The swiftness of the international community's response to Colonel Gaddafi's bloody repression of the Libyan uprising has surprised no one more than the diplomats involved. At the same time it has left survivors of state-sponsored massacres in Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia bewildered by our double standards.
Yet it is our intervention in Iraq, rather than our hypocrisy, that has sealed the fate of Darfur, a region just south of Libya. Our inability to stop the ethnic cleansing of millions and the deaths of 300,000 (1) is the direct consequence of George Bush and Tony Blair"s ill-considered impulses. As we come to the rescue in Benghazi, Darfur continues to pay the price.
Despite failures of nerve within the anti-Gaddafi coalition, there has been pride and some disbelief among politicians and officials that Arab and European nations could so rapidly agree to join the United States under United Nations auspices in concerted and robust intervention.
Human rights activists have come to expect no more than words of condemnation at best from the U.N. Security Council when it is faced with a member state that systematically kills its own citizens.
Too many U.N. members care more about protecting the principle of state sovereignty than stopping massive human rights abuses. They are wary of a precedent that allows outsiders to intervene in someone else's business. They wish to reserve the option to kill their own citizens with impunity.
The U.N.'s paralysis in the 1990s pre-dates the overthrow of Saddam and it can be summed up in one word -- Mogadishu. Somalia is why the international community did nothing to stop the murder of a million Rwandans, and tens of thousands of Bosnians. The U.S. intervention in Somalia, recalled with selective accuracy in the film Black Hawk Down, put an end to liberal intervention. As a friend in Sarajevo told me during the murderous Serb siege of her city, "We are facing genocide because a dozen American soldiers died in Mogadishu."
Politicians feared that U.S. public opinion could not tolerate losing any more of its own in worthy but risky foreign adventures, where no obvious U.S. interest was at stake. Perhaps we also had a greater collective sensitivity about the loss of a dozen of our own before 9/11.
Whatever the cause, the shadow of Mogadishu similarly cursed Rwanda in 1994. As Linda Melvern's superb books on western complicity in Rwanda show (2), in April and May 1994, members of the U.N. Security Council went out of their way to ensure Rwanda was not discussed.
According to General Romeo Dallaire, the U.N. commander in Rwanda, a U.N. air strike could have taken out the government radio station that controlled the genocide. Radio Milles Collines issued hour by hour guidance to its army on which roads to block, which towns to ambush and whom to kill when they arrived. But we did nothing, and the hatred, propaganda, and instructions poured forth.
Dallaire also argues (3) that a show of concerted and determined force by the international community is often all it takes to stop genocide in its tracks; the perpetrators suddenly realize someone is watching them. If we signal our unity and seriousness, it gives mass murderers pause for thought.
Darfur is the poster child for U.N. dithering and self-interest. However, the invasion of Iraq also sealed its fate. At every regional conference and meeting, Sudan's president, Field Marshall Bashir, skillfully used Iraq to warn Arab and Muslim leaders that by drawing attention to Darfur, the West was simply looking for a pretext to invade Sudan. Bashir was successful in convincing other Arab and Muslim leaders that they too might be next in an ambitious if incompetent Bush/Blair regime change crusade. There followed total Arab and Muslim disinterest in the fate of Darfur's six million Muslims.
Bashir's artful mind games campaign gained credence every time Bush or Blair revealed their ignorance and arrogance about the region. The irony is that both leaders genuinely cared about Darfur and were keen to push the U.N. to toughen up its response to Bashir, including trying to get a no-fly zone to stop the routine bombing of villages. Bashir turned their own words on them to undermine their good intentions.
Since 2003 the Khartoum regime has destroyed the vast majority of Darfur's ethnically black African villages using a dual approach; aerial bombing, and paying local Arab proxies to do their dirty work on the ground. President Bashir has minimized the scale of the violence, and denied genocidal intent, assuring inquisitive foreigners that the cause is "ancient ethnic hatreds." This is usually all the international community needs to hear to adopt a morally equivalent view, absolved of an obligation to act.
The Bashir regime continues to restrict media access and intimidate and expel humanitarian agencies, creating an information vacuum. Nevertheless in 2004 the then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN that genocide was happening in Darfur. There was talk of a UN no-fly zone but America and Britain had by that stage discredited themselves after their amateurish and brutal occupation of Iraq.
Where does the allied campaign in Libya leave Sudan now? Even though President Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur, it seems likely the U.N. will suspend his indictment as a reward for allowing Southern Sudan to secede later this year.
America will shortly remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terror, despite Bashir's friendships with Bin Laden, Iran's Ahmadinejad, Hamas and Hezbollah.
As we ditch corrupt regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, we enthuse about oil business in Sudan, ranked by Transparency International as the seventh most corrupt country in the world. (4)
As we chastise Libya and other tottering Arab fiefdoms, we draw closer to Sudan, a police state given the bottom ranking by Freedom House (5), one of the nine most ghastly places on earth.
In 2004 when I interviewed survivors in a Darfur refugee camp, a young woman (we'll call her Hawa to protect her safety) asked me to take a message to the west;
"Thank them for the aid, but please tell them that what we really need is for you to take the guns away from the people who are killing us."
But seven years on the bombs are still falling on Hawa and her friends and the guns are still aimed at them.
(1) Various reports by the UN Secretary General estimate 300,000 dead in Darfur.
(2) "A People Betrayed," and "Conspiracy To Murder" by Linda Melvern.
(3) "Shake Hands With The Devil" by Romeo Dallaire.
(4) Transparency International 2010 ranks Sudan 7th most corrupt country in the world.
(5) Freedom House 2010:
Political Rights Score: 7
Civil Liberties Score: 7
Status: Not Free
No ranking as such, but 7 is the lowest score you can have, one of 9 countries with this score.