Saturday, July 17, 2004
WASHINGTON - In the hushed elegance of Abdel Kabeir's second-floor office at the embassy of Sudan, overlooking Massachusetts Avenue, you wouldn't know that the government he represents stands accused of unspeakable crimes.
Kabeir, a veteran diplomat who serves here as deputy chief of mission, insists that the real story in Africa's largest country is the settlement, at last, of a 21-year civil war between north and south that has claimed some 2 million lives.
Yet even as Sudan's government prepares to embrace its southern antagonists a new war rages in the country's west, in the region of Darfur, with whole villages destroyed and reports of mass executions and widespread rape. The bitter fruit of that war is spreading fast, from Sudan to the United Nations to American presidential politics - even to the street outside Kabeir's office.
At the U.N. Security Council, the United States is circulating a draft resolution that threatens sanctions within 30 days against Sudan unless its government moves decisively to ease humanitarian access and to disarm Arab militias that have already laid waste to hundreds of villages that were previously inhabited by black African farmers.
In Congress, an unlikely alliance of black liberals and conservative Republicans has introduced resolutions condemning Sudan for "genocide" for allegedly abetting attempts by the Arab militias in Darfur to eliminate members of black African tribes. Floor action could come as early as this week, sponsors say, beginning in the House of Representatives.
On the campaign trail, Sudan is suddenly an issue as well, with Democratic candidate John Kerry assailing President George W. Bush for failing to act on what Kerry termed a clear case of genocide. Speaking before the NAACP on Thursday Kerry compared Sudan's actions in Darfur to the mass slaughters in Rwanda a decade ago and the extermination of Jews by Nazi Germany.
"This administration must stop equivocating" on Sudan, Kerry said. "These government-sponsored activities should be called by their rightful name - genocide," he said. "That is a lesson of Rwanda. That is a lesson of World War II. That is a lesson of time."
White House spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed Kerry as a johnny-come-lately to an issue with which the administration has struggled for months, most recently in the trip to the region two weeks ago by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"We welcome him all of a sudden talking about it in an election year," McClellan said of Kerry, "but we've been acting on this for quite some time."
In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, meanwhile, peace talks brokered by the African Union broke down Friday almost as they began, with Sudan's government rejecting demands from the Darfur rebels for the immediate disarming of the Arab militias known as janjaweed, which means "man with a horse and a gun."
At the Sudanese embassy in Washington last week, Kabeir complained that the world is piling on, grossly distorting a complex conflict that he insists his government is doing its best to resolve.
"What's the idea?" Kabeir asked. "Why put more pressure on me?"
The pressure he faces was visible, and audible, as several dozen protesters marched outside the embassy, shouting "Stop the genocide! Free Sudan now!" and "Go tell Khartoum - we will not be moved."
The past week has seen daily protests at the embassy and a string of arrests, for disorderly conduct and blocking the building's entrance. Those arrested range from Reps. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Bobby Rush, D-Ill., to radio talk show host Joe Madison and Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
Rangel said in an interview after his arrest that he hoped to rekindle the spirit behind mass protests in the 1980s against the racial apartheid regime in South Africa - demonstrations that in his view eventually contributed to that country's peaceful democratic transformation.
"What I'm doing is like a grain of sand on the beach," he said. "But sometimes these things take off and create a sandstorm."
The Darfur region is one of the world's most remote areas, especially now that the annual rainy season has begun and many villages can be reached only by air. The region's remoteness, and the lack of access until recently by humanitarian and U.N. groups, has produced wildly disparate estimates as to casualties so far and the population currently at risk.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 30,000 people have died in the 17 months since the Darfur rebellion began. Other U.N. officials have suggested a lower number, perhaps 10,000; the Sudanese government contends it is lower still. U.S. agencies estimate that 300,000 to 1 million people are at risk of death over the next 12 months.
Eric Reeves, an anti-Sudan government activist at Smith College, cited the contradictory estimates in an e-mail analysis on Thursday. He noted that the crude mortality rate estimates of the U.S. Agency for International Development suggest a daily death toll now of approximately 1,400 individuals - or more each week than the lower estimates of cumulative fatalities.
"Such a gross disparity," Reeves writes, "should be the occasion for serious and urgent re-thinking of a reasonable mortality figure for Darfur."
Amid debate, death toll rises
Those pressing for help to the displaced and vulnerable people of Darfur also disagree as to tactics, specifically as to the wisdom of pressing for declarations of genocide and sanctions against the Sudan government.
"While the world debates about what it should do, people in Darfur die," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who toured refugee camps in Chad and Sudan last month and is now a co-sponsor of the genocide resolution in Congress. "It is time to end this debate and start saving lives," he said.
Brownback acknowledged that the resolution before Congress would not have the force of law, however, and that its primary purpose would be to exert pressure on the Bush administration and on the Security Council.
Nongovernment groups active in the region, among them Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders, have stopped short of declaring the situation in Darfur an instance of genocide - which under the 1948 U.N. convention entails "acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group . . ."
Georgette Gagnon, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said, "we have not made a legal determination, one way or the other. . . . For our purposes we know that hundreds of thousands of people are affected, that many have died and many more may die. We know what we need to know to decide to act.
"We know that innocent lives are being lost," she added. "We know what's being done, and what will happen if the international community doesn't act."
Looking beyond words
Whether the international community is prepared to respond, even assuming cooperation from Sudan, remains an open question.
Jan Egeland, the United Nation's emergency relief coordinator, briefed the Security Council earlier this month after touring the Darfur region with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He noted that plans were in place to feed and shelter an estimated 1.2 million displaced persons by August - but that only $140 million of the $350 million in promised pledges had been delivered so far.
John C. Danforth, the newly named U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview Friday that talk about genocide and sanctions urgently raises the question of what will happen to hundreds of thousands of people at imminent risk.
"The question is how do we save as many lives as possible?" Danforth said. "It's not what legal description we give to the problem. It's not even what sort of repercussions there might be for the government of Sudan. . . .
"The ultimate question is how do we get food and medicine and clean water and the experts we need to administer these things, to these people who are spread over an area the size of France? Where's the money coming from? Where are the helicopters, the airplanes and the security coming from?"
Danforth is no stranger to challenges in Sudan, having served as Bush's special envoy since 2001 in a U.S.-led effort that has brought the long simmering conflict between Sudan's government and southern rebels to the brink of settlement. He said one insight he had gleaned from the earlier experience was that in the case of Sudan, "everything seems to take longer than it should."
The U.S. delegation will proceed with a resolution, he said, probably this week, after a debriefing from U.N. officials on talks in Khartoum Thursday and Friday that were intended to set out performance benchmarks for Sudan on compliance with demands for action on militia disarmament, access by humanitarian groups and the provision of security.
"We're drafting a resolution and we'll be pushing it," Danforth said, "but in my own view if that's all we're doing then we're barking up the wrong tree.
"The real emphasis shouldn't be on just a resolution, on its wording or on possible sanctions, because those are just means to an end," he added. "The end takes more than any of that can deliver. The end takes logistics and security - and those problems aren't going to be solved by any resolution."
Reporter Jon Sawyer is chief of the Post-Dispatch's Washington Bureau and writes about national politics and foreign policy.
Reporter Jon Sawyer E-mail: email@example.com Phone: 202-298-6880