The recent United Nations Commission of Inquiry’s report on Darfur may be right or wrong in claiming that the atrocities committed in the region do not amount to genocide. But what matters far more than that designation, or the report’s identification of those responsible for the violence, is the fact that the conflict in Darfur continues unabated. And unless the international community takes meaningful action, the situation will not improve; the leaders of the Janjaweed militias and the government officials behind them will be raping, killing and pillaging all the way to the courtroom door–that is, if the United States and the UN ever settle their differences over which court will try the perpetrators.
The UN has adopted two resolutions to date that “threaten” sanctions against the Sudan government if the violence in Darfur is not ended, but there is no agreement on what those sanctions should be or what will trigger them. Even if oil sanctions are ruled out because of China’s stake in Sudan’s oil, the Security Council must pursue other options, such as an arms embargo or an assets freeze on government officials’ overseas wealth.
Although ending the violence in Darfur should be the top priority, it is also important to keep the larger picture in sight. As one Sudanese aid worker put it, Sudan is like an endlessly disintegrating garment: Just as one hole is stitched up, another opens up. This has certainly been the pattern over the past twenty years. In the mid-1980s, an offshoot of the north-south civil war broke out in the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan, a conflict that lasted more than ten years and led to the large-scale destruction of civilian life. And just as the north-south civil war began to wind down, the Darfur conflict ignited. Now, as attention is focused on ending the Darfur crisis, there is turbulence in other parts of the country. In the state of Western Kordofan, a new rebel group, known as Al-Shahamah, has taken up arms. In the northeast, the Beja Congress and the Free Lions have been clashing with the government for years, a conflict that, by the looks of recent developments, may intensify.
The main root of all these conflicts is the injustice of the Khartoum government. While that government has grown rich from the oil in the south and the mechanized farming schemes in the east and west, it has systematically and consistently denied the peoples of these regions equal access to wealth and development, including equal access to education, healthcare and economic opportunity. The rallying cry that is common to all the rebel groups that have taken up arms against the government over the past two decades has been this: that their people be allowed to share in the benefits of the wealth generated under their feet.
These conflicts are not, as is often depicted, merely racial or cultural. As Alex de Waal, director of the peace and democracy group Justice Africa, has noted, describing the Darfur war in terms of “Arabs” versus “Africans” is misleading: Partly because of a long history of mixing and intermarriage, it is difficult to distinguish one group from the other based on racial or physical characteristics. And as de Waal also points out, the “Arabs” of Darfur–including the tribes from which the Janjaweed militias are drawn–are historically as much the victims of Khartoum’s neglect and marginalization as the Darfurian “Africans.”
In supporting the Janjaweed, the government was aiming at two birds with one stone. Not only did the Janjaweed constitute a cheap and effective way of countering the rebellion, but in arming them the government turned groups against one another, hence diverting attention from its victimization of all Darfurians. “It is Darfur’s tragedy,” de Waal writes, “that the leaders of these groups have not made common cause in the face of Khartoum’s indifference.”
The peace agreement recently signed by the government and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army goes some way toward addressing issues of inequitable development and wealth-sharing, but it does so only for the southern region of the country. The international community should press the government to pursue similar policies with regard to all Sudan’s marginalized peoples. Unless this happens, there will be no end to bloodshed in Sudan.