A crime that tests our willingness to stop genocide

Tuesday 27 May 2008 00:00
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Imagine a town about the size of Whitstable or Stirling, with a population of about 30,000. One moment it's there and the next it isn't. All that remains of a once bustling community of schools, hospitals, shops, houses and, above all, people is ash, bodies, charred wood and twisted metal. A couple of survivors, or perhaps looters, sift through the debris amid the smoke. It sounds like the stuff of nightmares or horror movies. But this is not the fruit of someone's dark imagination. As The Independent reports today, horror on this scale has been visited on the town of Abyei in southern Sudan.

Devastated several days ago by militias apparently loyal to the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, Abyei appears to have fallen victim to a government policy of launching pre-emptive strikes of the utmost ferocity against regions close to oil wells which are suspected of planning to join the break-away south of the country.

What is so brazen about this crime is that it did not take place in an obscure area, far from the concerned gaze of international observers. Abyei was supposed to be a place of refuge from the ethnic and faith-based turmoil that has enveloped much of Sudan. More than 300 United Nations peacekeeping troops were based in the town, supplied with tanks and arms, to maintain their own security and that of the residents. Alas, the people of Abyei appear to have suffered the same fate as the Muslims of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, who also inhabited a "UN safe area" which turned out to be nothing of the sort.

If the UN has presided over the same disgrace in Abyei as it did in Srebrenica in 1995, then that demands an investigation. But it will not be enough to leave the inquest to UN officials. A crime of this magnitude must touch the conscience of the world in a more immediate fashion. We in Britain, the US and the other powers that claim to believe in the universal application of human rights have already sat by passively as what looked like an organised genocide was perpetrated in the Darfur region of western Sudan by so-called Janjaweed militias.

The West, taken in by Khartoum's insistence that it had nothing to do with the militias or with the supposedly spontaneous tribal violence in Darfur, made clucking noises and then lost interest. Washington, in particular, at first seemed closely engaged in securing an end to the Darfur violence before its attention wavered.

The latest events, in a part of the country that was supposed to be peaceful, suggest that Khartoum no longer fears pious reprimands from the West. It has used Abyei as a test. If the regime gets away with destruction on this scale, we can expect the 2005 peace deal that ended the north-south war in Sudan to unravel entirely and government soldiers to roll back into the south with a vengeance. What is even more scandalous is that the attack on Abyei was not unexpected. The town has been under a virtual blockade since February. Now we see where our collective inaction has led.

Whether the inhabitants of Abyei have been killed or simply driven out remains to be seen. Either way, a tragedy has occurred that cannot be undone. But it will be compounded if we in the West permit our shame over the catastrophic intervention in Iraq to inhibitus from ever again even threatening the use of force against regimes that blatantly employ mass murder to get their way. There should be an outcry over Abyei, followed by a concerted demand for a much larger and more active international presence in border regions of Sudan. Without a response, there will be more such actions. And the fate of the victims will be on our consciences, too.

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