Conflict in Africa


Universe Column for 26th September 2004

By David Alton

This week, on behalf of Jubilee Action, I have been in the Congo and next week will be in Rwanda : two countries ravaged by internecine warfare and endless killing. Both are textbook examples of what happens when the world turns a blind eye to acts of genocide.  Both countries also illustrate how scorched earth policies retard development and condemn the suffering people to endless years of privation and misery.

Conflict resolution and the disarming of bands of lawless militia who prosecute these wars of attrition is the single most important priority for progress and prosperity in Africa .  You simply cannot sustain agriculture, industry, health and education programmes in the middle of a battlefield. And, on the other side of that coin, fratricide and blood letting drives people out of their homes and off their land into the often fatal status of refugees.

Anyone who ever thinks about Africa knows all this to be true – and yet ever since, as a child, I saw harrowing images from war-torn Biafra of the starving, the dead, and the dying, the cycle has repeated itself again and again. As a teenage school-boy I felt so incensed by the Biafran war that I organised an overnight sponsored walk around our school playing fields to raise money for the victims. But I also have an earlier memory of the good Sisters of Mercy, who taught me at my primary school, collecting funds every week for the children who were dying in the Congo .

This week, as I made my first visit to the Congo I was thinking of all the fine speeches I have heard over the years about how “lessons will be learnt” and how horrors will not be allowed to be repeated “ever again.”  But we haven’t and they are.

Six months ago, in Parliament, I warned that unfolding events in the Darfur region of Sudan were on a par with the genocide in Rwanda and that once again the world was sleep-walking into another orgy of killing and violence. The Government Minister who replied was irritated by my suggestion that we hand simply become passive by-standers. Thank God – in this instance – for Colin Powell and the US .

Perhaps haunted by the failure to halt the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the Bush Administration has understood the importance for naming events in Darfur for what they are. What has shocked me is the way that other countries have quibbled about whether or not this truly is genocide.

Two years ago I went to southern Sudan – where this same government in Khartoum has been responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million people in the past 19 years. They have every good reason to assume that the world will be indifferent to their actions in Darfur – after all, they have got away with butchery in southern Sudan for years on end so why should it be any different in Darfur ?

But formally indicting the Sudanese for genocide does make a difference – just as it would have made a difference in Congo and Rwanda . The genocide convention, to which this country is a signatory as well as the US , requires us to “prevent and punish” acts of genocide.  So a declaration of genocide is not merely denunciatory against the perpetrators, it places an obligation on the signatories too.

The Janjaweed militia, controlled by the Sudanese Government, has been accused of killing 50,000 people in the 18 months following a rebellion by black African farmers in Darfur . More than one million have been forced from their homes.  The UN itself has described the situation in Darfur as “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.”  Yet for months on end the Security Council failed to impose oil sanctions, let alone authorise an international peace-making force to be sent there.

Yet, that is what is needed. If in 1994 we had recognised the genocide in Rwanda for what it was we would have intervened militarily and could have prevented the massacre of some 800,000 people.

Surely the moral of Africa ’s story is that we procrastinate at our peril – and at the peril of Africa ’s people. By being indecisive we allow those who repeat this endless slaughter to believe they can do so with impunity.