Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Sudan/Darfur: reading Annan

Annan has been criticized by some for his handling of the situation in Darfur. People don't seem too impressed by what he is saying, or more accurately, what he is not saying. However, having read through his recent statements on Darfur, I came away with a different impression.

Consider the speech Annan delivered marking the 10 year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. He devoted a fair part of his speech to Darfur and used quite strong language.
In this connection, let me say here and now that I share the grave concern expressed last week by eight independent experts appointed by this Commission at the scale of reported human rights abuses and at the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Darfur, Sudan.

[...] Mr. Chairman, such reports leave me with a deep sense of foreboding. Whatever terms it uses to describe the situation, the international community cannot stand idle.

[...] By "action" in such situations I mean a continuum of steps, which may include military action. But the latter should always be seen as an extreme measure, to be used only in extreme cases.

[...] But let us not wait until the worst has happened, or is already happening.

Let us not wait until the only alternatives to military action are futile hand-wringing or callous indifference.

Let us, Mr. Chairman, be serious about preventing genocide.
Annan delivered that speech in early April and he hasn't changed his talking points since. He doesn't want to debate semantics -- is it "ethnic cleansing" or "genocide" or something else. However, during a press conference late last week, Annan seemed to break his own rule, attaching a tag to the situation in Darfur. He was widely quoted as having said that the situation in Darfur is "bordering on ethnic cleansing", a phrase that comes across as ineffectual and hollow. However, if you look at his comments, in full, he really isn't being callous.
Let me say that on the question of what is happening in Darfur, there has been lots of discussion as to whether it is genocide or ethnic cleansing, and I myself in Geneva had indicated that, from the report I was getting, it was bordering on ethnic cleansing.

But let me say that the issue is not to discuss what name to give it. We all agree that serious crimes are being committed. International humanitarian law is being broken, and there are very serious human rights violations – grave ones – that we need to act on. We don't need a label to propel us to act, and so I think we should act now and stop arguing about which label to put on it. And, as I said, I sent in a human rights rapporteur, and I'm waiting for her report in the next week or so.
Annan is talking around the term "ethnic cleansing" and I think the explanation lies in the environment in which he is operating.

When the Security Council passed a resolution on Sudan earlier this month, Darfur merited one mention. And according to an anonymous source quoted by CNN in this story, a few members of the Council -- specifically Pakistan, China and Algeria -- did not want Darfur addressed at all.

In another instance, the UN Commission on Human Rights in April rejected a resolution introduced by the United States that called the situation in Darfur "ethnic cleansing". Instead, the Commission passed a compromise resolution, 50 votes to 1 (with 2 abstentions), that expressed "grave concern" at the "reported human rights abuses" in Darfur. (Coincidentally, Sudan this year received a three-year rotating seat on the 53 member Commission.)

I think Annan doesn't want to talk about "ethnic cleansing" or other tags, no matter how appropriate, because he knows that precious time will be wasted in endless debate. One of the things I remember about the debates/coverage of Rwanda in 1994 is the large amount of time spent trying to figure out what it was, and getting everybody to agree to it. I think Annan remembers this about Rwanda as well -- who cares what you call it as long as you do something for the people who are in trouble.

The Rwandan genocide happened on Annan's watch. He was head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations when, among other things, his department received this fax from the head on the UN mission in Rwanda, asking for help. Strange as it may seem, I have more faith in Annan now because he failed in Rwanda. There is no way he is going to allow another catastrophe on his watch. He may yet come out and call what is going on in Darfur "ethic cleansing" or even "genocide" if that's what it will take.

Late last week, Annan addressed his critics in this interview on the new UN and Africa radio show:
NARRATOR: And what about charges that he and the UN are doing too little too late to end the crisis in Sudan’s western Darfur region.

Mr. Annan: "We should avoid the situations where we allow member states to hide behind the Secretary General, use him as an alibi for their own inaction."
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Here is the transcript of the statment delivered by Richard Williamson, US ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights, advocating a stronger resolution on Darfur.