Sunday, May 16, 2004

Darfur abandoned | Nick Cohen, "Human Rights on Trial" (Observer)

The Observer (London)
May 16, 2004

Human rights on trial

We choose to ignore atrocities committed in the Third World when it is politically expedient. As in Sudan

Nick Cohen
Sunday May 16, 2004
The Observer

After the Hutton inquiry and the official investigations into millionaire newspaper editors and magnates, it is worth remembering that not everyone in the media purveys fake exclusives or needs to hire lawyers to fight accusations of embezzlement. Alongside the dross are men and women prepared to risk their lives for the Quixotic cause of reporting news from the world's worst places.

The task of recording the names of those who don't make it back falls to the International Press Institute. At first glance its roll call of the dead makes grimly predictable reading: 10 journalists killed in Iraq this year; two in Palestine; another two in Colombia. Go into the institute's archives from the 1990s and you find that journalists were being killed by accident or design in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, which again seems to make sense. It's only when you stand back you realise that not all of these countries are or were the worst places on earth. North Korea is and was, but no foreign journalists have been killed there. Wild-eyed refugees talk of gulags and death squads and famines claiming the lives of millions, but newspapers and aid agencies can't verify their claims because it is all but impossible to report freely from North Korea. As in Saddam's Iraq, the few reporters who are allowed in have secret police escorts who ensure that they don't talk to anyone they're not meant to talk to or see anything they're not meant to see.

There's a bell curve in the international appreciation of atrocity. Safe countries receive no coverage for the obvious reason that there are no atrocities to cover in, say, Denmark or Belgium. The curve climbs up from these dull lowlands and hits its peak in countries which are dangerous but not too dangerous to make reporting from them impossible - today's Iraq and the former Yugoslavia in the age of Milosevic and Tudjman. From here the curve slithers down until it reaches countries at the furthest extreme from civilised life which are either too dangerous or too tyrannical for free investigation to be an option for anyone but the recklessly brave - the Congo and North Korea today or Iraq before the war. The lesson for tyrants is that they risk becoming the objects of global outrage when they are not tyrannical enough.

The rulers of Sudan know it well. Foreign journalists aren't murdered there, but pretty much everyone else is. An extraordinary Islamist regime filled with apocalyptic fervour of the fundamentalist revival has enslaved Christian and animist tribes in the black, African south as it prosecuted a civil war which has claimed the lives of two million since the early 1980s. Two million is the provisional estimate of the number killed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. But while every politically sentient person has heard of Pol Pot and the killing fields, I doubt if many know of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Hassan al-Turabi, a cleric who provided the ideological justifications for the terror until he fell out with his murderous patron. If the names ring a bell, my guess is that you are active in one of the Christian or human rights campaigns which has doggedly monitored the extermination campaigns. The killings have subsided and there is now a faint hope of a peace agreement. But this seemingly happy prospect has only made the randomness of global compassion more unhinged and unprincipled.

This year is the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. It has seen Kofi Annan apologise for ignoring warnings that a mass slaughter was about to begin, and every Western government accept that they were guilty of sins of omission, except, inevitably, the French, whose despicable role in Rwanda came close to the sin of commission.

As the air was filled with the drumming of chests being beaten and the cries of 'never again' being bellowed in all languages except French, another African disaster was being ignored. Since the autumn of last year, Arab militias have driven one million people from their homes in the Darfur province of Sudan. Government forces have overseen and participated in massacres, the summary executions of civilians and the burnings of towns and villages. Those who escaped now face the risk of famine.

Few outside Sudan cared or indeed noticed until Human Rights Watch issued the first of two terrible reports in April (available on for readers with a strong stomach). Steve Crawshaw, its London director, told me how he had to hammer away at the doors of newspapers, television stations and government departments before he could get them to take notice - which, to their credit, a few eventually did.

Sudan is totalitarian in the Islamist north and anarchic in the war-ravaged south. But the difficulties of reporting from the countries at the far end of the atrocity curve can't on their own account for the months of indifference. Human Rights Watch was able to send investigators into Darfur, after all, and they got out to tell their stories. The phoniness of the promise of media pluralism has its part to play.

The breaking of the print unions power by Rupert Murdoch was meant to give the public more choice in the newspaper market, cable and satellite were meant to bring more choice to television viewing, and the internet was meant to deliver an unstoppable torrent of divergent news and views. In the event, if more hasn't always meant worse, as Kingsley Amis promised, it has often meant more of the same. Everyone does what everyone else is doing, and piles resources into the big story of the day.

At the time of the Rwandan massacres, the rich world's media were obsessed with the OJ Simpson case. When the Taliban and al-Qaeda were persecuting women, exterminating Shia Muslims and plotting the destruction of American embassies and warships, all eyes were staring at the stains Bill Clinton had left on Monica Lewinsky's dress. Today it's Iraq.

Beyond the media's tunnel vision lies the persistence of the habit of the rich world using the poor world to buttress its prejudices. In the Cold War the Left highlighted the crimes of capitalism in Chile, South Africa and East Timor; the Right preferred to concentrate on the slave empires of Stalin and Mao. Iraq epitomised the screaming hypocrises of both sides. When Saddam was the de facto ally of America and Europe, Western governments muted their condemnations of his crimes while the Western Left pledged its undying support to the Iraqi opponents of a fascist regime. When Saddam invaded Kuwait, Western governments denounced him as a new Hitler while the scoundrel wing of the Western Left dropped the Iraqi dissidents overnight and began to mutter excuses for their former enemy.

The 1990s were meant to bring an end to all of that humbug and see the triumph of universal values of human rights, but what advances they made haven't always been confident. It still helps the oppressed to have a powerful constituency in the rich world with a political, ethnic or religious interest in lobbying on their behalf. I mean no disrespect to the Christian charities which have had the thankless task of monitoring the Sudanese disaster when I say that one great problem the inhabitants of Darfur face is that they aren't Christians. A second is that they aren't the victims of capitalism. Darfur is a Muslim province, and as Human Rights Watch points out the massacres are a straight-forward race war by Arab Muslims who want to ethnically cleanse African Muslims and steal their land.

The UN has been as useless as it was in Rwanda. Its High Commissioner for Human Rights, Bertrand Ramcharan, suppressed a report his own officials had made on the 'reign of terror in Darfur'. Earlier this month, the United Nations followed that ignoble performance with a gesture so insulting the word contemptuous doesn't begin to cover the ground: its members elected Sudan to a seat on the UN's Human Rights Commission. The votes came from other African dictatorships, but the desire of thieves to stick together isn't the end of the bitter story. Democratic governments have worked to bring an end to the civil war in the south between Muslims and Christians. There is the possibility of a settlement to what has been one of the worst conflicts of our time.

Crawshaw and many others suspect that the international community's bluff has been called by the Sudanese government; that there is an implicit threat that if diplomats and ministers make a fuss about Darfur then it will wreck the peace deal in the south. In other words, atrocity must be allowed to flourish so other atrocities can be prevented.