A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity pleasure to attend a talk given by Dr. Mukesh Kapila, the former United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sudan (2003-2004) and the first one of the first individual to warn the international community about the unfolding genocide in Darfur. Dr. Kapila’s story is reminiscent of Lt-Gen Roméo Dallaire’s experience in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Kapila expected to preside over the Naivasha talks, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement started in September 2003 and supposed to end Africa’s longest war between the north and the south. But he quickly realized that a) the agreement still had a long way to go due to a lack of political will, b) that crimes against humanity were being committed in the Darfur region.
An outgoing speaker, Dr. Kapila asked the audience. If faced with such a crisis, what would you do and who would you go to? First, he reached out to diplomats and high-level representatives at the UN. He realized that great powers actually knew far more about the situation than he did. But they refused to act. One of the reasons was geopolitical considerations and calculations: they didn’t want to compromise on-going peace talks and thought all problems would be solved.
In Sudan, Kapila was told to concentrate on his job: getting humanitarian aid into Darfur and leave the politics. In New York, he was often faced with naivety, denial (despite evidence) and lack of empathy. So what do you when the people and institutions responsible for helping you turn a blind eye? Dr. Kapila decided to blow the whistle and to alert the media. He decided to disobey orders from above because they were immoral and against the very principles of the UN. This time, the UN did respond, peacekeepers were sent, which started a political process. But it was too little too late. Being a whistle blower also caused Kapila his job. Unpopular with many governments and even faced with death threats, he was forced to leave Sudan. But he refused to abandon what had now become a mission: to warn the world about Darfur and about the continuing crisis in Sudan.
The empathy deficit: reasons why we fail
Did the UN and other global institutions learn anything from the Darfur crisis? No. Not if you look at the current humanitarian crisis in Sudan and in other parts of the world. Four million people are affected by the crisis throughout the regions of Darfur, Abyei, the Blue Nile mountains and the Nuba region (South Kordafan). The current political process not based on justice and accountability, and therefore fragmented. As Dr. Kapila stated “Darfur may be called the world’s most successful genocide in that it has gone on for a decade.”
Today the same atrocities are being committed in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile Region. President Al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes by the ICC in relation to Darfur, continues to run free. Since South Sudan became independent from Sudan two years ago, the regime in Khartoum has embarked on an Islamic purification campaign targeting the ancient peoples of these regions. As in Darfur ten years ago, the aim to remove these ancient tribes of the land in order repopulate the area with Arab tribes. At the heart of the conflict is the same racist idea. Today, one could argue that the situation is even worse. The Sudanese regime has more sophisticated aircraft and better technology today. What is unfolding now is a modern war of attrition of the same ethnic nature as it was in Darfur a decade ago.
The international community has not intervened in any (significant) way. Conflicts are fuelled by greedy and selfish people who benefit from them. Sudan is a powerful country in the economic system and there is a lot of estate interest. For example, we continue to trade with Sudan and sell them arms to Sudan, arms that are used to commit ethnic cleansing.
Copyright: A. Boswell/ MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS. Family hiding from aerial bombing by the government in Nuba Mountains.
Kapila makes it very clear that global institutions such as the UN and the African Union are run by cowards. For the lack of action in Darfur, he clearly points the finger at Kofi Annan. I believe that Dr. Kapila is right when he argues that the responsibility to protect is increasingly becoming the “responsibility to procrastinate.” R2P makes it clear that the international community has a responsibility to protect populations at risk when their leaders fail to do so: “If crimes against humanity it’s everybody’s responsibility to act. But the higher your office the greater your responsibility”. So leaders such as Kofi Annan have failed and have not been held accountable for standing by. Dr. Kapila actually lists twelve reasons why we failed in Darfur and still fail, including denial and naivety, refusal to differentiate between victims and perpetrators, political indifference, disproportionate self-interest, evasion of responsibility, risk aversion, bureaucracy, and, most importantly, human empathy deficit.
Responsibility and accountability
I don’t think Dr. Kapila has lost hope in the UN. As a global institution it can bring people together to work for the common good and to resolve differences. Yet he believes that the UN, as well as other institutions, must be run by people with empathy and leadership. Countries like Canada should break diplomatic ties with Sudan because maintaining normal ties sends a message that committing mass atrocities is fine. Diplomatic isolation and economic embargos will, in the long run, work, according to Dr. Kapila. Civil society leaders and ordinary people have a role to play as well. They can hasten this process of change by putting pressure on leaders and by supporting the right organizations on the ground that are bringing humanitarian aid.
Kapila argues that people with a high office have a greater responsibility to act and a better chance of being heard. But this does not mean should not act. Don’t forget, we are the ones who elect our leaders, especially parliamentarians who are in a position to act as well. We may not sit in these global, regional or national institutions, but policymakers such as parliamentarians are supposed to represent us. We can push the executive to move to that level of leadership and statesmanship. The only question is how much suffering can be tolerated before there is change truly happens. We should not turn our backs either.