There has been considerable confusion over the import of my recent op/ed on the expulsion of humanitarian organizations from Darfur. This is partly, I believe, because of the highly misleading title given to the piece as it appeared in the Boston Globe: “Arrest warrant too costly for Darfur” (March 21, 2009); the title of the piece as it appeared in the International Herald Tribune was not much more helpful, although it gestured toward the dilemma I was seeking to highlight (“Justice at the expense of lives,” March 22, 2009). My own title—“Darfur, an ICC Arrest Warrant, and the Humanitarian Imperative”—was used only by The Sudan Tribune (March 22, 2009) and though sufficiently agnostic in tone, was still far from ideal.
My goals in the piece were first and foremost to highlight the consequences of recent humanitarian expulsions by the Khartoum regime, as well as something of the moral failure of Western nations and the international community that has brought us to the verge of catastrophic loss of life in Darfur. I also argued that there were good historical reasons for seeing these expulsions as not so much caused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) announcement but rather as an expedient use of this announcement as pretext for realizing ambitions that had long been contemplated. This first part of my effort accounted for 518 of the 685 words I was allotted, and seems not to have occasioned controversy or confusion. The remaining167 words, however, are a different matter.
Here I think it’s important to recall my final sentence, which should certainly have been a paragraph—mea culpa:
“Is anyone bothering to ask the people of Darfur?”
This question grows out of what I had presumed was a clear judgment on my part that the world’s powerful nations, at the UN Security Council and elsewhere, had, by virtue of their inaction on the occasion of the expulsions, no moral standing in responding to the dilemma I worked to pose. In other words, I was chiefly interested in creating a moral framework for understanding past and current responses by the international community. As a means, I posed the possibility that perhaps the only way to resolve the present humanitarian crisis was a trade-off between regained access for the expelled organizations and a suspension of the ICC prosecution of President Omar al-Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity (under Chapter 16 of the Rome Statute, the originating document of the ICC). I quite realize (and acknowledged in the op/ed) that this verges on the hypothetical, given Khartoum’s intransigence and its repeated declarations that the evictions are “irrevocable.” Permanent Security Council Members France, the UK, and the US seem equally disinclined to consider a Chapter 16 deferral. And if they were to vote for deferral, it would be (as I declared in my piece), “transparently succumbing to the ugliest form of blackmail.”
But in this particular context, a hypothetical is just as useful as more likely actions in highlighting the lack of moral standing on the part those nations that, de facto, will nonetheless decide the future of Darfur and humanitarian assistance. The reason such a dilemma, even if largely hypothetical, can exist at all is because of the lack of preparation for what was universally expected to be a significant response by Khartoum to the announcement of the arrest warrant by the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber. And yet there was
no marshalling of diplomatic resources to persuade China to act in concert with other concerned nations in the event the Khartoum regime went to extremes. There was no real diplomatic engagement with either the Arab League or the African Union, attempting to secure their efforts in constraining Khartoum’s response. (The Chinese and some Arab countries are reliably reported as highly distressed by Khartoum’s expulsions: why could that distress not have been anticipated and made the basis for negotiations on how to moderate regime behavior?)
In the event, the world—including those nations that have been most vociferous on Darfur—was caught flat-footed. And the international community appears to have made no progress in securing readmission for expelled humanitarian organizations, or resuscitation of key Sudanese NGOs shut down at the same time the expulsions were ordered. Millions of people are now at acute risk—not only in Darfur, but also in Eastern Sudan, Southern Blue Nile, Southern Kordofan, and Abyei. For it is too little remarked that the expulsion order applied to all of what Khartoum considers “northern Sudan.” A number of the thirteen expelled organizations worked in these other highly distressed areas in the north, and have been forced to abandon many hundreds of thousands of civilians who are as threatened as those in Darfur.
It is inaction by those nations that might have brought sufficient pressure to bear on the National Islamic Front regime that prompted my angry, but in an important sense rhetorical questions:
“given the inaction by the West and other international actors, are we in any position to invoke scruples about ‘deferring’ international justice? Does anyone dare say that justice for Darfur must go forward, even at the expense of countless Darfuri lives threatened by humanitarian expulsions?”
These questions were aimed squarely at those in the West who have advocated for ICC prosecutions—as I certainly have—but at the critical moment could not forestall or reverse Khartoum’s completely unacceptable response to the ICC announcement (and let us not forget that the atrocity crimes in Darfur were referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council in March 2005). I believe the world and the Darfuri people are owed, by governments and various nongovernmental organizations, an answer to these questions. How does one explain to a Darfuri woman, her child Halima dying in her arms of untreated meningitis, that not only have the doctors who might easily have treated Halima been expelled, but we have no plan to secure re-entry for those doctors?
As I indicated in my op/ed, it’s been my strong impression that “Darfuri sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of the al-Bashir arrest warrant, no matter what the costs.” I don’t know if this will be true six months from now, as suffering, deprivation, and death bite ever deeper into these fractured communities; I don’t believe anyone can know. I do believe, as I was told again today by a widely respected Darfuri leader, that opinion inside Darfur still runs strongly in favor of pursuing ICC justice, however great the suffering (this does not, of course, necessarily represent the views of other marginalized groups in the north that have been precipitously denied humanitarian assistance).
His and other voices from Darfuri civil society, at least in my view, are the only ones that now have moral standing, the only ones not compromised by weakness, cowardice, and the grossest hypocrisy, the only ones that can now answer basic questions, hypothetical or otherwise, about humanitarian needs, security, the peace process, and justice. Hence again the force of my op/ed’s concluding question: “Is anyone bothering to ask the people of Darfur?”