Powell Declares Darfur Situation ‘Genocide’

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell Thursday declared that the past 18 months of attacks by government forces and Arab militias on black African farmers in the western region of Darfur amounted to "genocide" and pledged to push hard at the UN Security Council for tough measures against Khartoum to stop it.

Following a two-month review of the situation in Darfur, Powell told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "we concluded – I concluded – that genocide has been committed in Darfur, and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed [militias] bear responsibility, and that genocide may still be occurring."

"We believe in order to confirm the true nature, scope and totality of the crimes our evidence reveals, a full-blown and unfettered investigation needs to occur," he said, adding that the provision for such an investigation was included in a draft resolution submitted by Washington to the Security Council Wednesday.

Despite the designation, Powell, however, insisted that the unprecedented U.S. finding of genocide, which had been urged by Africa and Christian Right activists since the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide last April, did not carry with it any legal obligation to intervene militarily in Sudan or take any other act unilaterally.

Instead, he said Washington would continue working for passage of a resolution that, in addition to establishing an international investigation of the situation in Darfur, would expand the tiny Africa Union (AU) monitoring force that was deployed to the region over the past two months and threaten sanctions in the event that Khartoum failed to comply with the Security Council’s demands.

Powell’s long-awaited testimony provoked a range of reactions.

In Nigeria, which is hosting on-again, off-again peace talks between the Sudanese government and two African rebel groups from Darfur, Khartoum’s deputy foreign minister, Najeeb al-Khair Abel-Wahab, rejected the finding of "genocide" and suggested that Powell’s words might inflame the situation in the region.

"We don’t think this kind of attitude can help the situation in Darfur," he told reporters. "We expect the international community to assist the process that is taking place in Abuja [Nigeria], and not put oil on the fire."

Back in Washington, however, activist groups that have been campaigning for a much stronger U.S. position against Khartoum welcomed the "genocide" label but expressed disappointment that Powell was not yet prepared to more than press for the adoption of its draft resolution.

"You don’t declare genocide and then fail to act," said Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, a two-year-old grassroots coalition whose antecedents led the anti-apartheid movement in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s.

"A multinational force must be mobilized immediately to protect the people of Darfur from a government intent upon genocide," he said. "What the U.S. is calling for this week at the UN is not consistent with its determination that a genocide is taking place."

That point was echoed by John Prendergast, a Sudan specialist at the International Crisis Group (ICG) here, although he was more hopeful that Powell’s public declaration will signal a firmer U.S. stance.

"The existing cleavage between rhetoric and action will hopefully be diminished as the administration takes this first step down the road to a more aggressive policy," he told IPS. "But the finding [by the State Department] of genocide will only be meaningful if it’s backed up by more assertive action at the UN Security Council."

In particular, Prendergast, who served as a top Africa advisor on the National Security Council under former President Bill Clinton, stressed that any resolution must include an expanded peace force with a mandate to protect civilians, some 50,000 of whom are believed to have perished as a result of hostilities that began in February 2003.

"Until it’s clearly spelled out that an expanded African Union force has a mandate to protect civilians, the resolution will be irrelevant," he said, adding that Washington will have a hard time persuading even Britain and France, let alone China and Russia, on the Security Council to go along.

The violence in Darfur has its roots in the competition for land, water and other resources between predominantly Arab herders, from whom the Janjaweed militias are recruited, and pastoralists and the mainly African farmers who are settled in villages and towns. Both groups are Muslim.

That competition has intensified in recent years due to a series of droughts. In 2002, the Janjaweed stepped up raids on the African population, spurring the creation of two African rebel groups with the reported backing of neighboring Eritrea. In early 2003, one of them attacked a government garrison, killing more than 70 soldiers.

The National Islamic Front (NIF) government in Khartoum launched a counter-insurgency – many observers have referred to it as a "scorched-earth" – campaign, much of which was carried out on the ground by the newly supplied Janjaweed, who were also backed by government forces and warplanes.

Since then, well over one million people – virtually all Africans – were forced to flee their homes. More than 200,000 crossed into Chad, where they are living in refugee camps, while the rest were internally displaced and have since been herded into overcrowded and unsanitary camps that lacked medical care, food supplies and physical security.

By last spring, the UN was referring to the situation as the "world’s worst humanitarian crisis," while the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) warned that at least 300,000 would die by the end of the year given the high incidence of malnutrition and disease.

Under pressure from Africa and refugee advocates and Christian Right activists, both houses of the U.S. Congress approved resolutions designating the government’s campaign as "genocide" in July.

After personal visits to Darfur by Powell and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the same month, the Security Council approved by a 13-0 vote a watered-down U.S. resolution that urged Khartoum to cooperate with international relief efforts and disarm the Janjaweed.

The resolution also authorized the deployment of a small AU observer group protected by some 300 peacekeepers, and suggested that sanctions might be imposed if the government did not comply by the end of August. China and Pakistan abstained on the measure.

While analysts, including UN and U.S. officials, have said Sudan has made some progress in complying with the UN’s terms by permitting a greater flow of humanitarian relief and deploying some 10,000 police officers to the region, most observers say the Janjaweed have not yet been reined in, let alone disarmed.

The latest draft, which was tabled Thursday, calls on Khartoum to accept an expanded force that would probably consist of about 1,000 AU police officers and 3,000 troops, and alludes to the threat of sanctions without setting a firm deadline for compliance.

The pending resolution has been attacked by the activist community as weak, particularly given the U.S. finding that "genocide" is taking place.

"The irony of Powell in Washington, D.C., declaring to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that genocide is taking place at the same time that UN Amb. John Danforth is laying down a draft resolution at the UN that treats the situation like a minor human rights crisis cannot be missed," said Prendergast, whose ICG, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, has not yet determined the violence to constitute "genocide."

Many observers believe that Khartoum, which has generally cooperated with Washington and the West on counter-terrorism issues over the past three years, is more likely to respond to stronger threats, particularly the possible imposition of an embargo against its oil exports.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.