Monday, July 14, 2008

Never? Well Hardly Ever?

Deja-vu in Darfur

Thirteen years after the Srebrenica massacre, history is repeating itself for the UN's peacekeepers in Sudan
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* Ian Williams, Guardian Comment is Free
o Friday July 11, 2008

It's déjà vu all over again. On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the massacres of some 8,000 Bosnians in Srebrenica, with the tacit connivance of the under-supported and demoralized Dutch peacekeepers, the Janjaweed, Khartoum's surrogate militia in Darfur killed seven African UN peacekeepers and wounded 19 more. The militia outgunned the peacekeepers – and escaped with impunity.

No one, except the several hundred thousand victims in Darfur has paid any price. We can take it for granted that any group that thinks it has the impunity to attack peacekeepers, assumes that it has a license to kill civilians too. While the seven dead UN soldiers hit the news, the continuing attrition of civilians has become so habitual that it would take another Srebrenica, and probably one recorded with cameras, to get any news recognition.

After Srebrenica, the phrase "Never Again" was again on everyone's lips. In international Diplo-Speak, maybe that phrase misses punctuation. Maybe it should be written "Never! Again?", meaning something like "Whoops."

Certainly, the UN's own reports on Srebrenica and Rwanda have a lot of
relevance to what is happening now in Sudan.

Touted as 26,000 strong with robust capacity, the UNAMID peacekeeping force is still at 10,000, under-equipped, underpaid, demoralized and deep into an action replay of the ineffectuality of Unprofor in Bosnia.

I doubt whether the Janjaweed militiamen who attacked the convoy had studied the Balkan wars, but certainly their masters in the Sudanese government have. They have emulated every trick that Slobodan Milosevic tried so successfully with the peacekeepers, including getting their international allies to invoke sovereignty to cover crimes against humanity.

Until the end when the international worm finally turned, the peacekeepers in Bosnia served the same function as those now in Sudan. They were there to send a message to the concerned electorates back home that governments were deeply concerned and doing their best. In Bosnia, confident of their governments' backing, the Scandinavian contingents took robust action when confronted with murderous militias, as later on did the French and British, but most of the force was there to protect itself and "monitor" crimes, not to prevent them.

So in Bosnia, Bangladeshi peacekeepers in summer kit were besieged in Bihac over the winter, fired upon and starved. The Serb militia knew that the Bangladeshi Air Force was not going to come over the hills to punish their persecutors, let alone NATO, whose planes stayed resolutely grounded later when the Dutch in Srebrenica came under attack.

The Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica were culpably weak and ineffectual – but the message they had from headquarters was that they were on their own. They were almost as much victims of cynical real politik and diplomatic persiflage as the eight-thousand dead – except of course that they were alive.

So who are the guilty in Darfur? As in the Balkans, there is plenty of blame to go round. Firstly of course, the Khartoum government and the Janjaweed it arms, pays and directs; the Chinese government, who have provided diplomatic cover for them; then the British and Americans who diplomatically disarmed themselves with their attack on Iraq. Of course, it does not help that Washington wasted a decade fighting a rearguard battle against the International Criminal Court, whose indictments are so far the nearest thing to tangible multilateral action against the perpetrators.

But collectively, the West while fending off their domestic do-gooders with the enhanced UN-African Union force, failed to provide money, logistics or weapons for the African contingents that were already there, let alone any reinforcements. The US Congress is full of grandstanders seizing the opportunity to berate yet another Arab, Islamist government for its human rights violations in Darfur, while bilking the peacekeepers there of hundreds of millions in assessed contributions. The US debt to the UN is around $2bn largely because of legislative action by self-professed Darfur savers.

As a result, the force lacks aircraft, both planes and helicopters which means that the Janjaweed's horses are almost high tech compared with UNAMID's equipment.

There are huge complexities in Darfur, and no easy feasible solutions. But one "never again" the UN might adopt is that they will never again put peacekeepers into a conflict without cash, equipment and military and diplomatic backup. And they should have a primary mandate to protect civilians from attack.

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