July 29, 2004
Sudan—Why We Can’t Give Up on the U.N.
Over 30,000 people have been brutally murdered in the Darfur region of Sudan. At least 120,000 are living in tent camps, now being hammered by rains that turn the dust to mud. Diseases that thrive in the soggy ground continue, along with malnutrition, to drive the body count higher.
Those refugee camps must not be allowed to become permanent. The people of Darfur, most of whom are farmers, need to be safe in their own land. They need immediate relief -- food, medicine, shelter -- and the opportunity to rebuild their lives. In time, they will need justice, the way that Holocaust survivors needed some inadequate bit of redress, something to keep the imbalanced world from flying apart. They will need healing, but they will never be the same.
Many of the women refugees have been raped in a systematic campaign reminiscent of those employed by Bosnian Serbs to terrorize Muslims. The world has yet to make a decisive move to characterize and prosecute wartime rape as a crime against humanity. (Developments in Abu Ghraib might contribute to our own government's embarrassed silence about this issue.) One aim of this rape campaign was forcible impregnation. Who will stand up for the women who want to end pregnancies forced on them through torture?
The refugees, mostly Muslims, are being murdered, raped and mutilated because they're black. There is no reason to shrink from calling this genocide. Jews worldwide are responding to this crisis, because we recognize it for what it is.
Why now? Black farmers and Arab nomads have co-existed in the Sudan region for a long time. Why this frenzied convulsion of racist violence?
Sudan is rich in oil. But most Sudanese are not rich at all. Militant rebellions have sprung up, based mostly in the predominantly black southern regions, demanding that oil revenues improve the lives of the country's people. The military government in Khartoum, composed mainly of ethnic Arabs, has used racial hatred to destroy the rebels' potential base. Many witnesses have accused the government of supporting the Janjaweed -- armed Arab militias that have been burning black towns, murdering or raping all the inhabitants they could find -- with air strikes and weapons and with folding the Janjaweed into its own army.
All of this puts our country's current executive leader in a real bind. The Bush-Cheney administration is intimate with the oil industry. The interests they are most comfortable defending want the situation to calm down enough for U.S.-based companies to be able to compete with the Chinese and Indian concerns that now dominate oil production in Sudan. Exxon Mobil, for example, waits in its headquarters in Cairo, now doing downstream businesses with Sudan, operating lubricant plants and such, but wanting more.
The free market fundamentalists in the Bush administration have no love for rebels who talk about their country's oil wealth as though it ought to make them more prosperous, not more miserable. Also, the United States wouldn't mind a military understanding with Sudan, an authoritarian regime of the sort that the Reagan administration found so uncomplicated to deal with.
But the Bush administration has complications to face. Many of the black farmers in southeast Sudan, where the rebellion first broke, out are Christian. Their co-religionists in the United States, responded strongly to attacks on their population. Bush cannot afford to ignore this core base. And now, because of the ongoing murder of black Christians, black Muslims and black followers of indigenous African religions, the Congressional Black Caucus has taken an interest. And, because this is now about genocide, so have the Jews. This may be one of the very few international issues that could unite elements of the left and the right in the United States in shared outrage.
Our government continues to mumble about sanctions. And is getting little cooperation from Arab, and even African, states, because they don't trust us.
They believe that the United States' move in the United Nations to impose sanctions on Sudan has less to do with moral indignation than with gaining leverage on all that oil. The outright contempt for the international community displayed by the Bush administration, the deceit behind the invasion of Iraq, the transformation of the State Department into an outlet for the talking points of the Sharon administration have shredded our credibility. The Arab world, as mortified and infuriated by the spectacle of Muslims killing Muslims, as many of its people are, is responding defensively, assuming that the United States will only take advantage of the situation to consolidate its control.
This sort of situation is why the world needs more United Nations, not less. An international body needs to stop what's happening and start aiding the victims. People who have a problem with the United Nations might support ways to improve it -- the talked-about "democracy caucus," for example, or Kofi Annan's human rights campaign -- but no nation can afford to ignore the body that comes close to representing where we've come as a species. There is no substitute for a strong international body that hears national interests, but holds them up to the light of clear principles, and that puts unconditional limits on what we may do to one another.
Robin Podolsky is a writer who works in Los Angeles.