Threatening the Sudan government won't help Darfur

The worst thing we could do now is to denigrate and marginalise the UN and the African Union
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You would think that, after the last year and a half, the international community would have learned something about pulling together to meet a crisis.

You would think that, after the last year and a half, the international community would have learned something about pulling together to meet a crisis. But not a bit of it. Here we are with what almost everyone accepts as the worst humanitarian crisis of our time in the Sudan, and there's still no policy to deal with it. Send in the troops, we can't afford another Rwanda, say the interventionists. Work it through diplomatic pressure on Khartoum, argue those who believe in the "softly, softly" approach. And in the middle, as usual, is the United Nations, issuing futile threats and roundly abused for its ineffectiveness.

It's the wrong way of looking at it. If nothing else, we should have learned that this "all-or-nothing" approach is fruitless and usually self-defeating. There have been precious few international crises of recent times, or any other time, that haven't been pretty obvious for some time before they've erupted. And there have been few that would not have been containable by early, concerted, negotiated pressure by the international community.

Sudan is the classic example. Warnings of an impending catastrophe have been building up for at least a year, yet virtually nothing was done either to put pressure on the Sudanese government or to organise proper relief until the last month.

Now that international public opinion has been aroused over Darfur, there has been a sudden rush to diplomatic activity, but with little overall sense of objective and only paltry resources. Threats and deadlines by the UN have become not a means to an end, but almost an end in themselves, an answer not to the needs of the starving and brutalised civilians in the area but a response to the public demand in Western countries that their leaders "do something about it".

Part of the problem, of course, is the structure of the UN itself, its lack of permanent security and aid facilities and its dependence on consensus for any action. But those difficulties have been compounded by the Iraq war. In the most practical sense, the war in Iraq has diverted attention away from Sudan at the critical time when the UN and the major powers might otherwise have concentrated their minds on Darfur.

But in a deeper sense, Iraq has made consensual solutions to crises such as Sudan a great deal more difficult. All the discussions that might have taken place in the grey areas of pressure and persuasion have been made impossible by an international discourse that can only see crises in terms of intervention or non-intervention, regime-change or appeasement. Such is the sense of a "battle of civilisations" engendered by the invasion of Iraq that Muslims are reluctant to see any action taken against Khartoum for fear that it is part of a Western war against their confreres, while African and other Third World countries oppose it on the grounds that it opens up the way to more general Western intervention in the internal affairs of other countries.

Grandstanding is the last thing that the poor people of Darfur need. Nor, I think, would it help much to declare their plight a "genocide", for all that this would force the UN to take action. What is happening in western Sudan is not the same as Kosovo or Rwanda, nor is it, strictly speaking, a genocide. It is the kind of messy local, tribalised tragedy bred on deprivation and a lack of resources, and fuelled by outside interference, too many guns and a government that has used the local Arab Janjaweed forces as its surrogates for its own political ends. Bombing Khartoum won't make the situation better. Nor will walking away from it.

Some of the elements of an eventual solution are already in place. The regional grouping, the African Union, is actively involved, and is just raising the number of troops it is sending there to 2,000. The UN has begun to take a more positive, and potentially interventionist, stance. Of course, it's too little, too late. But if we are to prevent such disasters happening again - and they are all too likely to be a feature of our times - then these are the avenues that need to be developed for the future. The worst thing we could do is to denigrate and marginalise them now.

Nor does it do much good to seek a direct confrontation with the Sudanese government at this point. It's no use demanding they immediately disarm the Janjaweed. Khartoum won't, and quite possibly can't, do it. What the international community should be doing is to concentrate on the refugees, ensuring a much more rapid build-up of aid and encampments across the border in Chad, and providing the (preferably non-Western) security forces to protect the refugees as they cross. This can be backed by the threat of pursuit across the border and enforcing a no-fly zone, should the refugees be threatened.

It won't necessarily protect the Darfurians in the villages. But it will prevent a catastrophe, and will make it clear to Khartoum that the international community is prepared for a showdown where it matters most - on the ground when the lives of civilians are threatened. Then you can start putting the squeeze on Khartoum to get the refugees returned, not in the language of threat but with the simple point that Sudan cannot hope to find support or aid from the international community until its fulfils its obligations to its own people.