Thursday, March 05, 2009

Is the New Watch Running Any Better?

What will happen in Darfur now?

Remember all of those "Save Darfur" and "Not On Our Watch" anti-genocide posters you used to see everywhere? Is it my imagination, or are there fewer of them around than there used to be? Has Darfur become another casualty of our short attention spans, diplomatic inertia, and compassion fatigue? A lot of criticism was leveled at the Bush administration for not doing enough in Darfur, and for not exerting enough pressure on the shamefully obstructionist Chinese. Now we have a new Democratic administration with majorities in both houses. Is there a glimmer of hope for Darfur under the Obama administration?

Maybe so. In the Hague yesterday, the ICC (International Criminal Court) issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, accusing him of committing war crimes and for crimes against humanity in Darfur. al-Bashir's response was to kick several aid agencies and NGOs out of the Sudan and to say of the indictment:

"Eat it."

Naturally, China's Xinhua news agency dismisses this action by the Hague as western colonialism, but to their everlasting disgrace the leaders of the African Union seem to agree with that and are calling on the UN to suspend the indictments. How the UN could ever carry out the arrest is anyone's guess, but at least they took the symbolic step. It's the first time a sitting head of state has ever been indicted as a war criminal.

Civilians in Darfur fleeing a village under attack

As much as we may blame al-Bashir, Sudan, radical Islam, the militias, China, and western indifference, there is a another aspect in which we all carry some blame for what is happening in Darfur. Climate change is putting increased stress on those who were already living on the margins, and resource wars are breaking out as a result.

Lately I've been reading Alex Perry's book Falling off the Edge: Travels Through the Dark Heart of Globalization. Perry gives a detailed account of how economic globalization is wreaking havoc upon the most vulnerable people in the poorest corners of the world. In Darfur, the conflict has much to do with the lack of water resources in Sub-Saharan Africa, and he predicts that we will see many more such conflicts in the future. Time magazine saved me from doing some scanning by posting excerpts about Darfur from Perry's book last November in a piece called Weather Wars:

In 2007, I flew to Chad and drove east to the 21st century's first war over water. Darfur, a barren, mountainous land just below the Sahara in western Sudan, is one of the world's worst man-made disasters. Four years of fighting has killed 200,000 people and made refugees of 2.5 million more. The immediate cause is well known: the Arab supremacist janjaweed and their backers in the Sudanese government are waging a campaign to exterminate African and Arab settler farmers in Darfur by slaughter, rape and pillage, burning thousands of villages to the ground.

But it was easy to forget that before man added his own catastrophe, life in Darfur was already a gathering natural disaster. To live on the arid soil of the Sahel is an eternal struggle for water, food and shelter. In the past, nomad Arab herders and settled farmers (Arabs and Africans) worked together: the farmers allowed the herders' livestock on their land in exchange for milk and meat. But as good land became scarcer, the two sides began to fight over it. "You might laugh if I say that the main reason of this issue is a camel," said Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at his failed attempt at Darfur peace talks in October 2007. "But Africa has thousands of such issues. They are about water, about grass."

Competition is intensifying. The Sahara is advancing steadily south, smothering soil with sand. Added to that — or perhaps explaining it — is global warming...

It's not hard to start a fight in a place like that. As the Sudanese government did, you just find a divide — racial, political, cultural, religious — and promise one side as much land as they can steal. But the immediate spark shouldn't be allowed to detract from the war's underlying cause. Says Michael Klare, director of the Peace and World Security Program at Hampshire College in Massachusetts: "In Darfur, global warming exacerbates divisions along ethnic lines and produces ethnic wars that are, at root, resource conflicts."

The notion of weather as war maker has influential backers. On April 16, 2007, 11 former U.S. admirals and generals published a report for the Center for Naval Analyses Corporation that described climate change as a "threat multiplier" in volatile parts of the world. The next day, then British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett hosted a debate on climate change and conflict at the U.N. Security Council in New York City. "What makes wars start?" asked Beckett. "Fights over water. Changing patterns of rainfall. Fights over food production, land use. There are few greater potential threats to our economies, too, but also to peace and security itself."

As long as globalization increases economic activity, climate change will continue. That is why Darfur matters. There is the simple humanitarian imperative — helping refugees — which alone might seem cause enough for action. There is also a moral imperative. If climate change is a root cause of these wars, and the West has caused climate change, then these distant wars become our indirect responsibility. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whose economy depends on hydropower from a reservoir that is now depleted by drought, is explicit in this regard, describing climate change as "an act of aggression by the rich against the poor."

But even those who reject these arguments, and insist foreign policy be dictated by self-interest, find themselves swayed by a third argument. If weather starts wars, and wars incite terrorists and violent opponents to the West, then it is in the West's self-interest to try to manage the weather...

So can Darfur be saved? We already know what needs to be done. The immediate priority is to end the fighting by brokering a truce and sending in peacekeepers. In the longer term, Darfur needs sensible land-use policies and careful water management, while the rest of the world has to cut emissions. But at the Security Council, Beckett faced opposition from China, the U.S. and the two main groups representing developing countries. They complained that the forum was an inappropriate place to discuss climate change. That is, they disputed that climate change leads to war.

Janjaweed militia on horseback

Perhaps a visit to northeastern Chad would change their minds. As I drove out to the area in spring 2007, the first sign we were entering a dead zone was the carcass of a camel. Camels can go three weeks without water in the Sahara, so the heap of fur, hair and bleached bones was an ominous sight. We entered a mud-walled, straw-roofed village. Instead of giving the usual smiles and waves, the children ducked away. A few minutes later, we crested a rise in the road and were confronted by nine janjaweed horsemen, rifles over their shoulders, white turbans around their heads. We'd gone before they could react, but we were 100 miles from the Sudanese border inside Chad and their presence on a road in broad daylight showed how invulnerable they felt. Two hours later we were in Iriba, northeastern Chad's logistics base for six refugee camps for families from Darfur. Aid workers in Iriba told me that, as horrific as the suffering was, it was surely going to get worse. "The water is going. The firewood is gone. The land has lost its ability to regenerate," said Palouma Ponlibae, an agriculture and natural-resources officer for the relief agency care. "The refugees are going to have to move. There's going to be nothing here to sustain life."

The camps had concentrated populations beyond what the meager land could support. At one camp, staff were increasingly finding themselves mediating conflicts between refugees and local farmers, who complained the influx from Darfur had ruined their land. At another camp, Haroon Ibra Diar described how, when his people fled to Chad, the janjaweed were already employing their own macabre energy-saving measures. "They beheaded people and used their heads for firewood," he said. I asked him what the future held. "We are farmers," he replied. "But how can we farm here? There's not even enough water to drink. It's a land of death."

While we were talking, a filthy young man in rags approached and started distractedly unpicking the threads of a knitted woollen cap. Diar introduced "Adam," whose entire family had been cut down in front of him in 2004. Something snapped. Adam was convinced another janjaweed onslaught was imminent, and told me he was getting terrible headaches from the janjaweed horsemen galloping around in his head. He asked if I could give him a lift to his home village. "It's the time of mangoes and guavas," he said. Watching him wander off, Diar told me Adam was obsessed by memories of when he was a boy, when the rains were good, the fruit was plentiful and the fighting just an occasional hazard. Sometimes, when the headaches were bad, he disappeared for days. Blinded by visions of plenty, he would run out into the desert and toward the war. Heading home.


cowboyangel said...

Good post, Jeff. Did you read Nicholas Kristoff's column in today's NY Times? He talks about Darfur.

Given Obama's enormous popularity in Africa, and his own interest in the situation, I think he can and will accomplish something there. Whether it will be long-lasting - who knows.

Here's part of a Guardian article from mid-January:

"There is a great need for us to sound the alarm again about Darfur," Hillary Clinton, who was endorsed as secretary of state yesterday, told the US Senate this week. "It is a terrible humanitarian crisis compounded by a corrupt and very cruel regime in Khartoum."

Clinton said the Obama administration, which takes office next Tuesday, was examining a wide range of options, including direct intervention in support of a joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force, known as Unamid, which has struggled to make an impact after beginning operations last year.

"We have spoken about other options, no-fly zones, other sanctions and sanctuaries, looking to deploy the Unamid force to try to protect the refugees but also to repel the militias," Clinton said. "There is a lot under consideration." Clinton has previously asserted that the US has a "moral duty" to help Darfurian civilians.

I don't think Bush really cared about Darfur. Hell, he didn't even do much about Israel and Palestine. (Well, actually, he did do a fair amount there by not doing anything.)

Jeff said...


Thanks for the tip on the Kristof column. His NYT video reports from Darfur are very compelling. It's good to know that the UNFOR troops (mostly French, I guess) have put a stop to some of the most egregious slaughter that was being committed by the janjaweed.

Kristof is a really good reporter. He's also done a great public service in providing so much coverage over the past few years on the human trafficking going on around the world too.

The Guardian seems to be pinning their hopes somewhat on the African Union stepping in to help, but if their reaction to the indictments is any indicator, there may not be a lot of cause there to be optimistic. A lot of these strongman dictators may have been really spooked by the Hague's action, and fear that they might be next to be served a warrant for their arrest. Now they seem to be rallying around Bashir.