Monday, August 16, 2004

Darfur - How a Tragedy Became a Cause (Washington Post)

How and why do some humanitarian catastrophes & mass atrocities get noticed and even provoke a response, while most are neglected or (more or less) ignored? Even a partial answer would have to be very long and complicated. But as a start, this piece offers some topical reflections on the political sociology of humanitarian mobilization (and its limits).

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub


Washington Post
August 15, 2004

How a Tragedy Became a Cause
Why We Read About Darfur and Not Burundi

By Steven Mufson

Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page B05

Perhaps this is the way political movements begin -- small, devoted and somewhat contrived. But the prospects of galvanizing American public opinion or U.S. policymakers seemed remote when a handful of people showed up to get themselves arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy just over three years ago.

It was a clear day on April 13, 2001, and a couple of dozen people gathered at the embassy to protest the Khartoum regime's war in southern Sudan. Their plan: chain themselves to the door of the embassy and get themselves hauled off to jail to call the media's attention to the issue. The problem was, there didn't appear to be anyone working at the embassy and there weren't any police around.

So one of the protest leaders got on the phone and arranged to have some slightly puzzled cops sent over. Former D.C. congressional delegate Walter E. Fauntroy, local radio talk show host Joe Madison and Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Horowitz solemnly chained themselves to the embassy door and were subsequently taken away by some obliging D.C. police officers. Charges of unlawful entry were dropped after two months.

More than three years later, Sudan has become one of the world's hot causes -- though not because of the bloody war in the south, where as many as 2 million people died over the two decades before the 2001 protest. Instead, Sudan has burst into the news over the past four months because of attacks by nomadic Arab militias supported by the government against black farmers in the country's sparsely populated western province of Darfur.

In the past month and a half, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has visited the ravaged Darfur region, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has visited refugee camps in neighboring Chad, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry mentioned the issue in a speech to black journalists, demonstrators have become more regular (and visible) fixtures outside the Sudanese embassy and the U.N. Security Council has taken up the region's plight. Dozens of articles and commentary pieces have appeared in this newspaper and in the New York Times in the past month alone; during the decade prior to 2004, The Post had mentioned Darfur only four times and the Times only twice.

While no action has yet been taken to stop the violence that has displaced nearly a million people, Congress adopted a resolution in July branding the attacks by the Sudanese government-allied militias as "genocide." By deploying the word genocide, with all its historical and political weight, Congress was supplying a rationale for international intervention.

And yes, Madison and Faunteroy have been arrested at the embassy again, only this time joined by a few more prominent names like Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame, activist-comedian Dick Gregory, and Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). "As you say in your medium, it's beginning to get legs," Gregory said on the Travis Smiley radio talk show on July 22. "It's little bitty legs right now . . . but I think it will grow."

Just what does it take for an issue to get some "little bitty legs"? Over the past few months, as many as 50,000 people have died in Darfur, thousands of others have been raped or injured and hundreds of thousands are in danger of perishing from disease or starvation in the refugee camps. It is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions -- except that with hardly a turn of the globe, other calamities easily can seize our imagination. For if there were an international misery index, Darfur would have lots of company.

Roughly 3 million people are believed to have died in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the past five years and perhaps a couple of million have perished in North Korea. Nearly 200,000 Chechens still live in refugee camps. Violence has continued in Burundi, where life expectancy has dropped from age 60 to 40 over a decade; nearly 800,000 of its people have fled to neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of others are in danger of starving in Somalia, where there is still no recognized central government. None of these disasters has sparked groundswells of U.S. popular opinion.

These examples come from a list that the relief group Doctors Without Borders publishes every year describing the 10 "most underreported humanitarian stories" of the previous year. The group said that the 10 crises highlighted for 2003 accounted for only 30.2 minutes, or 0.2 percent, of the 14,635 minutes on the television networks' nightly newscasts; seven of the 10 crises received a combined total of 3.2 minutes.

One reason Darfur is breaking through the news equivalent of the sound barrier is that the refugee camps are relatively accessible. Fly to N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, catch a connection to Abeshe, and drive 1 1/2 hours and you reach the first camp. Drive another seven hours and you can reach other big refugee sites in eastern Chad. If you're a busy politician or columnist, it's a relatively quick trip.

Another reason Darfur has been taken up is that there was already a network -- of activists, liberal African Americans and conservative evangelical Christians -- that had been mobilized to try to prod the United States into acting to defend the largely Christian southern Sudanese (with whom they felt some affinity) from attacks from the northern, largely Muslim government. This network reaches into Congress, where it includes some devoted staff members, Congressional Black Caucus members and leading Republican lawmakers. And now some Jewish groups, which weren't that active about Sudan's civil war, have added their voices, prodded by the notion that what's happening in Darfur is genocide.

Darfur also appeals to members of the foreign policy community who favor U.S. intervention abroad for humanitarian reasons. Indeed, Darfur happened on the 10th anniversary of the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans, while the world stood by and did nothing to stop. At the time the press was distracted by the first multiracial elections in South Africa; for example, four New York Times correspondents and five Post reporters covered the South African elections the last week of April 1994, while each paper had a lone correspondent trying to report about Rwanda that week from Kenya and Tanzania. Many Clinton administration members, including the former president, now regret their decision to block moves at the United Nations to send an international force to Rwanda. They regard it as a low point in Clinton's foreign policy. And many want to act in Darfur to show we've learned some lessons.

Ivo Daalder, who worked at the National Security Council under President Clinton, last week wrote a piece for the Center for American Progress Web site quoting U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's speech on the 10th anniversary of Rwanda. Annan said, "the risks of genocide remain frighteningly real" and that in the face of humanitarian disaster today, "the international community cannot stand idle." Yet, Daalder complained that in the case of Darfur, "the international community has done just that -- even as the killing and dying continued at an ever accelerating pace."

The catastrophic events in Darfur have even managed to grab the attention of the Bush administration, despite the all-consuming focus on the war in Iraq. That's because Darfur threatens to undermine one of the administration's few diplomatic successes. Before his appointment as ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, as a special envoy for President Bush, had negotiated an accord that promises to end 20 years of civil war between the Sudanese south and north. It was signed in May. This achievement can hardly be celebrated when the northern government is making mayhem elsewhere in the country. So, to some extent, Powell's visit to Khartoum was an effort to protect the investment in diplomatic time the administration has already sunk into the country.

Finally, this humanitarian tragedy has attracted attention because it is emotionally wrenching, with entire villages burned and women and children victimized. In Britain, where the domestic political dynamic is completely different, the story has been exhaustively covered.

And yet, for all the attention the Darfur story has received, action by foreign nations, including European powers and the African Union, has been negligible. While Nigeria's president opposes military intervention and favors further talks instead, no one has persuaded the Sudanese leaders in the capital city of Khartoum to rein in the militias who have been raping and pillaging, and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. So the suffering continues.

For the United States, Darfur comes at a bad time. More than 135,000 U.S. troops are engaged in Iraq, and more than 9,000 are occupied in Afghanistan. And politically, the consequences of inaction by the Bush administration are slight. With a lackluster U.S. job market and the steady conflict in Iraq, it's not likely that voters will make up their minds based on the candidates' views of Darfur.

Few foreign humanitarian causes do have domestic political impact. One was the anti-apartheid movement during the 1980s. But that movement crested only during the Reagan administration, four decades after apartheid's official imposition in South Africa. The racial dimension struck a chord among Americans and there were recognizable and appealing black South African leaders. Darfur has no Nelson Mandela.

The anti-apartheid movement also had pressure points to use. American corporations had large operations in South Africa and could be pressed to pull out. U.S. banks were asked to cut off loans. U.S. contractors were barred from selling equipment to South Africa's military.

The very poverty of Darfur makes it harder to rally help. U.S. companies don't have a great stake in Sudan, so there's no pressure from that quarter. Often, the humanitarian disasters that need the most attention are the ones that get the least.

And that, too, is part of the tragedy.

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Steven Mufson, Outlook's deputy editor, covered diplomatic affairs for The Post from 1999 to 2001.