A recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that people from a diverse range of countries want strong action – even military intervention – to end the crisis in Darfur. Thousands of people have been killed, and millions displaced, since conflict erupted in western Sudan in 2003. Human rights groups say the administration in Khartoum is committing “genocide” against the black ethnic groups of Darfur, while the Sudanese government blames rebels for the atrocities. According to the survey, citizens from a variety of countries want the UN to use force to stop the killing. But a number of countries, including the United States, have stressed a negotiated, political solution as the only way to ensure peace. In the fourth of a five part series on Darfur, VOA’s Darren Taylor analyses the apparent gap between global public opinion and government policies on the crisis.
Smith says large numbers of people around the world obviously want the killings in Darfur to end – and their interest is so high that they’re willing to endorse UN military action in Darfur in defiance of their own governments’ policy decisions.
According to the UN charter, military action can only be considered in a country where gross human rights violations are occurring if the five permanent members of the Security Council agree to it.
In the poll, international citizens of all faiths, ages, races, religions and income groups united to demand action on Darfur. Yet governments continue to balk at the suggestion of imposing an unrestricted peacekeeping force on Sudan.
Smith says there are several reasons for the gap between the people, who want action, and their leaders, who prefer political negotiations.
“I’m not sure that the public interest that we’re seeing in this poll – but also that we’re seeing manifested in a tremendous amount of public activism – has yet translated to policy makers and politicians. I think there is still a belief that voters in particular don’t put this (Darfur) too high on the priority list, and that it’s not really a make-or-break issue,” Smith explains.
She says politicians will only act decisively on an issue such as Darfur when they come to believe that people won’t vote for them if they don’t.
Another reason for the chasm between politicians’ and citizens’ opinions on Darfur, she says, is the sparse media coverage of the Darfur tragedy. Smith, together with various human rights groups, has analyzed the media’s reporting of the issue.
“What we found is that in many cases, including at pivotal times in the Darfur crisis – like when (former) Secretary of State Colin Powell used the term “genocide” – there were 2,000 minutes of coverage on (stories focusing on celebrities) versus two minutes of coverage on Darfur. That’s a really important fact here, because for policymakers and politicians, it’s one thing to get the petition and see the activism – it’s another to hear the constant drumbeat of media coverage demanding public action.”
In the US, according to Smith, there’s a further reason for the gap between the public and their leaders: And it comes in the form of Somalia, where politicians still appear haunted by the United States’ failed peacekeeping mission in 1993, when the bodies of American soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
“I’m afraid that out of the experience in particular of Somalia, there has been a conclusion implicit but explicit in terms of what we’ve done since that we (the US) can act in these crises – so long as there is no real cost and no real risk; that the damage done by the killing of those Marines in Mogadishu is one that has suggested that again we should intervene, we should stop mass atrocities and genocide – but we’ve got to do it in a way where nobody gets hurt and it doesn’t cost too much money.”
Susan Rice, former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, says while political leaders in the US seem slow to act on Darfur, the American public remains willing to contemplate more involvement in African peacekeeping missions – despite the “Mogadishu effect.”
“Sixty-five percent of the American public, as validated in multiple surveys, is willing to contemplate the involvement of US military forces in a…peace-enforcement operation in Darfur…. That’s a striking finding: The fact that the American public is willing to contemplate, even in the context of our overstretch in Iraq, the involvement of US forces in a multilateral peacekeeping mission to save lives in Africa.”
Another factor in government’s unwillingness to authorize military action in Darfur, in contrast to their people, says Smith, pertains directly to Africa, and the continent’s continued neglect by developed countries such as the US.
“We (the US) have twice as many diplomats in Europe and Eurasia as we do in Africa. I am pretty certain that if mass atrocities…were happening in Asia or the Middle East, we would probably see a bit more political attention given to them by both the executive and legislative branches (of government).”
US officials, though, point to the fact that they’re committed to assisting democracy in Africa, and also boosting aid to the continent – especially to strife-torn regions – including a sum of $175 million allocated to the Horn of Africa region through USAID.
But Smith counters that the US government often states that a peacekeeping force for Darfur is one of its priorities – yet there’s no funding in the president’s recent budget request for it.
“There is a $600 million deficit in global peacekeeping (in that budget), even though…there is public interest in it,” she says.
“We have this deficit in political will; we also have a practical deficit in capacity. In other words, if we wanted to do absolutely the right thing in Darfur today, we don’t have it in the budget; we don’t have it in our human resource base or deployments, and we don’t have it on our policy agenda in any meaningful way.”
In the bid to end the atrocities in Darfur, Smith says, the world community is hamstrung by the fact that it doesn’t have any “replicable models of success” to follow; there’s no model where a peacekeeping mission has worked in the same context as Darfur.
“No one involved knows what success looks like,” Smith says.
Rice has been engaging with elites and governments from all over the world on the issue of UN intervention to stop human rights abuses, and says leaders in Africa are “very forward leaning on the responsibility to protect, very forward leaning on humanitarian intervention” – in contrast with places like Mexico and India where “sovereignty remains sacrosanct” and political leaders are not willing to consider imposing peacekeeping forces on other countries.