There has been a strangely uncritical response to President Bush’s announcement that he is imposing additional sanctions on Khartoum for failing to halt the grim genocide by attrition in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Indeed, it would seem that – given the inertia in Europe, the cynicism of the Arab League and Organization of Islamic Conference, and the callously rapacious attitude of China – anything is better than nothing. But such a view reflects a dangerous failure to understand how these weak and finally meaningless efforts actually encourage Khartoum in its belief that it can sustain the immensely destructive status quo in Darfur.
The conflict in Darfur has now entered its fifth year and is certainly different in character from the massive, ethnically targeted human destruction of 2003-2004, in which the vast majority of non-Arab or African villages were burned and plundered. This destruction has displaced some 2.5 million people, most into squalid camps that have become cauldrons of suffering, rage and despair. The rebel movement that emerged in early 2003 has fractured; the Arab populations that had sought to stay out of the conflict have been remorselessly drawn in; and, terrifyingly, insecurity may force the exit of aid organisations now providing a critical lifeline for what the UN estimates are a staggering 4.5 million conflict-affected human beings in the greater humanitarian theatre of Darfur and eastern Chad.
There is little dispute that both civilians and humanitarian workers need a much more robust force than the current weak and demoralised African Union mission to protect them – in the camps, in rural areas, along transport corridors, and during the first tentative efforts by refugees to return to the sites of their former villages and resume agriculturally productive lives.
But President Bush’s new sanctions do nothing to bring about that change. Beyond seeking to impose financial punishment on two mid-level regime officials and a rebel leader, they would deny 31 Sudanese companies access to international contracts for American dollars. This is little more than a bookkeeping inconvenience: a valuable, fungible international commodity such as crude oil – by far Sudan’s largest export – will always find a buyer, whether the contract is denominated in Euros, Yen (Japan buys huge quantities of Sudanese crude) or Chinese Yuan.
Do the new sanctions offer any hope of pushing Khartoum to accept the required international protection force, of the sort authorised nine months ago by UN Security Council Resolution 1706? Do US currency sanctions on the 31 companies bring to bear any real pressure on Khartoum’s gnocidaires, the senior officials responsible for loosing the Janjaweed militia and its deadly military aircraft on thousands of defenceless African villages?
Not in the slightest. On the contrary, by working so hard to suggest that this small step will make such a significant difference (Bush spoke unctuously early Tuesday morning, knowing that his comments would dominate the international news of the day in the US), the Bush administration has let Khartoum know that is unwilling to take more serious steps. America’s weaknesses appear all the more glaring in the ghastly wake of Iraq, and Europe is less than eager for another international adventure. It hardly helps that Bush’s only rival for posturing on Darfur is the soon-to-be-unemployed Tony Blair.
Even the Bush administration’s incongruously part-time special envoy for Sudan, Andrew Natsios, signaled that nothing of substance had been proposed. The Guardian reports that Natsios thinks “the sanctions were intended to be largely symbolic” and says, “The purpose of these sanctions is not the sanctions [but] to send a message to the Sudanese government to start behaving differently.” Send Khartoum a message? One might have thought that more than half a dozen UN Security Council resolutions would have sent the necessary “message” – in particular, Resolution 1556 (July 2004), which “demanded” that the Islamist regime disarm the Janjaweed and bring its leaders to justice.
No, the problem is not communicating with Khartoum; rather, it’s convincing these brutal men that there will be consequences for failing to heed such messages. To date there have been no penalties for genocidal counterinsurgency warfare; no penalties for ongoing indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian targets; no penalties for harassing, abusing and assaulting humanitarian workers and impeding delivery of aid supplies. And the Janjaweed continue their savage predations, often after having been recycled into the paramilitary guises of the “Border Intelligence”, or “Popular Defense Forces”, or local police, even within the camps.
The key is to internationalise sanctions and, even more critically, to expend the diplomatic capital necessary to make oil-guzzling China see that it must cooperate in halting human suffering and destruction in Darfur and eastern Chad. To date, China shows no signs of cooperating in serious fashion, although the rapidly increasing opprobrium attached to their hosting the 2008 Summer Olympic Games may soon change this. In this key effort, Bush’s sanctions stunt adds nothing.
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