Darfur: Never again?
As the world prepares to commemorate Holocaust Day, crimes against humanity are still being committed in Darfur while diplomats bicker
The attackers, as they have done so often, rampaged through terrified people, shouting "kill the slaves". They cried: "We have orders to kill all the blacks". Eight more villages in Darfur were torched in a single day by armed men in a concerted operation. No one knows how many were killed, but it is the latest evidence that inaction by the international community has emboldened the Janjaweed Arab militias and their backers in the Islamist government in Khartoum.
As arguments rage over who was to blame for the attacks five days ago, the UN is deciding whether the atrocities of the past two years amount to genocide. Human rights organisations are using the occasion of Holocaust Day tomorrow to call for international war trials to help stop the crimes still being committed against the civilians of Darfur.
Here are the facts. More than 70,000 people have been killed. More than 1.6 million have been forced from their homes in a conflict that has been described as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis". The continuing violence has been so intense that international aid agencies have been forced to suspend their work after coming under attack.
While the diplomats debate how to respond, the survivors of the atrocities are left traumatised, many in refugee camps. More than 60 per cent of refugees from Darfur have witnessed the killing of a family member by the men on horseback. Four out of every five people have witnessed the destruction of their villages. Two-thirds saw government planes laden with bombs target fleeing civilians. One-third heard racial abuse while they and their relatives were being murdered or raped.
After the Rwandan genocide in 1994, just as after the Holocaust when six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis, the world said "never again". Now, there is Darfur.
Efforts to bring Sudan before the International Criminal Court - a move theoretically backed by the UK - have been undermined by the Bush administration's hostility to the court which was specifically set up to judge those suspected of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The United States has, at least, publicly branded these atrocities as genocide. The British Government has refused to do so, preferring to wait for the conclusions of an international commission of inquiry which reported back to the UN secretary general yesterday.
The four-man panel, led by the Italian jurist, Antonio Cassese, was asked to investigate the Darfur killings, determine whether genocide had occurred and to identify perpetrators with a view to holding them accountable. Kofi Annan is expected to submit the report to the UN Security Council next Monday, when debate will be engaged between supporters of the International Criminal Court and its main detractor, the United States, which went so far as to unsign the treaty setting up the tribunal.
The slaughter, ethnic cleansing and burning of villages began two years ago. In July last year the Bush administration called it genocide, a term with legal connotations under the genocide convention which makes it imperative to act.
For the Blair government, a founding member of the International Criminal Court which has nailed its colours to the mast on Africa during its presidency of the G8 leading industrialised countries, it will be a moment to decide whether to stand up to the Bush administration. Not only has Tony Blair famously described Africa as "a scar on the conscience of the world," he has set up an Africa Commission to provide solutions for the continent during the British G8 presidency.
With a general election looming, the Government's reaction to the ruling of the UN commission of inquiry will be an acid test of its independence from the right-wing agenda of the Bush administration.
According to the head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, if Britain looks for a compromise with Washington, it risks killing the court.
The report now on Mr Annan's desk may fudge the issue of genocide, which according to the textbooks is "the intentional destruction, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such". But human rights advocates maintain that genocide or not, the Security Council must rule that crimes against humanity were, and are, being committed and must be referred to the international court for prosecution.
Privately, British diplomats welcome intervention by the international court. But the test for Britain will be on whether it caves in to US pressure for a ill-defined "ad hoc" tribunal for Sudan.
Such proposals are opposed by human rights organisations who say the International Criminal Court is the only place for the Sudanese suspects to be tried. Even the outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations, John Danforth, who was instrumental in pressing for UN sanctions against Khartoum, had pressed for a referral to the International Criminal Court before being overruled by the hawks in Washington.
"I do not know whether the international commission will determine there was genocide, which requires the evidence to be weighed very carefully," said Juan Mendez, the special adviser to the UN secretary general on the prevention of genocide.
"But I am persuaded there were war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur, with a clear ethnic dimension. I will respect the view of the commission, but in my view these crimes merit international punishment, and the best scenario for that is the International Criminal Court."
For the British genocide-prevention group, Aegis Trust, there is no argument. "Was the killing intentional? Yes," it said in a report issued less than two months ago. "Was it systematically organised by the al-Bashir regime using govern- ment-armed Janjaweed militias, bombers and helicopter gunships? Yes. Were the victims chosen because of their ethnic and racial identity? Yes.
"This, in short, is genocide. The genocide continues."
At present, in Darfur, 790 African Union soldiers are ensuring the protection of "ceasefire monitors" in an area the size of France, where they have no mandate to protect civilians as the war goes on.
The Security Council, despite threatening sanctions four months ago against the Sudanese government, has done nothing, preferring to allow the African Union to take the lead in a hopelessly under-equipped mission. The council is bitterly divided, with the veto-wielding powers Russia and China opposed to punitive action.
The Sudanese government may be hoping the world is preoccupied with the next humanitarian disaster: the victims of the Boxing Day tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people across south Asia.
But for Britain, as a powerful member of the UN Security Council, the moment of truth is now at hand.
DARFUR TWO YEARS OF CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
March 2003 Fighting breaks out in Darfur between government forces and rebels. Refugees start fleeing into Chad
January 2004 Aid agencies' response begins in earnest to help thousands of displaced
2 April UN says "scorched-earth" campaign of ethnic cleansing by Janjaweed militias against Darfur's black African population is taking place
4 May UN officials describe Darfur as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world
7 May Two human rights reports find Sudanese government and Arab militias carrying out massive human rights violations which "may constitute war crimes and/or crimes against humanity"
5 August UN signs agreement with Sudanese government committing Khartoum to take detailed steps in next 30 days to disarm Janjaweed
September UN announces Khartoum has not disarmed the Janjaweed or stopped attacking civilians. US Secretary of State Colin Powell describes Darfur killings as "genocide"
18 September Security Council threatens sanctions against Khartoum and requests UN set up genocide inquiry