by Joe Steptoe
“Such an evil must never be allowed to happen again.”
Those now infamous and all too familiar words proclaimed by then-Secretary General Kofi Annan to the UN general assembly in 2005 will hauntingly reverberate through the realms of history with the same impotence that has become symptomatic of our global political elite.
Time and time again, we find the international community confronted with instances of flagrant human rights abuse and crimes against humanity, all posing opportunities to make amends for the non-intervention of the past.
Yet the response of those in whom we place enormous faith in determining our own futures is persistently, and woefully, inadequate.
The people of Sudan are no stranger to the abuse of human rights and the perilous consequences of an autocrat, president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who even today carries out the systematic bombing and slaughter of his own citizens. Whilst the atrocities that have taken place in Darfur since 2003 are widely acknowledged as genocide, the deterioration over the last two years of the situation in the mountainous Nuba region along the South Sudan border is worryingly indicative of a humanitarian crisis on the same scale. Frequent air strikes, ordered by al-Bashir and facilitated by Russian-made Antonov aircraft, force people to seek cover in holes in the ground as he carries out methods reminiscent of the tactics employed in the 1990s to drive the Nuba out of Sudan.
In 2011, al-Bashir declared he would force the Nuba “back into the mountains and prevent them from having food just as we did before”. It’s a depressing indictment of the world indeed when these words carry more promise of being realized than Annan’s of 2005.
The genocide in Darfur has its origins rooted in famine and drought, the severity of which in 1987 compelled Arab tribes from the north to move into the Fur-populated regions in the south, often resolving land disputes through armed conflict.
The Sudanese government refused to offer support to the Fur populations, who were being forced from their homes at the hands of the government-supported Arabs.
Realizing the Sudanese government would not answer their calls for protection, two rebel groups – the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – formed a coordinated and military resistance to the occupation of Fur land.
The conflict escalated in 2003, when government began to arm Arab militia – which came to be known as Janjawid – in order to drive the Fur, Massalit and Zaghawa peoples out of Darfur.
They utilised brutal tactics, and the conflict has so far claimed over 200,000 lives as well as bringing about the displacement of more than 2 million Sudanese.
To date, the response of the international community has been, put simply, unsatisfactory.
The Sudanese population’s hopes of a decisive, concerted and definitive response to bring peace and stability to the region remain unfulfilled. Despite the alarming toll on human life, the conflict rages on and al-Bashir still resides atop a government consisting of numerous individuals wanted by the International Criminal Court, the aforementioned included.
This response, or more accurately the lack thereof, is not consistent with other instances throughout history, as intervention, to varying degrees of success, has been justified elsewhere.
What the apathy toward Sudan more than aptly illustrates is the hypocrisy that permeates foreign policy across the international community.
So how is this disparity best explained?
The lack of geopolitical interests in the region implies that most governments are simply not willing to take the risk of involvement in Sudan.
In 2005, the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) emerged out of an ideological shift toward sovereignty as responsibility, which justifies, in theory, foreign intervention when a state is failing to protect its citizens. In practice, however, the Westphalian notion of sovereignty as respecting impermeable state borders – as first laid out in 1648 – is still very much alive.
The UN Security Council still refuses to ratify a precedent for the intervention of an armed UN Peacekeeping force, owing largely to Russian weapons-trade interests and China’s reluctance to undermine state sovereignty given that a move in that direction may provoke further investigation of the legitimacy of its claims to Tibet and Xinjiang.
Such an intervention would, at any rate, be deemed illegitimate without the consent of the Sudanese government, and so the pressure has to piled on to al-Bashir to make this a viable prospect. This will only be achieved with a single, concerted and unanimous international voice.
The events in Sudan, furthermore, are taking place in a media vacuum.
The world has lost interest, and media coverage has diminished accordingly. The failure of the global media to rile public opinion means that governments are not pressured enough to take meaningful action.
We should never underestimate the role mass media can play in setting the political agenda, and I believe that a sustained media presence in Sudan would evoke tremendous public outrage that would hold our leaders to account.
The discourse on the paralysis of the international community when faced with humanitarian crises is certainly a well-trodden path, yet one that continues to leave an imprint little more profound than footprints in the sand.
It appears that the faith we place in our leaders is hopelessly misplaced, and we must look to non-governmental actors instead to bring about change.