The Darfur conundrum

KA Dilday
2 April 2007

On 31 March 2007, five African Union peacekeepers in Darfur were killed in the most fatal attack on them since the force arrived in the western province of Sudan in 2004. At the time of writing, the spokesman for the African Union (AU) has been unable to say who was responsible for the attack. This is the conundrum in Darfur: the killers could have belonged to any of the several armed groups there, though most reports suggest that one of the rebel forces was likely responsible.

It was this same conundrum - whom to blame, and whom to support, in Darfur - which has, for the past two weeks, been distracting French intellectuals from the imminent presidential election. A battle raged in the opinion pages of France's main newspapers between France's intellectuals: it was a debate that at times, seemed to have a less noble subtext than the surface concern for dying Darfurians. It also raised the question that nags at all levels of global action: much more of the western world is aware of and concerned with the lives of others, yet the quality of action is not keeping pace with the quantity.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between north Africa and France.

Also by KA Dilday on openDemocracy:

"The freedom trail" (August 2005)

"Art and suffering: four years since 9/11" (August 2005)

"Rebranding America" (September 2005)

"Judith Miller's race: the unasked question" (October 2005)

"France seeks a world voice"
(December 2005)

"A question of class" (January 2006)

"Europe's forked tongues"
(February 2006)

"The worth of illusion" (March 2006)

"The labour of others" (April 2006)

"A question of class, race, and France itself: reply to Richard Wolin" (May 2006)

"The writer and politics: Peter Handke's choice" (June 2006)

"Zidane and France: the rules of the game"
(19 July 2006)

"Barack Obama, Moroccan Ali, and me"
(5 February 2007)

"Iraqis adrift"
(19 February 2007)

"Sister in spirit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel"
(6 March 2007)

A French controversy

The debate began on 20 March when the group Urgence Darfour, comprised of more than 100 individual associations, organised a meeting at the Mutualité, a grand hall on the left bank of Paris. There, the most prominent of the twelve presidential candidates agreed - either personally or through their representatives - that if elected, they would use their position to try to stop the killings in Darfur. Even President Jacques Chirac sent a letter of support. The meeting was led by Bernard Kouchner, one of the founders of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), who has long since broken with the group and now stands (unofficially and officially) for various national and international offices; Jacky Mamadou, former president of Médecins du Monde, the group Kouchner founded after leaving MSF; and the journalist and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who had just written a long article in Le Monde about his recent journey to refugee camps in Sudan and Chad.

Urgence Darfour called for the United Nations and the European Union to immediately send an international force to Darfur to protect the civilians; create safe zones where aid workers can serve the population; and bring those responsible for killings before the international court.

Three days later, on 23 March, Paris's main leftist daily newspaper Libération published a polemic written by two representatives of Médecins sans Frontières. The authors responded strongly to what they perceived as the ignorant posturing of Urgence Darfour and invoked MSF's experience through two-decades of presence in Sudan to make a case for a different approach. The worst massacres in Darfur, wrote Jean-Hervé Bradol (president of the MSF's French chapter) and Fabrice Weissman (director of research for the MSF), were in 2003-04. True, there has been a recent resurgence of violence after a period of remission, but the civilian casualties are at present not as numerous, in part because much of the civilian population has already abandoned the war-zones.

The Libé article appeared to break from the MSF's traditional role of not advocating political strategies, albeit while couching political recommendations in the rhetoric of protecting civilians. Bradol and Weissman warned that a small United Nations force would not be able to control an area as large as Sudan and that it would be resisted by the Sudanese government, resulting probably in more civilian deaths. A better option was to work with all of the armed factions to reach an accord. They ended by saying that MSF was disappointed in both Urgence Darfour and the presidential candidates: Urgence Darfour for using its prominence to demand an ill-advised and unlikely intervention, and the presidential candidates for showily and blindly signing onto it.

The next day, 24 March, a letter addressed to European Union leaders on the eve of its fiftieth anniversary summit in Berlin and signed by a group of prominent writers was published in newspapers in the EU's twenty-seven member-states. The group, which had been assembled by Bob Geldof, excoriated the EU for celebrating its birthday while the atrocities continued in Darfur. Many of Europe's most renowned intellectuals were among the signatories; they included Umberto Eco, Dario Fo, Gűnter Grass, Jűrgen Habermas, Vaclav Havel, Seamus Heaney, Harold Pinter, Franca Rame, Tom Stoppard and Bernard-Henri Levy.

Libération published the writers' appeal on 27 March on the same page as an article by Richard Rossin, a former secretary-general of Médecins sans Frontières. He responded in turn to his former colleagues' criticism of Urgence Darfour. Rossin accused the current MSF leadership of hiding behind statistics, of advocating positions that would only help those Sudanese already relatively safe in aid camps, and attempting to placate the Sudanese government for fear of angering it. He argued that Bradol and Weissman's "pox-on-all-of-their-houses" position that both pro-government and rebel sides were responsible for attacks on aid workers wasn't fair because in fact, the rebel forces wanted to make peace with the government and wanted a unified Sudan. It's the Sudanese government, argued Rossin, that expelled Kofi Annan's representative; that arrests, harasses, kidnap and sometimes kills aid workers; and that refuses journalists entry. "The butchers have been identified", Rossin wrote. "And we do nothing."

The debate spread to Le Monde, the most widely read general national newspaper in France, where two more observers - journalist Stephen Smith, an Africa specialist, and Robert Menard, the head of Reporters sans Frontières - threw another salvo. They argued that Urgence Darfour's prescriptions for stopping the violence in Darfur were half-baked and a naïve, manichean simplification of a complex situation. Merely crying "stop the genocide" was useless, they wrote. They further alleged that the information disseminated in the west about Darfur was limited, as the press and the advocates knew only the camps - to make an assessment based only on those would be like making an assessment of France after visiting its hospitals.

"Sudan has a government, rebels, a civil society. It's not only a slaughterhouse", Menard and Smith wrote. Those calling for the intervention of the UN's "blue helmets" from the global south should, if they believe so strongly that an external military force is needed, march in themselves like the international brigades in Spain's civil war. "What right" they ask, "(do) these journalists have to ask United Nations forces from the third world to die in their place?"

The discourse of others

The sum of the arguments in this series of articles was this: the situation in Sudan is intolerable; there are no purely good forces, but there are ones that are worse than others; and there are neither easy solutions nor ones unlikely to endanger civilians. But reading the debate one comes to a cynical but seeming true inference: Darfur has become a trendy cause. As one of the articles pointed out, for the past three years the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, has had an exhibition of striking photos of the victims in Sudan. Their tragedy is art even as it continues.

Yet when situations like the long deadly war in the Democratic Republic of Congo rage almost ignored, (which even now is a more vicious and deadly crisis according to those with first-hand experience of both), one wonders why so many people like actors and college students lift themselves from blissful reverie to focus on Darfur? Perhaps a place like the DR Congo is ignored because in Darfur it's easier to paint the situation as genocide - although people who've experienced and studied the situation warn that it is far more complex even as the paradigm of dark-skinned Africans being slaughtered by Arabs does have some relevance and historical basis. It's difficult not to believe that the lighter-skinned Muslims versus darker-skinned Christians, conveniently adds another moral dimension to the global focus on the transgressions of Muslims.

As Gérard Prunier wrote in openDemocracy, the truth is that stopping the killings is not simply a matter of the west committing to Darfur: "In the real world, the options are grim. It is possible to let things run their course and see the ethnic cleansing result in several thousand casualties more. This is still the most likely probability, given the incapacity of the international community to think beyond a ritualistic wail for a UN force to be deployed (which, even were it to be deployed, is unlikely to be effective)" (see: "Darfur's Sudan problem", 15 September 2006).

Without getting into name-calling, since, as one of the participants in the French intellectuals debate told me, "after all we all want things to get better for the Darfurians", there is something slightly condescending in the idea that a conflict in a country that has been riven by war for decades, can be ended immediately by a little of the west's firepower and paternal presence. What to do is a question that bedevils even the most dedicated and knowledgeable analysts, as our traditional forms of aid have often failed miserably. A friend who has spent more than ten years on the ground as a medical aid worker in Sudan, DR Congo and other parts of Africa, once mentioned a book he often thought of writing: "The title is Peace, Development and Coordination, the Hidden Killers, he wrote me as he left for Liberia as it disintegrated at the end of 2005: "Maybe I should write it; it is close to my heart."

France's intellectuals are notoriously competitive and combative with one another. The debate about Darfur in some ways felt like another act in a very long performance. This is not to say that there is not real concern, dedication and passion other than dislike of one another. MSF's people, for example, spend their lives risking their lives in the worst places in the world. But while the subject-matter is serious, the argument has still had the whiff of narcissism, as the crème of the French leftist intelligentsia took potshots at each other in the name of Darfurian victims.

In January I wrote that this year would bring new ways of seeing and that we would no longer be able to claim ignorance of tragedy. What is hard to stomach is that even as we embrace the modernity that compels us to bear witness, we still often are casting in the wind for solutions. This was particularly difficult for the French intellectuals to accept as they publicly played out old rivalries using Darfur as cover.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData