Darfur is a war, no humanitarian crisis

Sarah Kenyon Lischer:

Forced evacuations and mass rapes; brutal ethnic killings and rampaging militias; oil profits and arms sales. The deadly mix of politics, economics, and insecurity has displaced 1.6 million people and killed tens of thousands in the Darfur region of western Sudan since early 2003. The United Nations recently described Darfur as the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” This is not a humanitarian crisis. It is a war. Humanitarian assistance, in the absence of political and military engagement, can actually exacerbate the conflict.

The label “humanitarian crisis” absolves the rest of the world from taking political and military action in Darfur. By providing generous humanitarian assistance, governments and the UN claim to take meaningful action. But genocide cannot be resolved by donating blankets and food to the potential victims. A purely humanitarian approach can worsen the war in three ways. First, it obscures the political and strategic importance of refugee populations as potentially destabilising forces. Second, a humanitarian response empowers militants and fuels a war economy. And last, by dispatching aid workers rather than soldiers and politicians, governments increase the security threats faced by charitable organisations.

The crisis has now spread outside Sudan’s borders and threatens to ignite a regional conflict. An estimated 200,000 Sudanese refugees have escaped from Darfur across the border into Chad. Policymakers and aid organisations lament the miserable situation of these refugees. In addition to the human misery they embody, the refugees also have the potential to spread the conflict further. Refugees present a political obstacle to the Sudanese government and a political opportunity to the rebel forces. The mere presence of the refugees represents a potent indictment of the Sudanese regime. In response to the perceived threat, Sudanese forces have raided the refugee camps and nearby Chadian villages. If sufficiently provoked by cross-border attacks, Chad could enter the conflict.

The UN has broadcast appeals for increased funding for basic necessities. It should also appeal for improved border security to prevent the spread of war. Humanitarian assistance empowers the combatants when they control aid distribution. The combatants have used humanitarian assistance as a bargaining chip. The Sudanese Army and police have repeatedly raided camps for internally displaced civilians, brutally dispersing the residents. This prevents aid organisations from providing assistance and from documenting human rights abuses committed during the raids. Rebel groups in Darfur also prevent humanitarian organisations from accessing desperate civilians. Cease-fire violations have made much of the Darfur region unsafe for aid deliveries. As security conditions worsen, more and more aid agencies have withdrawn from the war zone.

Despite their official neutrality in the conflict, it is the humanitarian groups that are pressing for greater political and military action. Oxfam condemned recent Security Council resolutions as tepid responses. In retaliation, Khartoum expelled Oxfam’s country director. InterAction, the American NGO clearinghouse, implored President Bush to provide funding and support for the African Union mission. The only point that all parties agree on is that civilians

are suffering in Darfur. Therefore, as a compromise measure, the international community has deployed humanitarian organisations to fill the political and military policy vacuum. Unfortunately, treating the war purely as a humanitarian disaster only fuels the conflict. — The Christian Science Monitor