Last December the British Government confirmed the details of the proposed peace-keeping force for Darfur. It was all going to be in place at the beginning of this year. Many of us argued that it was already nearly four years too late. Too late for the 3-400,000 dead; too late for the 2 million displaced; and too late for the millions of people now dependent on intermittent food aid for their very survival.
The pathetic failure of the international community to even meet their own deadline – and the lamentable failure to provide the helicopters and equipment needed to put the peace keepers in place – makes mock of all the high sounding rhetoric about international resolve.
In this context, Steven Spielberg is to be commended for his decision to quit his role as artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics in protest at China’s failure to do more to address the crisis in Darfur. Perhaps this will shame others into getting their act together.
Over the past five years Sudan’s military regime, with help from proxy militias that it has armed, supplied and directed, has killed hundreds of thousands and driven over two million from their homes into wretched camps where they continue to be raped, arrested, tortured and murdered.
Since my own visit to Darfur, more than three years ago, and the report I published describing what was taking place as genocide, in its technical and legal sense, the international community has utterly failed to match its rhetoric with effective action.
After the latest government offensive, 12,000 new refugees who flooded across the border into Chad gave familiar accounts of homes bombed, burned and looted, of villages encircled by militiamen to prevent escape.
Once again there was of course outrage around the world. But Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his colleagues in the ruling National Congress Party do not as a rule tend to be very receptive to those who question their policies.
China’s intimate economic relationship with Sudan, on the other hand, puts it in a unique position to command al-Bashir’s attention. With a peace agreement finally in place with the rebels in the South, where Sudan’s oil fields lie, the country now exports over 200,000 barrels of crude oil a day to China, the biggest investor in its oil industry. The vast income that this generates, along with China’s long history of selling arms to Sudan, gives Beijing an enormous amount of potential leverage.
But with its own economic interests at stake, China has been predictably reluctant to fully exercise this influence either to help solve one of the world’s worst human catastrophes in Darfur or to pressure Khartoum to end arbitrary arrests, torture, extrajudicial killings and censorship throughout the rest of Sudan.
When challenged over Darfur, Chinese officials point to a number of steps on their part which they say show a genuine will to resolve the conflict and its humanitarian fallout. These include allowing a Security Council resolution that gave the International Criminal Court the go-ahead to investigate crimes there and voting in favour of another to establish a United Nations-African Union peacekeeping operation. China has also contributed a contingent of engineers to the latter force and appointed a special envoy to focus on Darfur. Such moves, it says, are the best it can do and have already achieved progress.
But the facts suggest that China can and should do much more.
The Sudanese authorities continue to violate ceasefire agreements in Darfur, continue to hamper the distribution of aid and continue to systematically attack civilians seen as siding with rebel groups.
The only two men indicted by the ICC for crimes in the region continue to be sheltered by those in power. One of them, who has held onto his job as state minister for humanitarian affairs, is perversely responsible both for the distribution of aid in Darfur and for the investigation of the very human rights abuses that he is suspected of committing.
At the same time, deployment of a peacekeeping force with any chance of improving the situation on the ground is being delayed both by a lack of necessary equipment and by systematic obstruction on the part of the Sudanese authorities.
On most of these points, China generally maintains a studied silence.
It is not only the case that China has failed in its moral obligation to use its enormous leverage over Sudan to full effect. It has also taken more concrete steps that have directly helped to perpetuate the suffering in Darfur. When Security Council members sought to issue a formal statement in December calling for Sudan to cooperate with the ICC, China stood in the way. And it has even reportedly continued to sell millions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition to Khartoum despite evidence of the deployment of such weaponry in the country’s war-torn western region.
It is imperative that the attention to China that will be generated by this year’s Olympics should be channelled into pressuring its government to take a far stronger line with Khartoum over the tragedy in Darfur.
China claims that any attempt to draw a link between the Games and its political involvement in Sudan is a vulgar violation of the Olympic spirit. But however much we respect the heritage of the Games, the systematic violation of the basic human rights of millions of Darfuris must surely take precedence. We must stop playing games while Darfuris continue to die.