team in football. Today — five years later — oil has eclipsed $100 a barrel, Saddam is ancient history and the Oakland Raiders are in disarray.
Much has changed since March 2003. But one thing remains obstinately the same: the slaughter of innocents in Darfur. Over the last half-decade, as many as 400,000 people have been killed and another 2.5 million (continuing now at 30,000 a month) have been driven from their homes in Sudan’s western region.
The world’s most recent flailing attempt to quell what the United Nations calls the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” was to have taken place on January 1, when the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) was supposed to send 26,000 soldiers and policemen to Darfur. Instead only 9,000 troops (roughly one soldier per 22 square miles) were deployed.
UNAMID’s stumbling start was not unexpected given that U.N. officials had for months complained that they lacked critical logistical support from western countries. In one example, the mission called for 24 helicopters (critical in Sudan, a country the size of France, whose few paved roads are subject to flooding). But not one helicopter was provided, despite repeated direct appeals by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and despite NATO countries together possessing over 18,000 helicopters. Other western nations refused to send troops for fear of humiliation if the mission proved a failure.
That outcome — the U.N.’s humiliating failure in Darfur — is the one the Sudanese government, responsible for arming and directing the Janjaweed, Arab militias behind most of the bloodshed, seems determined to produce. Recently, the International Criminal Court accused Ahmad Haroun, former Sudanese minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs, of targeting civilians in attacks on four villages in west Darfur in 2003 and 2004. Accusations against Haroun include personal responsibility for murder, rape and pillaging. But although the Sudanese government has known for a year about the case against Haroun, it refuses to prosecute him or send him to The Hague (where the International Criminal Court is located) for prosecution. Instead, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir promoted Haroun to lead a Sudanese national group overseeing UNAMID.
In another case, Sudan appointed Musa Hilal, a high-level Janjaweed leader, to a central government position, a move that was met with outrage from human rights groups. Khartoum has also refused to accept U.N. troops from Thailand, Norway, Sweden and Nepal, rejected landing rights to heavy-transport aircraft, restricted helicopter flights, banned night flying and refused adequate access to Sudanese ports. Such obstacles caused Jean-Marie Guehenno, head of U.N. peacekeeping, to publicly wonder whether his organization should abandon the Darfur deployment altogether.
No nation needs peace more than Sudan. A July analysis by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace, a research organization, placed Sudan last among 177 countries as being most at risk of failure, below even Iraq and Somalia. The International Crisis Group states that violence is again increasing. In one day in late January, the Janjaweed killed 21 civilians in a West Dafur village.
In mid-February, 12,000 Darfuris were forced to flee into neighboring Chad when the Sudanese army launched a major assault on two Darfur towns. At least 100 civilians were killed in the attacks. Sudan expert Eric Reeves writes that, “Darfur is more dangerous now than it has been in years.”
Meanwhile, access for humanitarian agencies is decreasing as attacks on humanitarian workers have reached “unprecedented levels,” up 150 percent according to the U.N.
It is difficult to say what 2008 will bring for Darfur. Will China’s desire for favorable press coverage during the Beijing Olympic Games compel it to stop underwriting mass murder? Does President Bush’s recent signing of legislation allowing state and local governments to cut investment ties with companies that do business in Sudan portend a more robust response from the United States? How will the emerging political crisis over stalled implementation of Sudan’s separate North-South peace agreement affect chances of peace in Darfur?
Important questions all. Meanwhile, the United Nations — which this year will mark (quietly, one presumes) the 60th anniversary of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide — has decided after years of neither preventing nor punishing genocide in Darfur that it’s ready to take heroic action.
The World Body recently announced that it would dispatch the world’s most formidable action hero — Spiderman — to assist in its peacekeeping efforts. That’s right. The U.N. has contracted with Marvel Comics to start printing cartoons depicting Spiderman fighting alongside U.N. peacekeepers. While it remains to be seen whether or not the marketing ploy will help boost the image of the hapless U.N., it’s become increasingly clear that any U.N.-brokered peace in Darfur will be purely fictional.