Darfur Betrayed, Again

Originally published in the Sudan Tribune, March 16, 2009.

Following years of concerted effort by Darfur supporters, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Shortly after being charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, the now infamous criminal expelled more than a dozen humanitarian aid organizations from western Sudan, leaving an untold number of refugees in even greater peril. Which begs the question: Has Darfur activism done more harm than good?

Since its inception, a well funded, celebrity-endorsed and media savvy anti-genocide movement has raised awareness of the catastrophe to unprecedented heights. Along the way, however, the vast majority of its members have ignored the first rule of advocacy – the obligation to speak truth to power.

With maddening consistency, activist leaders have gone out of their way to avoid ruffling the feathers of their perceived political allies, including the United Nations, the African Union (A.U.), NATO and, especially, the U.S. government. As a result, this mainstream coalition has routinely mirrored the acquiescence of the international community, emboldening the Bashir regime to carry out a modern-day holocaust in broad daylight.

Examples of their counterintuitive campaign strategies are legion. Take, for instance, their response to the first significant decision made by U.N. Security Council, early in the crisis.

With the front-loaded slaughter in full swing (a higher portion of killings took place during the first few years), the Security Council delegated the safety of Darfuri civilians to a woefully undermanned, inexperienced and ill-equipped African Union observer force. In a Kafkaesque twist, this faux peacekeeping contingent agreed to a mandate permitting them to document, rather than prevent, the ongoing atrocities.

By vigorously promoting funding for this so-called “African solution for an African problem” instead of wholeheartedly denouncing it, activists irrevocably strengthened Bashir’s hand, leaving the region defenseless against his military personnel and proxy militia.

This disastrous precedent was followed by a series of watered down, activist-supported Security Council Resolutions. Chief among them, was the approval of 26,000 A.U./U.N. peacekeepers who, had they actually existed, would require Bashir’s signature to be deployed in Darfur. Moreover, even if those troops had fully materialized, their numbers would have been far too small to do the job effectively. To date, the makeshift force currently on the ground has simply changed the color of their helmets from A.U. green to U.N. blue to reflect a change of command.

By embracing a feel-good measure that was the longest of long shots, the movement severely undermined its own credibility and cemented the vulnerability of an entire people.

Equally disconcerting has been the free pass Darfur supporters have given the Oval Office throughout the nightmare.

Save for an intrepid few, the well-documented (but under-publicized) intelligence-sharing arrangement between the CIA and its Sudanese counterparts for the U.S. “war on terror” remains the elephant in the room for anti-genocide campaigners. This, despite the fact that the agreement between the two governments remains a key motivation behind U.S. officials’ tolerance of Bashir’s scorched earth policy.

In lieu of highlighting the hypocrisy of the only country that has explicitly labeled the violence in western Sudan genocide, Darfur activists instead chose to place the spotlight on China.

A full eighteen months before the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, they launched the “Genocide Olympics” campaign. Rooted in magical thinking, their plan was to shame the Chinese government (Sudan’s number one oil customer and arms supplier) into pressuring Bashir to halt the bloodshed and sign off on the deployment of the aforementioned phantom peacekeepers.

True to form, the campaign crumbled when — in stark contrast to the heroic series of nonviolent actions carried out at The Games by Students for a Free Tibet — Darfur supporters abruptly called off their Beijing protests after being admonished, in advance, by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

During the past six years as many as 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed in western Sudan. Millions more have been left without protection and are, for the foreseeable future, cut-off from critical aid.

Without question, holding Bashir accountable in the International Criminal Court is a critical component of securing justice for the people of Darfur. However, given his barbaric track record, activists – at a minimum — had an obligation to forcefully insist that the international community have the proper safeguards in place to ensure refugees’ continued access to life-saving humanitarian aid, before the arrest warrant was issued.

It is impossible to know whether years of Darfur activism has saved, or merely agonizingly prolonged the lives of those who remain hostage in the desert. Regardless, one cannot overlook the fact that no social justice movement has ever succeeded without the courage to confront the powers-that-be.

Given the massive scale of injustice in western Sudan and the sobering reality that Darfur will never be the same, the dark history of this tragedy may well be summarized by the following epitaph:

Like those that came before, this, too, was a genocide nobody really wanted to stop.

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(John Morlino is the former director of The Darfur Pledge campaign, a grassroots effort to end the violence in western Sudan and has written extensively about the ongoing crisis. He also worked behind the scenes supporting the 2008 Olympic protests in Beijing by Students for a Free Tibet).