Wednesday, March 25, 2009

An Impending Disaster in Darfur

Things are about to get worse in Darfur. A whole lot worse.

In the wake of his indictment by the International Criminal Court, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al Bashir has set about demonstrating to the international community that he will not be cowed by its action. First, Sudan ordered the 13 largest aid and relief organizations -- including Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children, CARE, and the International Rescue Committee -- working in Sudan out of the country. Bashir has also expressed his desire to have all international aid groups out of Darfur within a year. Then, Bashir openly flaunted the ICC warrant by traveling to Eritrea and Egypt. The visits are intended to make it clear that the ICC has no power to arrest Bashir unless states choose to do so themselves; the Arab League has rejected the ICC's call to arrest Bashir, opening the way for Bashir to attend the summit of the League in Qatar.

The ejection of the aid workers is, in the short term, of the gravest concern, as these groups provided 35% of Darfur's food distribution capability. In a piece in today's Washington Post, Michael Gerson recounts an interview with Mohammed Ahmed Abdallah, a physician and human rights advocate in Darfur, in which Abdallah warns that "People are likely to die very soon." In the absence of the aid groups, only 9% of the population of Darfur will have access to clean water, and a cholera or (perhaps and) a meningitis outbreak seems likely. With disease increasing and food supplies decreasing, the desperate Darfuris are likely to begin migrating to eastern Chad. Doing so, however, requires them to leave the relative safety of their refugee camps in order to cross more than 300 miles of desert, exposing themselves to attacks by janjaweed militia groups, dehydration, and starvation.

So, what is to be done? There are several options, none of which is particularly palatable. First, the international community could, for all intents and purposes, back down by blocking or suspending the ICC arrest warrant in hopes that Sudan would allow the aid groups back in. Second, pressure could be put on the member states of the Arab League to enforce the warrant, effectively blocking Bashir's ability to travel. Third, massive pressure could be put on Sudan (and by proxy, China) to allow the aid groups back in. Fourth, the international community could intervene, sending soldiers into the Darfur region to provide security, food, and aid. Finally, as is always an option, the international community can do nothing.

It's pretty clear that the international community has little stomach or will for an intervention. So that leaves a choice between where, how, and whether to apply pressure to reverse Bashir's decision and get the aid groups back in. Backing down in an entirely unacceptible option at this point. While many people, including myself, warned about issuing an arrest warrant, now that it has been issued, backing down would completely destroy any credibility that either the ICC or the international community has; it would also make it clear that international law can easily be hijacked by threatening one own people.

Doing nothing is the most likely option. Protestations and hand-wringing aside, the international community, and the US and the EU in particular, has never shown much interest in incurring any costs to help Darfur, or other African peoples being subjected to genocide. It will certainly be easy for President Obama to maintain the moral rhetoric of "never again" as all his predecssors have done while doing nothing. But that would be shameful, and ultimately counterproductive for American interests. The US does have an interest in stopping genocide, and that interest is the ideals that have made this country what it is: liberalism, human rights, natural law. That a state can be free to slaughter and uproot its own people in an age of American hegemony is an affront to all of these ideals and challenges American interests in a fundamental way. While the fate of the Fur may not threaten the US in as direct manner as a North Korean weapons program or international terrorism, the willingness of the US to abdicate its moral leadership on genocide and human rights undermines US power in a very real way.

So, then, where should the pressue be placed? Sudan has proven nearly impervious to international pressure, largely due to its protector on the Security Council, China, which has been willing to shield Sudan in exchange for access to Sudanese energy exports. It may be more fruitful to pressure China, which has in the past shown its willingess to help the US. But, given the situation in North Korea right now, the US may prefer to save its political capital with China for that.

That leaves pressuring the states of the Arab League. And here the US has a lot of possibilities. Many of these states, such as Egypt, are, essentially, US clients. Many others, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are highly dependent on the US for protection and economic support. The US should use whatever carrots it has to get the Arab League to apply pressure to Sudan.

But for what end? The pressure could be for one of two ends: To get the Arab League to promise to enforce the ICC warrant and arrest Bashir, or to get the League to lean on Sudan to readmit the aid groups. The first would ensure Sudan's isolation, but would also make it all but impossible for the aid groups to return. While the isolation might, eventually, force Sudan to comply with international demands on Darfur, that is a long-term option. The second option might solve the impending humanitarian crisis, but wouldn't increase the likelihood of a long-term solution.

While it might be desirable to pursue the first option, I'm skeptical about any future sustained international effort to help Darfur. Rather, the immediate priority should be to avert the coming disaster. The US, EU, and UN shoud begin exerting whatever pressure they can on the Arab League to, in turn, pressure Sudan to readmit the aid NGOs. Unless that happens, the world will once again sit back and watch the destruction of a people.

1 comment:

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