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Darfur in Midst of Humanitarian Crisis

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Between The Lines
http://www.btlonline.org
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Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release July 3, 2004
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Darfur Region of Sudan in Midst of Humanitarian Crisis
- Black Congressional Caucus Calls on U.S. to Intervene

Interview with Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Listen in RealAudio:
http://www.btlonline.org/booker070904.ram

A humanitarian crisis is ongoing in Darfur, the western region of Sudan, where over the past year, at least 10,000 black Muslim Sudanese have been killed by Arab Muslim Sudanese militias with the tacit support of the Arab central government in Khartoum. In addition, a million residents of Darfur have been displaced -- ethnically cleansed -- with 120,000 of them fleeing to refugee camps in neighboring Chad. Aid groups say a million or more people from the Darfur region are at risk of dying from starvation and disease if nothing is done. The conflict has historical roots, but escalated in 2003 when two rebel groups in Darfur demanded an end to chronic economic marginalization and sought power sharing within the Arab-ruled Sudanese state.

The U.S. Congress recently authorized additional funds to aid in the relief effort. At the end of June, both United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Darfur to assess the situation. On June 23, the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed a petition drive initiated by the group Africa Action that calls on the U.S. government to define the events in Darfur as "genocide" and to intervene militarily to stop the killing and displacement.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, about the role the U.S. could play in providing humanitarian relief in Sudan, the dangers that poses, and why, as the world was remembering the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide last April, the U.N. has been so slow to intervene in this current crisis.

Salih Booker: The question is, can U.S. power be put to good use in the world today? Can it be used to save lives and stop a genocide as in the case of Sudan, compared to being used unilaterally for regime change to bring destruction to countries on false premises, etc.? So certainly there’s great reticence to advocate U.S. intervention, given the history of U.S. interventions around the world. At the same time, you look at what’s happening in Sudan, you recognize it’s a genocide, you recognize that all these countries have an obligation to stop it. Then you look at who has the assets, and who has the resources that could most quickly be summoned to put a stop to this while the United Nations pulls together a formal, blue-helmeted U.N. peace-keeping operation -- which, generally speaking -- takes several months to both pass the resolutions and assemble the forces based on other countries contributing.

Between The Lines: And that’s why you’re not directing this to the U.N. in the first place?

Salih Booker: That’s why we’re not directing it to the U.N., and also, because the U.N. is only as strong and as pro-active as its membership, and particularly the permanent members of the Security Council. The problem right now is the Security Council has hesitated on Darfur largely because of the economic and diplomatic interests of the permanent members, whether it’s China or France or Britain, etc. They all have economic interests, including oil interests, in Sudan, and have been reluctant to antagonize the government in Khartoum for fear of losing oil contracts.

So what we feel strongly is needed now is a military intervention to stop the killings, provide security so a program of humanitarian assistance can be mounted to the displaced, to the refugees, to the million people who are internally displaced and the two million people that are going to be facing famine and death by disease if there’s not an adequate humanitarian response in the coming weeks. And thirdly, to enforce the cease-fire that the African Union had negotiated back in April. So, this is a short-term mission. And what we’re saying is that the U.S. government has 2,000 troops in nearby Djibouti in east Africa. They wouldn’t even need to deploy that number. They would only need to deploy a few hundred troops to play the lead role in a multinational force -- we would never advocate that this be a U.S. unilateral intervention, but that African countries, particularly those in the region -- would be willing to contribute troops to a U.S.-led intervention with this very brief mandate to immediately go to Darfur, stop the fighting, allow humanitarian assistance in, and allow the U.N. time to put together a formal blue-helmet peacekeeping operation.

Between The Lines: In fact, are there African countries that have expressed a willingness to work in this kind of collaboration, or you just hope they will?

Salih Booker: No, they have already, and this was also the case last year when the crisis broke out in Liberia and west African troops were prepared to participate in an intervention there and requested U.S. leadership. The U.S., of course, declined, causing delays, causing the loss of hundreds of lives in Liberia, and ultimately it was the Nigerians and other west Africans who took on the sole responsibility for the intervention in Liberia. In the case of Sudan, the African Union actually provided leadership in negotiating the cease-fire between the government and rebel groups in Darfur, and they have put together a truce observer mission, and they already have a small team of ten people in Darfur that arrived at the beginning of June and they are supposed to deploy a total of 120 observers, but they don’t have a mandate to do anything other than observe and report on violations of the ceasefire, and they are not yet even operational. What it represents on the one hand is African leadership to try to end this conflict. On the other hand, the lack of capacity on the part of the AU to do what’s absolutely needed at this moment.

Between The Lines: I’ve been reading Nicholas Kristoff’s columns in the NYT about families killed in Darfur or ethnically cleansed out of the region. What do you think is the level of knowledge or awareness in the U.S. of this crisis?

Salih Booker: I think the American media is beginning to focus on the crisis in Darfur. It’s several months since the media in Africa and Europe have been focusing on this. This has been a lead story elsewhere in the world for several months now, and the U.S. is just now beginning to give it a bit of focus. And it’s a critical issue. This is the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. All the governments around the world and politicians have been saying, “Never again.” As they said after Cambodia, as they said after the Holocaust, and yet they continue to dance around the issue and avoid calling this a genocide. So that’s why we feel it’s so urgent to call for this kind of intervention. And also, to begin to really critically look at, what is the appropriate use of American power in the 21st century. And can citizens of this country demand that their government put this power to use in the interest of defending human rights and human life?

To get more information, or to sign the group's petition, call (202) 546-7961, or visit the group's website at http://www.africaaction.org

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Melinda Tuhus is a producer of Between The Lines, which can be heard on more than 35 radio stations. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines ( http://www.btlonline.org) for the week ending July 9, 2004. This Between The Lines Q&A was compiled by Melinda Tuhus and Anna Manzo.

PRINT INFORMATION: For reprint permission, please email betweenthelines@snet.net.


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