Monday, July 23, 2007

[wvns] The Darfur conundrum

The Darfur conundrum
KA Dilday for openDemocracy.

On 31 March 2007, five African Union peacekeepers in Darfur were
killed in the most fatal attack on them since the force arrived in the
western province of Sudan in 2004. At the time of writing, the
spokesman for the African Union (AU) has been unable to say who was
responsible for the attack. This is the conundrum in Darfur: The
killers could have belonged to any of the several armed groups there,
though most reports suggest that one of the rebel forces was likely

It was this same conundrum - whom to blame, and whom to support, in
Darfur - which has, for the past two weeks, been distracting French
intellectuals from the imminent presidential election. A battle raged
in the opinion pages of France's main newspapers between France's
intellectuals: It was a debate that at times, seemed to have a less
noble subtext than the surface concern for dying Darfurians. It also
raised the question that nags at all levels of global action: much
more of the western world is aware of and concerned with the lives of
others, yet the quality of action is not keeping pace with the quantity.

A French controversy
The debate began on 20 March when the group Urgence Darfour, comprised
of more than 100 individual associations, organized a meeting at the
Mutualité, a grand hall on the left bank of Paris. There, the most
prominent of the twelve presidential candidates agreed - either
personally or through their representatives - that if elected, they
would use their position to try to stop the killings in Darfur. Even
President Jacques Chirac sent a letter of support. The meeting was led
by Bernard Kouchner, one of the founders of Médecins sans Frontières
(MSF), who has long since broken with the group and now stands
(unofficially and officially) for various national and international
offices; Jacky Mamadou, former president of Médecins du Monde, the
group Kouchner founded after leaving MSF; and the journalist and
philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who had just written a long article in
Le Monde about his recent journey to refugee camps in Sudan and Chad.

Urgence Darfour called for the United Nations and the European Union
to immediately send an international force to Darfur to protect the
civilians; create safe zones where aid workers can serve the
population; and bring those responsible for killings before the
international court.

Three days later, on 23 March, Paris's main leftist daily newspaper
Libération published a polemic written by two representatives of
Médecins sans Frontières. The authors responded strongly to what
they perceived as the ignorant posturing of Urgence Darfour and
invoked MSF's experience through two-decades of presence in Sudan to
make a case for a different approach. The worst massacres in Darfur,
wrote Jean-Hervé Bradol (president of the MSF's French chapter) and
Fabrice Weissman (director of research for the MSF), were in 2003-04.
True, there has been a recent resurgence of violence after a period of
remission, but the civilian casualties are at present not as numerous,
in part because much of the civilian population has already abandoned
the war-zones.

The Libé article appeared to break from the MSF's traditional role of
not advocating political strategies, albeit while couching political
recommendations in the rhetoric of protecting civilians. Bradol and
Weissman warned that a small United Nations force would not be able to
control an area as large as Sudan and that it would be resisted by the
Sudanese government, resulting probably in more civilian deaths. A
better option was to work with all of the armed factions to reach an
accord. They ended by saying that MSF was disappointed in both Urgence
Darfour and the presidential candidates: Urgence Darfour for using its
prominence to demand an ill-advised and unlikely intervention, and the
presidential candidates for showily and blindly signing onto it.

The next day, 24 March, a letter addressed to European Union leaders
on the eve of its fiftieth anniversary summit in Berlin and signed by
a group of prominent writers was published in newspapers in the EU's
twenty-seven member-states. The group, which had been assembled by Bob
Geldof, excoriated the EU for celebrating its birthday while the
atrocities continued in Darfur. Many of Europe's most renowned
intellectuals were among the signatories; they included Umberto Eco,
Dario Fo, Gűnter Grass, Jűrgen Habermas, Vaclav Havel, Seamus
Heaney, Harold Pinter, Franca Rame, Tom Stoppard and Bernard-Henri Levy.

Libération published the writers' appeal on 27 March on the same page
as an article by Richard Rossin, a former secretary-general of
Médecins sans Frontières. He responded in turn to his former
colleagues' criticism of Urgence Darfour. Rossin accused the current
MSF leadership of hiding behind statistics, of advocating positions
that would only help those Sudanese already relatively safe in aid
camps, and attempting to placate the Sudanese government for fear of
angering it. He argued that Bradol and Weissman's
"pox-on-all-of-their-houses" position that both pro-government and
rebel sides were responsible for attacks on aid workers wasn't fair
because in fact, the rebel forces wanted to make peace with the
government and wanted a unified Sudan. It's the Sudanese government,
argued Rossin, that expelled Kofi Annan's representative; that
arrests, harasses, kidnap and sometimes kills aid workers; and that
refuses journalists entry. "The butchers have been identified," Rossin
wrote. "And we do nothing."

The debate spread to Le Monde, the most widely read general national
newspaper in France, where two more observers - journalist Stephen
Smith, an Africa specialist, and Robert Menard, the head of Reporters
sans Frontières - threw another salvo. They argued that Urgence
Darfour's prescriptions for stopping the violence in Darfur were
half-baked and a naïve, manichean simplification of a complex
situation. Merely crying "stop the genocide" was useless, they wrote.
They further alleged that the information disseminated in the west
about Darfur was limited, as the press and the advocates knew only the
camps - to make an assessment based only on those would be like making
an assessment of France after visiting its hospitals.

"Sudan has a government, rebels, a civil society. It's not only a
slaughterhouse," Menard and Smith wrote. Those calling for the
intervention of the UN's "blue helmets" from the global south should,
if they believe so strongly that an external military force is needed,
march in themselves like the international brigades in Spain's civil
war. "What right" they ask, "(do) these journalists have to ask United
Nations forces from the third world to die in their place?"
The discourse of others
The sum of the arguments in this series of articles was this: The
situation in Sudan is intolerable; there are no purely good forces,
but there are ones that are worse than others; and there are neither
easy solutions nor ones unlikely to endanger civilians. But reading
the debate one comes to a cynical but seeming true inference: Darfur
has become a trendy cause. As one of the articles pointed out, for the
past three years the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, has had an
exhibition of striking photos of the victims in Sudan. Their tragedy
is art even as it continues.

Yet when situations like the long deadly war in the Democratic
Republic of Congo rage almost ignored, (which even now is a more
vicious and deadly crisis according to those with first-hand
experience of both), one wonders why so many people like actors and
college students lift themselves from blissful reverie to focus on
Darfur? Perhaps a place like the DR Congo is ignored because in Darfur
it's easier to paint the situation as genocide - although people
who've experienced and studied the situation warn that it is far more
complex even as the paradigm of dark-skinned Africans being
slaughtered by Arabs does have some relevance and historical basis.
It's difficult not to believe that the lighter-skinned Muslims versus
darker-skinned Christians, conveniently adds another moral dimension
to the global focus on the transgressions of Muslims.

As Gérard Prunier wrote in openDemocracy, the truth is that stopping
the killings is not simply a matter of the west committing to Darfur:
"In the real world, the options are grim. It is possible to let things
run their course and see the ethnic cleansing result in several
thousand casualties more. This is still the most likely probability,
given the incapacity of the international community to think beyond a
ritualistic wail for a UN force to be deployed (which, even were it to
be deployed, is unlikely to be effective)" (see: "Darfur's Sudan
problem," 15 September 2006).

Without getting into name-calling, since, as one of the participants
in the French intellectuals debate told me, "after all we all want
things to get better for the Darfurians," there is something slightly
condescending in the idea that a conflict in a country that has been
riven by war for decades, can be ended immediately by a little of the
west's firepower and paternal presence. What to do is a question that
bedevils even the most dedicated and knowledgeable analysts, as our
traditional forms of aid have often failed miserably. A friend who has
spent more than ten years on the ground as a medical aid worker in
Sudan, DR Congo and other parts of Africa, once mentioned a book he
often thought of writing: "The title is 'Peace, Development and
Coordination, the Hidden Killers,'" he wrote me as he left for Liberia
as it disintegrated at the end of 2005: "Maybe I should write it; it
is close to my heart."

France's intellectuals are notoriously competitive and combative with
one another. The debate about Darfur in some ways felt like another
act in a very long performance. This is not to say that there is not
real concern, dedication and passion other than dislike of one
another. MSF's people, for example, spend their lives risking their
lives in the worst places in the world. But while the subject-matter
is serious, the argument has still had the whiff of narcissism, as the
crème of the French leftist intelligentsia took potshots at each
other in the name of Darfurian victims.

In January I wrote that this year would bring new ways of seeing and
that we would no longer be able to claim ignorance of tragedy. What is
hard to stomach is that even as we embrace the modernity that compels
us to bear witness, we still often are casting in the wind for
solutions. This was particularly difficult for the French
intellectuals to accept as they publicly played out old rivalries
using Darfur as cover.



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