UN Collaboration in the Silencing of Darfur, Dissent Magazine (on-line)


Eric Reeves

Despite its ongoing agony, Darfur is slowly disappearing from international sight. An absence of data, reports, and news dispatches has created what Human Rights Watch has recently called an “information vacuum” (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/07/19/un-strengthen-civilian-protection-... ) and moral energy and political focus have inevitably begun to dissipate. Diplomatic efforts—nominally under the auspices of the Qatari government—have degenerated into ugly turf wars involving various actors from the Arab League, the African Union, and the UN. Darfur’s fractious rebel groups are hopelessly divided, and incapable of representing the region’s civil society. And President Obama’s envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, has successfully argued for a US Sudan policy that “de-emphasizes” Darfur (http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/08/13/as_tensions_boil_obam... ). Having failed badly in his first year and a half—alienating both Darfuri civil society and the rebel leaders—Gration is taking his unproductive stubbornness—a substitute for diplomatic experience—and turning his attention to the fiendishly difficult issues surrounding southern Sudan’s January self-determination referendum.

But let us be clear: the Darfur genocide is disappearing not because ethnically-targeted killing has been halted. Indeed, on September 2 a particularly brutal attack on Fur villagers in Tabarat (southwest of Tawilla, North Darfur) left 58 civilians dead and 86 wounded (http://www.acjps.org/Publications/Press%20releases/2010/3-9-10SudaneseAr... ). The UN/African Union peacekeeping force charged with civilian protection (UNAMID), though apprised of the situation almost immediately by relatives of the dead and wounded, failed to take action to begin medical evacuation (apprehending the Khartoum-backed militia perpetrators was not even considered). According to a confidential UNAMID document leaked to me, the force—based only 15 miles away in Tawilla—awaited orders from higher-ups in the North Darfur capital of el-Fasher, who would in turn have to secure permission from the very regime that was ultimately responsible for this attack.

On September 3, in the politically charged Hamidiya camp in West Darfur, reports from the ground claimed that Khartoum-allied gunmen shot and killed at least seven people, wounding many more. UNAMID said it was unable to identify those responsible, despite again having a large military and policing force nearby. And well to the east, in South Darfur, the huge Kalma camp remains very tense following the inter-factional killings there in August; moreover, UNAMID chief Ibrahim Gambari seems prepared to turn over six representatives of the displaced persons in Kalma, presently in UNAMID custody, to Khartoum’s security forces. This at least is the public claim of the head of the regime’s notoriously cruel “Humanitarian Affairs Commission.” Gambari, as I noted in my most recent posting, (http://www.dissentmagazine.org/atw.php?id=244 ) was charged by UN officials in New York with ensuring these civilians would be brought “to trial in accordance with international standards of justice, fairness and due process of law.” Fine words, with no meaning: Gambari is simply looking for the most expedient way to rid UNAMID of a problem without a solution, at least one that won’t anger Khartoum. But the turnover of those in custody may well spark even greater violence in Kalma and elsewhere.

Gambari’s most recent decision is to support enthusiastically Khartoum’s ominous “New Strategy For Darfur” (http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/facts-figures-darfur-peace-process.php ), in particular the move from providing humanitarian aid to “development projects.” In the words of the “New Strategy,” which largely abandons diplomatic efforts to end conflict in Darfur, “the government expects UNAMID and other partners to play decisive role in this anticipated shifting from relief to development.” This entirely premature “shift” is simply code for Khartoum’s decision to begin dismantling camps for displaced persons, and forcibly returning these most vulnerable of people to their villages and lands, however insecure—or to as yet unconstructed “new villages.” The goal is to remove the raison d’être for the presence of international aid organizations—to remove, in effect, international eyes and ears from positions in which they might bear witness to ongoing suffering and destruction.

But of course humanitarian need is greater than ever: according to UN figures, some 4.7 million conflict-affected Darfuris are in need of assistance; 4 million people are food insecure, almost half of them “highly food insecure”; and humanitarian access continues to be denied to the some of the most desperate populations, including the more than 100,000 civilians in eastern Jebel Marra who have been without aid since February. Such indicators as we have—and they are far too few—are of the deepest concern, especially concerning food security, clean water, and primary medical care (http://www.sudanreeves.org/Article273.html ). The absence of information about humanitarian conditions reflects a calculation by UN officials that accommodating the Khartoum regime holds out the best chance for sustaining a deeply threatened operation. But this is a calculation that is ultimately based on cynicism and a failure of nerve; it is thoroughly belied by recent history; and it is now working to diminish international awareness of what is occurring in Darfur, as well as to attenuate the possibilities for political advocacy and diplomatic pressure.

There are many to blame for this absence of information, but the most egregious example of UN acquiescence is Georg Charpentier, since January the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan. While the job is primarily humanitarian, its political dimensions are significant in a country where the President faces indictment by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity, crimes committed in the very region where humanitarian operations are centered. But Charpentier has made political decisions that are in fact deeply compromising reporting on humanitarian shortfalls, and ultimately undermining relief efforts as a whole. Not only does Charpentier refuse to speak to the most urgent questions about humanitarian conditions, quashing multiple initiatives by others within the UN system, but he has himself agreed to allow all his own public pronouncements and press releases to be vetted by the Khartoum regime.

This is simply astonishing—a failure of moral judgment of staggering proportions. It has also been confirmed to me by multiple sources of unimpeachable authority.

In short, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan is allowing those responsible for the vast human catastrophe in Darfur to decide what the UN says to the world about the present nature of that catastrophe. The génocidaires are being allowed to control communication about the victims of genocide.

For over a year, beginning with the March 4, 2009 expulsion of thirteen of the world’s finest humanitarian organizations, aid workers in Darfur—both those working with the UN and with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—have developed extremely strong habits of self-censorship. Such self-censorship was certainly present before the expulsions, but it is now almost complete—certainly on the part of NGOs. With UN agencies directed not to talk, or partnering with regime ministries that have been given veto power over promulgation of data and reports, the silence is nearly complete.

For example, the UN’s Darfur Humanitarian Profiles—lengthy compendia of humanitarian data from a range of sectors and agencies—suddenly stopped appearing following the expulsions. Malnutrition studies that had been completed and were ready to be released instead languished because Khartoum judged the findings unacceptable—no matter that they had been professionally produced and vetted. It is no accident that now—at the height of the annual “hunger gap,” which this year started very early—we have no comprehensive data or reports on malnutrition. Even the normally very useful Famine Early Warning Network (FEWS Net) has in its August issue almost nothing of real value about Darfur. This is so despite an earlier forecasting FEWS report offering data strongly suggesting that by this point in the hunger gap perhaps 150 people would die every day from malnutrition (this leaves aside the more general effect of malnutrition on victims of other major killers, such as Acute Respiratory Infection (ARI), bloody diarrhea, and malaria). (www.fews.net/docs/Publications/Sudan_Outlook_April_2010_final.pdf )

We have none of the information that used to be provided by the UN Darfur Humanitarian Profiles. The last Darfur Humanitarian Profile (No. 34, reflecting conditions as of January 1, 2009) was a PDF file that ran to 18 pages (some Profiles, with appendices, have run to 40 pages), and reflected enormous amounts of data about food, clean water, sanitation, primary health care, as well as humanitarian access and security. It provided a rich but concise narrative, multiple graphs in a range of formats, and highlighted key details. If one wanted to know what the highest rate of Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) was among displaced persons camps in South Darfur in June 2008 (Al Salam Camp, at a threatening 30.4 percent), there was no other comparable resource (the emergency threshold for GAM is 15 percent).

But now, not only is data and information being tightly restricted by Charpentier, he has decided that he will give Khartoum’s officials a chance to decide what he does and doesn’t say publicly. This censorship extends to Charpentier’s refusal to speak out about Khartoum’s recent expulsion of senior officials from the (intergovernmental) International Organization for Migration, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN High Commission for Refugees, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (the latter for circulating a petition concerning world hunger). Charpentier also refuses to offer meaningful responses to questions from reporters in the region. Is this a decision he has made on his own? Has the retiring UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Britain’s John Holmes, been aware of this appalling decision? What about the head of UN peacekeeping, Alain Le Roy of France, who has major oversight responsibilities for UNAMID? What about the office of the Secretary-General? It was Ban Ki-moon who came into office declaring that he would make Darfur a priority, indeed a signature issue. Does he know and approve of Charpentier’s decision?

Historically genocides have ended in various ways, even if we look only at the examples of the past 100 years. Sometimes military realities end the reign of génocidaires, as was the case for the Holocaust, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia. Sometimes genocidal goals are largely achieved, as in the al-Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds during in the late 1980s under the regime of Saddam Hussein. During the Armenian genocide (1914 – 1918), the Ottoman Empire was even more successful in its ghastly ambitions.

But genocide in Darfur is coming to a very different sort of “end,” and we should attend to the details of its particular demise. Some of course have denied that genocide ever occurred in Darfur—Khartoum most prominently, but with considerable assistance from some on the Western political left, as well as the African Union, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Conference, and key Security Council members Russia and China. Others have argued that what was once genocide is genocide no longer. But whatever we call the past years of deliberate human destruction, it is highly unlikely that the killing will end, including large-scale, ethnically-targeted killing of the sort we saw on a massive scale in 2003-2005. There may be fewer targets of opportunity, but as the September 2 attack on Tabarat shows, they still exist, and victims are completely vulnerable. If UNAMID withdraws or collapses—which is increasingly likely, and will occur almost immediately if Rwanda pulls its troops out of Darfur in response to a UN report on the role of Rwandan military personnel in atrocity crimes in Democratic Republic of Congo—then humanitarians, those that remain, will evacuate their personnel and end operations. (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2010/08/rwanda-united-nat... )

It cannot be said too often that this will lead to wholesale human destruction; and though the genocide will have “ended” in one sense, it will be just beginning in another.

[September 4, 2010]