2 March 2005
Paul Rusesabagina visited President Bush at the White House last month. Paul is the hotelier-turned-hero who saved more than 1,200 lives during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, and whose actions inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda. Paul was eager to see the president because he wanted to tell him that Rwanda’s horror of a decade ago is happening again — this time, in Sudan’s western region of Darfur.
A brutal campaign of state-sponsored violence in Darfur has led to the deaths of up to 300,000 people, and the lives of about 2 million displaced people hang in the balance. After his visit, Paul wondered aloud with us whether the president’s genuine concern would translate into action, remembering well the way the world had expressed so much concern about the Rwandan genocide a decade ago, but had done so little to stop it.
It is not too soon to learn lesson No. 1 from the pathetic international response to Darfur and Rwanda: Despite the almost ritualistic pledge of “never again,” no coherent international system or process is in place for responding to genocide and other atrocities. What does exist is chaotic and futile finger-pointing, while the slaughter goes on.
The situation in Darfur continues to deteriorate. A famine threatens to drive mortality rates above the current toll of 10,000 per month. The regime violates a cease-fire pact with impunity and obstructs humanitarian aid.
In mid-January, we traveled with Paul and five members of Congress to the Sudanese refugee camps in Chad and crossed the border into Darfur. We heard story after story of mind-numbing violence. Women have been gang-raped, children have been beheaded or thrown alive into fires, and young men have been tortured and executed. The similarities to Rwanda’s genocide a decade earlier are haunting.
As with Rwanda, militias do most of the killing and ethnic groups are targeted. In Rwanda, the Interahamwe (those who stand together) militias were created and deployed by the government to eliminate the Tutsi population. In Sudan, the regime organized and armed the Janjaweed (devils on horseback) militias and set them against the non-Arabs in Darfur.
Turning their backs
The similarities in the world’s responses are even starker.
• First, the international community deliberately portrays matters as more complicated than they actually are, in order to delay difficult decisions and bold action. In Rwanda, world leaders repeatedly called events an orgy of intertribal violence, rather than the centrally directed genocide they knew that it was. In Sudan, many of these same leaders ascribe the atrocities in Darfur to chaos, precisely the outcome sought by the government as it sowed the seeds of Darfur’s destruction.
• Second, the world practices moral equivalency by treating warring parties equally, calling for negotiations and urging cease-fires rather than confronting perpetrators of mass killing. In Darfur’s case, the United Nations Security Council imposed an arms embargo, but not on the government, which sponsors the janjaweed.
• Third, the international community postures, warns and threatens, but does not act. The lesson was as clear to authorities in Rwanda 10 years ago as it is to those in Sudan today: You can kill as many people as you want, and no one will stop you.
• Fourth, the international community is too divided to act. The Security Council is crippled by internal divisions. And it isn’t hard to figure out why: Four out of the five permanent members are selling arms to the regime in Khartoum, Sudan, or brokering arms deals. The same countries have companies investing in Sudan’s oil industry. The U.S. is the lone exception because of sanctions imposed in 1997.
• Fifth, the international community ends up applying humanitarian Band-Aids over gaping human rights wounds. World leaders cite the millions of dollars in food aid they are sending to exonerate themselves from the failure to protect people from mass murder.
Time to do something
There is one major difference between Rwanda and Sudan: In Sudan, it is not too late to act.
Millions of civilians are still surviving in unprotected displacement camps and villages throughout Darfur. They need protection. And the people responsible for the killing need to be brought to justice. The congressional delegation we traveled with fully agreed: If the world would just begin to move on these two tracks — protection and justice — the slaughter would stop.
Civilian protection should become the focus of the current African-led force that is monitoring the oft-violated cease-fire in Darfur. Little will change, though, until there is a cost to those committing atrocities. First, the Security Council should impose targeted sanctions against regime officials. Second, the council should refer the case of Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution. U.S. opposition to the ICC leaves the United States as the Sudan regime’s ally in avoiding accountability.
In traveling around the USA during the past few months, we have found that Americans from all walks of life are joining together to let our government know that they want the killing in Darfur to stop. Student groups from across the country are writing letters to members of Congress and to President Bush demanding American leadership in ending the slaughter.
Writing letters may sound simplistic, but actually, it is vital. During the Rwandan genocide, White House officials said they didn’t hear from the American public. We must not be silent again: Our leaders will act if there is a domestic political cost for doing nothing. Writing letters can stop the killing.
If we stand idly by and take no action to end this nightmare, the blame will be shared by us all.
Don Cheadle was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Hotel Rwanda. John Prendergast is special adviser to the International Crisis Group.