Accessibility links

Survey Reveals World Demand for Strong Action in Darfur

High-profile negotiations to end the crisis in Darfur are ongoing. Thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced since violence flared there in 2003. United Nations Secretary General Ban ki Moon says he needs more time to speak with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, in an attempt to persuade him to allow the deployment of an international peacekeeping force in Darfur. But a worldwide survey led by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs has revealed that people everywhere are tired of all the talk. Citizens of diverse countries are demanding that strong action – even military force – be used to solve the humanitarian tragedy, which activists allege is the result of a calculated campaign of genocide by the Sudanese government – an effort to “cleanse” Darfur of black ethnic groups. In the third of a five-part series on the issue, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports on the significance of the results of the survey.

The world wants harsh action to be taken to stop severe human rights abuses in Darfur, but governments aren’t responding to the will of their peoples, according to the latest survey on the issue conducted in countries across the globe. The results of the poll are similar to one undertaken in 2005 by the GlobeScan firm in eight African countries.

Together, the surveys represent a strong indictment of official policy towards what the UN has repeatedly termed “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.”

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in cooperation with several international polling groups, says people around the world are convinced that the UN has the responsibility to protect people from severe human rights violations – even if it means that the UN has to defy the policies and wills of its member governments.

The study has revealed the chasm between the action that people would like to see taken to end various international conflicts, including Darfur, and the measures that governments are willing to take. The survey says governments – including many in Africa – are largely out of step with the desires of their populations for harsh action to be taken against human rights violators.

In the latest poll to test the will of people with specific regard to Darfur, the Council asked tens of thousands of citizens from countries across all continents – and from places as diverse as Israel and the Palestinian Territories, France, Thailand, Australia and the Ukraine – questions surrounding proposed UN actions to end the conflict.

One of the directors of the survey, Steven Kull of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, says both the 2005 and 2007 surveys were undertaken in the context of the World Summit in 2005. At that event, world leaders agreed that the international community, through the UN, had the responsibility to use peaceful means to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and that if such peaceful means proved ineffective, it would take “collective action” – including military force against the perpetrators – by means of the UN Security Council.

Yet, despite this consensus, no such action has taken place in the case of Darfur. Instead, say activists, a stream of negotiations is leading nowhere, while violence escalates in the region and spreads to Chad and Central African Republic.

In some cases, citizens questioned by the Council’s pollsters are adamant that the UN Security Council has the responsibility to authorize the use of force to protect people from severe human rights abuses, even if the citizens’ own governments disagree.

Perhaps surprisingly, says Kull, it’s the Chinese public that has demonstrated the highest level of support (72 percent of those questioned) for the UN to intervene to end atrocities in Darfur. The Chinese government is often criticized for its apparent lack of support for human rights and its support of such administrations as that of President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. China also sells weapons to a variety of alleged human rights abusers, including President al-Bashir’s government in Sudan.

The Global Council says there’s an even stronger consensus among world citizenry that the Security Council should have the right to authorize the use of military force in cases such as Darfur. Among 12 diverse countries where this question was asked, large majorities – including 85 percent in France, 83 percent in Israel and the United States and 78 percent in the Palestinian territories – indicated their support for military force in Darfur. Kull says even the lowest levels of support for this option among countries polled are well over 60 percent.

In 2005, a similar survey found that a vast majority of Africans were in favor of the UN using military force to solve the Darfur crisis. Support was strongest in Ghana, where 80 percent of people polled said the UN should intervene and use military force, even without their country’s official permission. Kenyans, Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Tanzanians, and Cameroonians all expressed high support for such intervention. An average of only 13 percent of Africans questioned opposed it.

According to the charter that governs the UN, the organization cannot use military force to stop human rights abuses unless it receives approval from the five permanent members of the Security Council. Observers say this is unlikely to happen, with the Russian and Chinese authorities unwilling to approve such harsh action against Sudan.

In the most recent survey, people were also asked whether they thought their country should contribute troops to an “international peacekeeping force to stop the killing in Darfur.” The poll reveals that, although large majorities in most countries surveyed agree that the UN should use force to end human rights abuses in Darfur, they’re hesitant to suggest that their specific countries commit troops to such a peace-enforcing operation. Only people in France (85 percent of those polled) and the US (65 percent) support the idea of their countries sending their soldiers to Darfur. Many other countries, including Israel and Poland, oppose sending their soldiers on such a mission.

Kull feels this result is more indicative of smaller countries’ attitudes that contributing troops to peacekeeping forces is “something the larger countries do; it’s not what we do.”

The poll has also yielded other interesting results. For example, it reveals that despite high levels of advocacy regarding Darfur, especially in the US and Europe, the many people polled who failed to answer questions about the situation suggests to the Council that “many people around the world are uninformed about the conflict in Sudan,” says Kull.

“There is not necessarily a very high level of awareness of the situation. Even in Africa we found in 2005 (that) only 36 percent (of respondents) said that they were really following the situation there, and that’s actually the same number that Pew (Research Center) just recently found in the United States. Substantial numbers of people do not know anything about it. I joined focus groups in India and I was really quite struck at the very low level (of awareness), even among rather educated people.”

In 2005, the poll in Africa also showed a low level of awareness about Darfur.

Alex Meixner, legislative coordinator at the Save Darfur Coalition, says despite often stark images from suffering in the international media, the crisis is “vastly underreported” in most countries around the world. He says many people aren’t aware of the atrocities taking place in Darfur because of the dearth of media coverage of the issue.

“One of the factors that has led to activism taking this long to become strong is the lack of access to journalists to Darfur. The Sudanese government has been very systematic in denying visas, in denying entry to any journalists who want to go there, and in fact arresting journalists when they go there of there own means,” he says.

But Sudanese Deputy Ambassador to the US, Salah Elguneid, blames “biased media coverage” for “whipping up emotions” and leading to “exaggeration” of the situation in Darfur.

He says his government has to be “careful” about “who we let into Darfur” because journalists often “don’t write the truth” and photographs are published “out of context.”

Kull says the results of the latest survey are further evidence that the world is witnessing the emergence of a “new international norm in regard to the potential for the UN to intervene in the internal affairs of a state in the event of severe human rights abuses.”

And he says history shows that governments usually accede to the will of their peoples, although they’re initially slow to do so until they feel that their inaction could lead to “political fallout.”

The survey therefore suggests that the world community will soon take strong action to prevent further tragedy in Darfur.

“It tends to be the publics (where) the idea is generally expressed by elites, and the public endorses it and then governments tend to follow…. That is clearly the situation that we have not only in the US but around the world: The idea of national sovereignty being this pre-eminent principle that cannot be contradicted – that just doesn’t hold when it comes to severe human rights abuses such as genocide.”

Kull says there’s a feeling among people that it’s time for governments to “follow through on the principles that they in a sense have endorsed…. Often there’s this assumption that publics will only support using military force or taking action when its related to their national interests, narrowly defined. That is not really sustained by polling data.”

In 2005, the government of Sudan rejected the findings of the GlobeScan poll in Africa, and it has also repudiated the Chicago Council survey.

Elguneid says the latest poll is “not credible” because it’s based upon an “untruth,” and that the results were gained by “whipping up” respondents’ emotions by using the word “genocide.”

“The linkage between genocide and what is happening in Darfur is incorrect. We have received in Sudan an international evaluation from the UN, and they clearly say that what is happening in Sudan is not an intentional genocide. This linkage between genocide and Darfur is tremendously affecting the results of the poll.”

Kull dismisses Elguneid’s criticism, saying the questions in both polls contained the word “violence” in the context of Darfur, and had not characterized the situation as “genocide.”

“We were very careful to say that, so people could make their own determination as to what is occurring there,” Kull emphasizes.

Gayle Smith, former special assistant to the US president on African affairs, describes the results of the polls as a “dose of good news.” She’s especially encouraged by the fact that people in countries such as China and Zimbabwe, who live under governments who aren’t noted for their respect of human rights, support UN intervention to protect innocent civilians, even if their governments are loathe to support such action.

Smith says, “Part of what this suggests is that the notion of the responsibility to protect is something that in many ways transcends national policies. Almost without regard to the positions of the various governments…on something like Darfur, populations across the board seem to aspire to some notion of a global common good whereby innocent civilians who are under attack, whether by their government of by other forces, are owed some protection by the rest of the world.”