Darfur needs peace, not peacekeepers

ROBERT MéNARD is secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, an organization that defends press freedoms. STEPHEN SMITH writes on African affairs from Paris.

DO YOU THINK the United States was wrong to invade Iraq even if it did so with the intention of bringing freedom to the victims of Saddam Hussein? Do you believe that long-standing conflicts in faraway countries cannot be solved with military solutions that fail to address the underlying causes of the crisis?

If so, how can you imagine that deploying thousands, or more likely tens of thousands, of foreign soldiers in Darfur, a Sudanese province bigger than Iraq, is all it would take to stop the massacre there? When we went to Darfur in March, we were as desperate as anybody about the killings — and we still are. But what we learned in Sudan makes us wary of do-gooders in body armor — and of the double-think of balkanized minds branding as disaster in Iraq what they recommend for Darfur’s salvation. We ought to have serious doubts about this new mission to civilize, done up in the latest colors. Without a political solution brokered by the international community, there will be no peace to keep and even less to impose.

In Khartoum and in North Darfur, we met Sudanese who were traumatized by their country’s tragedy, but also much better informed than us. Their views differed, but none of them perceived the conflict as one between “victims” and “butchers.” Yet, Manichaeism prevails in the West, where the cause is assumed to be simple: An Islamist Arab regime has decided to exterminate Darfur’s black population and is carrying out genocide with the help of the Riders of the Apocalypse, the infamous janjaweed militia. There is hardly any mention in the U.S. or European media of how humanitarian aid organizations — and Darfur’s civilians — are also fleeing from atrocities committed by rebels in Darfur opposed to Khartoum.

For example, in Gereida, in South Darfur, more than 100,000 displaced people have been cut off from humanitarian aid since mid-December after a rebel attack on relief groups that still dare not return.

The simplistic narrative may make for a readable plot line to explain a confusing African country, but unfortunately most Americans are not informed that there are up to 15 rebel factions fighting the government — and increasingly, each other. President Bush’s special envoy on Sudan, Andrew Natsios, told the Senate on Wednesday that although the scope of the rebels’ atrocities pales in comparison with Khartoum’s, rebel attacks on civilians have markedly increased, and some rebels have begun raping women from their own tribes.

On Thursday, Senegal threatened to withdraw its 500 peacekeepers from Darfur after five of them guarding a water hole in the desert were slain by rebels earlier this month. Have the rebels lost their moral compass? Wouldn’t the West have made a big mistake if it had intervened on their side less than a year ago, as Save Darfur advocated at the time?

Let’s face facts: Going to war against the Sudanese would not save lives, it would cost lives.

Most of the bloodshed in Darfur took place between the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2005. The same international community that is being urged to intervene in western Sudan was, at that time, helping negotiate peace between the government in the north and rebels in the south to put an end to the longest-running civil war in independent Africa — 21 years — that left an estimated 1.5 million dead. Was it the right policy, back then, to deal with a murderous junta (the government of Sudan) in the interests of ending bloodshed? And would it be right today to attempt to overthrow a government of national union in which the former southern rebels are participating? An affirmative answer would sound the death knell not only for the peace agreement signed in January 2005 but also for the nation’s first free elections, which are supposed to take place within less than two years.

If indeed the regime in Khartoum is engaging in genocide, then there can be no compromising with it — and regime change must be the order of the day. But myriad independent investigations indicate that about 40,000 Darfurians were killed from March 2003 to December 2004 in atrocious circumstances, and 90,000 more people died of hunger or disease, the indirect victims of the civil war. Since then, the violence has been abating. The United Nations put the number of victims of attacks last year at about 1,300. The African Union mission in the Sudan, which has deployed 7,000 peacekeepers in Darfur, estimates a monthly average of 200 dead during the last six months. These figures are uncertain because there are often no witnesses to tragic events. But they tend to support a toll of 200,000 dead from all causes since the start of the fighting in February 2003 — the figure used by the media in most parts of the world, rather than the 450,000 dead often cited by groups urging action to save Darfur.

Don’t get us wrong: We also believe that Darfur needs our help. But our support should be realistic and honest — and not, in the end, helpless posturing. A united international community needs to pressure the Sudanese government and the rebels into a meaningful peace process — and if necessary, publicly challenge China to veto a U.N. sanctions resolution against any intransigent parties. In the absence of a peace agreement to monitor, what right do we have to demand that anyone — be they our children or U.N. blue helmets from the Third World — go and die in Darfur?