The failures of the UN Secretariat in responding to the Darfur catastrophe are among the many signs that the international body remains incapable of responding to crises that entail confronting sovereign nations engaged in genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. To be sure there was much unctuous talk by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan about the “responsibility to protect” civilians endangered in precisely the ways that have long been so evident in Darfur and eastern Chad. But in the end, Annan left office with a savage genocide by attrition continuing, with no end in sight, almost four years after large-scale conflict began in February 2003. Humanitarians are still being harassed, impeded, and assaulted; the number of conflict-affected civilians has grown to 4.7 million, according to the latest UN figures; and hundreds of thousands have died, with the potential for cataclysmic human destruction looming ever closer.
It was a grim irony that during Annan’s tenure the UN World Summit of September 2005 enshrined, in an “Outcome Document,” the “responsibility to protect,” as did Security Council Resolution 1674 (April 2006). While Annan often invoked such “responsibility,” it never really moved beyond exhortation. Current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also made the obligatory noises last October: “I will work diligently to materialize our responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of humanity.” But such talk has been conspicuously absent in Ban’s language about Darfur since a bracing encounter with Khartoum’s strongman Omar al-Bashir this past January in Addis Ababa. Whereas just prior to the meeting Ban insisted on the urgency of a protection force to Darfur—“No more time can be lost. The people of Darfur have waited far too long. This is just unacceptable”—afterward “waiting” seemed a much better idea: “We need to be patient in following up this political process as well as the peacekeeping process.”
Five months later, and almost ten months after UN Security Council Resolution 1706 authorized “rapid” deployment of a force of 22,500 civilian police and troops, with a robust mandate to protect civilians and humanitarians in Darfur, a mere 200 UN technical personnel have deployed as sole international support for a crumbling and badly demoralized African Union force. The force authorized by Resolution 1706, under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, built upon recommendations contained in an assessment that Annan had requested of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations. It now exists only as a notional “hybridization” of UN and African Union forces—an unprecedented and dubious collaboration.
And still the genocide continues, if with more chaotic violence and a fracturing of the rebel movement. Khartoum remains obdurate in its defiance of the international community, and the UN in particular. For this regime of gnocidaires, the “responsibility to protect” means little more than protecting its own officials from being extradited to The Hague for trial by the International Criminal Court.
In short, there is a highly embarrassing disconnect between the rhetoric of the UN Secretariat, including the Secretary-General’s various special envoys for Sudan, and the poverty of achievement in protecting millions of vulnerable Darfuris and acutely endangered humanitarian operations.
Nothing does so much as this disconnect to explain a truly preposterous opinion essay by Ban Ki-moon this past weekend in The Washington Post, suggesting that the real explanation for the Darfur crisis lies in global warming.
Though no scientist, I’m more than convinced that the evidence accumulated to date overwhelmingly supports dismaying predictions about future climate change. I’m also inclined to believe that desertification in the Sahel region of Africa is related to global warming, and that the relentless spread of the Sahara southwards may be one of our earliest signals of ominous change. And certainly the deterioration of land quality in Darfur, mainly in North Darfur, has been a factor in exacerbating tensions between sedentary agriculturalists and nomadic pastoralists. The former tend to be non-Arab or African tribal groups; the latter Arab tribal groups, although the non-Arab Zaghawa, a key element in the rebel group, are well known as camel-herders.
But the real explanation to genocide in Darfur lies not in the climate but in the ruthless arrogation of national power and wealth by the brutal regime that rules in Khartoum. Since coming to power by military coup in 1989, deposing an elected government and deliberately aborting Sudan’s most promising chance for a north/south piece since independence in 1956, the National Islamic Front (which has innocuously renamed itself the National Congress Party) has engaged in a vast campaign of ethnically-targeted human violence and destruction throughout Africa’s largest nation: in the Nuba Mountains, in southern Sudan, in Southern Blue Nile, in the eastern provinces (particularly among the Beja), and most conspicuously in Darfur.
Long before the outbreak of hostilities in February 2003, Khartoum had been arming Arab militia forces throughout Darfur, even while it was forcibly disarming African villages. Desperate for broader political support, Khartoum also divided Darfur into three states in 1994 as a means of denying the non-Arab Fur, the largest ethnic group in Darfur, a political majority in any part of Darfur. Walis (governors) were hand-picked by the NIF leadership, and the ruthlessly efficient security services soon supplanted the decayed justice system in Darfur.
The relationship between Arab nomads and sedentary agriculturalists was never the untroubled symbiosis that Ban Ki-moon fatuously suggests in his essay. But there were certainly traditional mechanisms for conflict resolution and compensation. These could not survive, however, as Khartoum sided ever more conspicuously with the most violent elements within the Arab militias—what would become the infamous Janjaweed. An intensification of ethnic conflict in Darfur indeed began in the wake of the famine of 1984-85. But it was not until the 1990s that ethnicity became the defining feature of conflict. Particularly with the brutal assaults on the Massaleit people in the late 1990s, the potential for genocidal destruction was clear.
Decades of severe political and economic marginalization, along with the NIF regime’s politically expedient targeting of the African tribal groups of Darfur, are the real cause of conflict in Darfur.
This is well-established political history, all neatly excluded from Ban Ki-moon’s convenient and self-exculpatory meteorological history of Darfur. But we will make no progress in either understanding or halting the ongoing, indeed spreading human destruction in Darfur and eastern Chad unless we look not merely to the skies but to the heart of darkness that beats relentlessly in Khartoum.
[Eric Reeves is author of “A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide”]