The white knight of Darfur

Jack Straw's visit to Khartoum is good news for him, but not for the people of Sudan.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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The UK government seems to looking for an antidote to Iraq in Sudan.

While Britain stands disgraced over Iraq, commentators of all stripes were cheering foreign secretary Jack Straw on his visit to demand that the Sudanese government take action in response to the atrocities in Darfur. Those who fervently opposed the war in Iraq have turned tub-thumpers when it comes to Sudan, urging Britain and America to put their troops (or sanctions) where their mouths are. Oxfam warned that ‘diplomacy and promises are not enough’, while American civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson and Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell joined the right-wing Daily Telegraph to demand stronger intervention.

There has been international outcry about the messy conflict between nomadic Arabs and their African farming neighbours in the arid and impoverished region of Darfur, which has killed an estimated 30,000 people and forced one million to flee their homes. The conflict sparked off in early 2003 when a black African rebel group began attacking government targets, claiming that Khartoum was favouring the region’s Arabs – and this inflamed long-running tensions between the two local groups over land and grazing rights. The government admits using ‘self-defence’ groups in response to the rebels, but denies connections to the Arab Janjaweed militias that subsequently began to terrorise farming villages.

While Straw hangs his head about Iraq, in Khartoum he gets to draw himself up tall and lay down the international community’s conditions for the Sudanese government. The UN passed a resolution giving the Sudanese government 30 days to halt the activities of Arab militias, or face economic and diplomatic ‘measures’; the deadline is due to expire on 30 August. Straw was there to tell the government its time is running out: ‘What we need to see are concrete signs of the government of Sudan being really serious about implementing its obligations. We want to see relief of the humanitarian crisis, we want the provision of safety and security for the internally displaced persons.’ As a parting shot, he added: ‘There is a great deal more that the international community can do and will do if we don’t see further evidence of good progress by the government of Sudan.’ (1)

But the UK government’s interest in Iraq and Sudan springs from the same source. In both instances, the British political elite is trying to prove itself at home by taking a stand against the bad things going on ‘over there’. At a time when the British government lacks consensus and authority at home, it tries to regain the initiative by fighting battles on foreign fields. Those given the role of ‘enemies’ may vary – Saddam versus the Janjaweed – as do the ‘victims’ – the Iraqi people versus Darfur refugees – but the issue is the same. One statement by the UK ambassador to the UN reeked of moral grandstanding, when he described the Security Council resolution on Sudan as a warning to governments and the world that if they do not fulfil their responsibilities, ‘the Security Council will hold them to account’.

Widespread calls for intervention in Sudan show that much of the opposition to the Iraq war was about style rather than substance. It was the fact that the war was ‘aggressive’ and ‘unilateralist’ that many critics objected to, rather than the military intervention per se. Few people had any problem with the idea that Western governments had a right – even a responsibility – to go around the world deciding how this or that third-world country should be run.

In Sudan, Straw cuts a more acceptable style. Although he lays down the line for the Sudanese government, he doesn’t do it in a way that seems to be about grubby national interest. Instead he says that he’s issuing his demands in the name of the international community, and expressing international concern about the atrocities. He also claims to have no plan to send British military troops to the region, instead pressing Khartoum to accept an increase in the numbers of African Union forces. ‘Our responsibility is to support the African Union and African Union forces, rather than having separate forces there’, he said (2).

This intervention-lite is likely to be destructive, just like the war in Iraq. Outside intervention always tends to makes local conflicts worse rather than better. In the case of Sudan, if Western authorities start leaning on the Sudanese government this will provide an incentive for the anti-government rebels to raise their game. Why would they do a deal and put their guns down now they know that the might of the UN is behind them? We may see rebel groups launching attacks with the aim of provoking international intervention, rather than winning objectives on the ground.

Meanwhile, African Union troops introduce outside agendas, which can only breed more instability. Most of the African Union forces planned for Sudan are from Rwanda and Uganda – countries that are increasingly acting as Anglo-US proxies in the region. Some of these forces already have a record of wading into the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which ended up inflaming problems.

This isn’t the first time that Britain has claimed to be intervening for the good of Sudan. In the nineteenth century, British Colonial expansion was presented as a moral mission, necessary to save the local black population from invading Arab slave raiders.

The interests of the Sudanese are no more at the heart of Britain’s intervention now than they were then. Straw may be better off for his visit to Khartoum – the same is unlikely to apply for the people of Sudan.

(1), Scotsman, 23 August 2004

(2) Atrocities in Darfur must stop, Straw tells Sudan, Daily Telegraph, 24 August 2004

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Topics Politics


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