The Southeast Asian tsunami is a terrible disaster, and is justifiably generating significant media coverage. While natural disasters generate compelling human stories, it is imperative the media, and world citizens in general, not forget the world’s human disasters. Currently, while a venerable army of reporters camps out in Southeast Asia, there is little if any attention paid to the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. It is easy to grasp the destruction of a tsunami, but it is much more difficult to comprehend the complexities of Sudanese politics – keeping much of the media away and many citizens in the dark. The first step to generating a call to action in Sudan is attempting to gain a better grasp of the current situation, which the mainstream media has not covered sufficiently.
In December 1948, members of the newly formed United Nations met to establish international laws to prevent genocide. The world had seen the consequences of its failure to intervene in the Holocaust and sought to prevent such atrocities from reoccurring. The U.N. established in clear language what genocide is – the attempt to destroy, in whole or in part, an ethnic, religious or national group – and resolved to prevent and punish it. Even complicity in genocide by a government is punishable under international law.
These guidelines were established for a reason, and they should be the standard that the U.S. and the rest of the world follows when considering intervention. The crisis in the western Sudan has left nearly two million homeless and at least 70,000 dead – likely more. Hundreds of villages have been destroyed, women have been raped and children have been left to starve. The victims are members of three tribes living in the Darfur region – the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa – African tribes who lashed out against the Arab government in 2003. The perpetrators – known as the “janjaweed” – are local militias backed by the government. Khartoum might not be directly responsible for the atrocities; however, they are at least complicit in them by their denial of the problem and failure to keep the janjaweed in check to date.
These facts define the situation in Sudan as genocide and give the international community the right – and the obligation – to intervene. But such intervention has been slow to come, and seems increasingly unlikely since the world’s attention has been focused on the horrors of the tsunami. The African Union has pledged about 3,300 peacekeeping troops to Darfur, but help has been slow to arrive and troops have been hamstrung by a weak mandate when they get there. The region needs peacemakers, not peacekeepers. And the African Union – lacking sufficient resources, troops and authority to do the job alone – needs significant help from the U.N. and the international community.
Some U.S. government officials have been wary of alienating the Sudanese government with sanctions – hoping to persuade them to end the genocide rather than forcing it. Furthermore, the war in Iraq has left America with little diplomatic capital to spare, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal has hurt the moral high ground from which it calls for humanitarian aid. These factors have nothing to do with the people being killed, raped and displaced every day in Darfur. But they have complicated what little effort the world has made to put an end to the genocide.
Based on the actions of the government in Khartoum, sanctions and even the use of force are necessary – and warranted by international law. But unequivocal, effective intervention may never come – unless ordinary citizens take issue with the genocide.
Americans should take the initiative to raise awareness of the crisis, and urge the international community to intervene. Such awareness should begin at college campuses like GW, where student activism is a hallmark. While seemingly infinitesimal, action from student leaders around the country would raise the profile of the tragedy. With citizen action stemming from increased awareness, the people of Darfur might still have a chance of receiving the help they need to survive. They may not grab headlines the way a giant wave does, but they are as desperately in need of help as the people of Southeast Asia.