Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2063

UN plan won’t help people in Darfur

This article is over 16 years, 8 months old
The United Nations last week voted to send troops to bring peace to Darfur. Alex Callinicos looks at why "humanitarian intervention" won’t work
Issue 2063
Armed men from the Sudan Liberation Movement Army in Darfur, Sudan. The militia is one of several groups fighting the government in a complex civil war of shifting loyalties.  (Pic: Derk Segaar/
Armed men from the Sudan Liberation Movement Army in Darfur, Sudan. The militia is one of several groups fighting the government in a complex civil war of shifting loyalties. (Pic: Derk Segaar/

Gordon Brown claims to have renounced spin and aggressive posturing on the world stage.

But his appearance in New York last week to front up a new United Nations (UN) resolution sending 26,000 troops to the Sudanese region of Darfur was pure spin for Tony Blair-style “liberal interventionism”.

Lending her voice to a fawning media chorus, Mary Riddell cheered in last Sunday’s Observer, “At long, long last, the UN flexes its muscles in Darfur.”

She conceded that Brown should get out of Iraq and probably out of Afghanistan as well, and step back from the US alliance.

“But, equally,” Riddell added, “others should abandon the deceitful nostrum that Iraq rules out all other intervention.

“Conflicts in which the West has political, economic and security stakes should never be conflated with humanitarian missions.”

This kind of sentiment is even more powerfully expressed in the US via the Save Darfur Coalition.

According to the New York Times, “Perhaps no cause in Africa since the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa has drawn such wide and deep grass-roots support across the political spectrum.

“The group says it has delivered more than a million postcards to Mr Bush, organised mass rallies that have drawn tens of thousands of participants and urged its members to wear green wristbands emblazed with the anti-genocide motto: ‘Not On Our Watch’.”

On the face of it, this is pretty extraordinary. The US government is perpetrating a continuing war crime in Iraq that has killed getting on for a million people and displaced another four million.

Yet large numbers of US citizens, many of them coming from what passes for the left in the US, seem to be more worried about the crimes of Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Sudan than those of their own government.

This looks suspiciously like a form of ideological displacement. The anxieties provoked by what US imperialism is doing around the world are transferred onto a conflict that is represented in a way that reinforces the dominant ideology.


Thus the Darfur war is depicted as a struggle between genocidal “Arabs” organised through the Janjaweed militia slaughtering “black Africans”.

This fits in with both with the Islamophobic view of Arabs as violent and backward, and the stomach-turning media portrayal of Africans as the eternal victim.

But these representations bear little relationship to reality. The clearest guide I have found to the complex and destructive conflict in Darfur is a series of articles in the London Review of Books and elsewhere by the writer and human rights activist Alex de Waal.

He writes, “Despite talk of ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’, it is rarely possible to tell on the basis of skin colour which group an ­individual Darfurian belongs to.

“All have lived there for centuries and all are Muslims.”

A tangled web of different conflicts has fused together in Darfur, with tragic consequences.

Longstanding tensions between nomadic pastoralists and farmers have been accentuated in a region increasingly afflicted by droughts.

Political conflicts that have developed elsewhere have spilled over in Darfur – notably Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi’s efforts to use Darfur as a base for his “Islamic Legion” during the war in neighbouring Chad during the 1980s.

This also includes the much more long running civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian south of Sudan.

When it began in 2003, the Darfur war pitted secular and Islamist rebels against the Janjaweed militia unleashed against them by the government in the capital Khartoum.

The ethnic labels suited both sides in seeking to mobilise support. As de Waal puts it, “Darfur’s complex identities have been radically and traumatically simplified, creating a polarised ‘Arab’ versus ‘African’ dichotomy that is historically bogus but disturbingly powerful.”

The fighting has fragmented into a struggle among shifting alliances of rebels and pro-government forces, particularly since the collapse of peace talks last November.

De Waal, previously a supporter of UN troops going into Darfur, admitted, “Military intervention won’t stop the killing. The crisis in Darfur is political. It’s a civil war, and like all wars it needs a political settlement.”

De Waal isn’t alone. The Save Darfur Coalition’s demands for military action have run into criticism from NGOs involved in humanitarian relief efforts.

Action Against Hunger said in May that UN military intervention against the opposition of the Sudanese government “could have disastrous consequences that risk triggering a further escalation of violence while jeopardising humanitarian assistance to millions of people”.

The idea that military intervention could simply end the suffering in Darfur is a childish one. It implies that evil is like water flowing from a tap. Turn the tap off and all would be well.


But wars – particularly civil wars – often have complex causes. Addressing these causes is itself complex, involving the patient construction of political coalitions that can offer an alternative future.

These coalitions need to recognise Western imperialism as part of the problem, not the solution. The idea implied by Riddell that the West has no interests in Sudan is complete nonsense.

The country is emerging as an important oil producer in a region that the US sees as a key front in the “war on terror”.

Indeed, the Financial Times commented last November on the “still close intelligence relationship between Washington and Khartoum”.

Iraq showed the rottenness of the doctrine of liberal interventionism.

The lesson to be drawn is not that the doctrine might work elsewhere, but that it should be rejected altogether.

For more on the background to the Darfur crisis go to » Darfur: foreign intervention will mean more pain


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