Empty Promises Can't Stop Genocides

Western Islamophobia could be the saving grace for the approximately 8 million residents of the Darfur region of Sudan.

There's a widespread belief among rank-and-file religious conservatives that Muslims are killing Christians in the region, and that's led one of the most influential political forces in the world's most powerful country to join with NGOs and human rights activists in demanding action to stop the violence.

Hopefully, that will be enough to spare the civilians of Darfur the fate of hundreds of thousands of others who die violent deaths in the world's poorest countries, largely ignored by the Western media.

But it probably won't be.

The most likely scenario in Darfur -- tragically -- is that the Sudanese government in Khartoum and its proxy militias will be more or less successful in "cleansing" the region of the resident Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribes. Some will be killed and many will become another African refugee population, living off aid agencies in camps for "internally displaced persons" or as refugees in neighboring Chad.

I hope I'm wrong, but recent history isn't encouraging. Given the world's antipathy towards mass slaughter, the Darfur peace deal signed with great fanfare on May 5 is likely to join the wreckage of dozens of other failed agreements that litter sub-Saharan Africa (and elsewhere). Remember, the combatants in Darfur already signed a ceasefire in 2004 that's done nothing to end the killing.

Peace agreements in Burundi, Uganda, Ivory Coast and Liberia have been signed, but those countries are still plagued with spasms of violence. Hopefully, the peace agreement signed in Somalia in January will fare better than the other 14 attempts to establish peace since the country fell apart in 1991, but the leading warlords can't even agree on where to put the new capitol.

At a donors' conference for Sudan last year, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan pointed out that "over the past three decades, no fewer than half of all post-conflict situations have reverted to war within five years of the signing of the peace agreement."

There are many reasons why this keeps happening, but what stands out is the world's limited attention span, cross-cutting interests in which other countries don't really mind the havoc and, most prominently, a lack of cash.

While these conflicts are African problems and ultimately require African solutions, the continent, while rich in resources, is poor in fact. Africa needs the help of a world that has profited richly from its labor and raw materials for centuries.

Yet we continue to play whack-a-mole with genocide. A particularly brutal campaign may vie with missing white girls for our attention for a few moments, and it leads to impassioned speeches and calls for action; aid dribbles in, but it's never enough.

The Angolan government signed a peace deal with the UNITA rebels in 1991 that should have ended that country's 16-year-old civil war. Margaret Anstee, the U.N. negotiator who brokered the agreement requested 6,000 blue helmets to enforce the deal and got 500 observers -- in a country the size of Germany and France combined -- because of limited funds. She later said she had been asked to "fly a 747 with only the fuel for a DC 3." The deal unraveled, and tens of thousands more died over the next 10 years before the conflict finally ended with a gunshot to UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi.

In Congo-Kinshasa, where 3.9 million have died since 1998 (the greatest death-toll of any conflict since World War II), they're playing whack-a-mole with horrific massacres right now. A short-staffed U.N. peacekeeping force in a region the size of Western Europe is running from district to district putting out deadly fires. It partially contained the killing in Ituri province, then massacres were reported in the Kivus. Now there are blue helmets in the Kivus and the killing's in the Katanga region. Mole pops up, whack that mole. As many people have died in the Congo every eight months as in the Indian Ocean tsunami. Oxfam called the $94 million the world's forked over in response to an urgent request for aid in February "miniscule."

And those countries didn't have the same kind of ties to members of the U.N. Security Council that Khartoum has. The permanent five members -- the ones that can veto any real pressure on the Sudanese government -- pose an almost insurmountable roadblock. The United States condemns the violence officially, but accepts Khartoum's claims that they have no involvement in the killing with a wink and a nod because Sudan is an ally in the "war on terror." Rapidly industrializing China, with its huge, energy-hungry population, will block coercive measures as long as almost two-thirds of Sudan's oil exports head its way. Russia is suspicious of the United States and Britain's intentions because of that oil, and as a result of the debacle in Iraq.

But even if everyone were on the same page, the resources required for the job wouldn't just magically appear. There have been 7,000 African Union troops in Sudan to protect civilians in an area the size of Texas. In order to truly keep the peace, a force of between 20,000 and 30,000 troops is needed. And that's expensive.

The way the United Nations -- or regional security-providing organizations like the African Union -- raise funds to whack the latest mole is by going around to the wealthy countries, cup in hand. At donor conferences speeches are made and billions are pledged, but there's a lot that can happen between gums flapping and checks clearing. Pledges of assistance are rarely paid in full.

After Cambodia ended its civil war in 1992, 60 percent of the world's pledges came through. After the earthquake that killed tens of thousands in the Iranian city of Bam in 2003, only 20 percent of the pledges were realized. A third of the $9 billion in aid promised for the survivors of hurricane Mitch, which decimated Central America in 1998, was actually paid. The list goes on and on.

Last year, donors pledged $4.5 billion for Sudan but, according to the United Nations, just 20 percent of those pledges have been paid out. And while president Bush's request for $225 million in emergency funds is appreciated, put it in perspective: We're burning through that much money every 17 hours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The root of the problem is a lack of vision; most people are unable to imagine a community of nations that can actually work together to make the phrase "never again" actually mean something.

But human rights activists, diplomats and scholars have articulated what such a system would look like. It requires four fundamental changes in the way the world does business.

First, we need to ditch the veto that the "permanent five" have at the Security Council (Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France and the United States are members). Ten years ago, the International Commission on Global Governance made the recommendation (among others) that the veto be phased out gradually. The commission recognized that the "P-5" countries wouldn't give it up in one fell swoop and suggested a voluntary moratorium on using their vetoes for a period of 10 years, as a confidence-building measure.

Second, the international community needs a standing, modern and well-trained force -- with compatible equipment -- that is up to the job. In Somalia, Rwanda and other hot-spots, a patchwork of donated forces were, at times, led by commanders from different countries, stymied by language problems and carried equipment that wasn't compatible. That just gets peacekeepers killed, as well as civilians. Some poorly disciplined peacekeepers in the Congo and in Liberia sexually abused those they were protecting.

Third, we need new revenue streams that don't rely on the goodwill of 30 or 40 countries. In the early 1970s, economist James Tobin -- a Nobel Laureate at Yale -- suggested a small tax on international currency transfers. Brazil and France proposed taxing international transfers of heavy weapons to create a fund to fight global poverty. A similar mechanism could finance a humanitarian intervention force.

Lastly, it would require a recommitment to the principles of true humanitarian intervention (PDF), or else that force will end up being a convenient tool of neo-imperialism for the advanced states.

That's not all that needs to be done, but it's a start. Of course, none of these reforms will happen anytime soon; there's too much distrust among and towards the international community. But all great changes in the global system happen in a series of baby steps designed to build confidence in a suspicious world.

For the moment, this is pure idealism. But, as a professor of mine used to say, idealism is just the ability to imagine an ideal world and then you've got to work toward making it a reality. If we can't, we'll condemn our grandchildren to playing the same useless game, and a great mass of humanity will continue dying, out of sight and out of mind.

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