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Darfur - War Or Humanitarian Crisis?

Up until December’s Asian earthquake and tsunami, Darfur had been called the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. But a college professor and author says the Darfur crisis has been mislabeled. She says it should really be called a war.

Professor Sarah Kenyon Lischer says labeling Darfur a humanitarian crisis is a means of covering up what’s really happening there.

She says, "It’s not just a humanitarian crisis; it’s really a war. And that differentiates it from the tsunami. Because by saying this is a humanitarian crisis, governments and the (UN) Security Council dispatch humanitarian aid and thereby say that they have taken action to solve it when really there’s a genocide going on and a civil war."

Professor Lischer says situations that “can only be solved by political or even military action can in fact be worsened by just sending humanitarian aid.” For example, warring parties have stolen humanitarian aid in Darfur.

"Recently, the World Food program has had over a dozen of its trucks hijacked. And the aid that was on those trucks has been stolen. The trucks reportedly have been repainted and used for military purposes by the rebels. And so that’s just a very obvious way that aid can be used for war – when it’s sent in with no protection into a war zone," she says.

In a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, the Sweet Briar College professor wrote that a purely humanitarian approach could worsen the war in three ways. “First,” she says, “it obscures the political and strategic importance of refugee populations as potentially destabilizing forces. Second, a humanitarian response empowers militants and fuels a war economy.”

And third, she says, without protection, aid workers become “pawns in the conflict.” In recent months, the humanitarian groups Save the Children and Doctors Without Borders have had workers killed by landmines and gunmen.

"All because they’re sent in as the only representatives of the outside world into a war zone – not into a zone that is generally peaceful but is suffering from an earthquake or a mudslide or something like that," she says.

Professor Lischer calls on the international community to give greater support to African Union troops in Darfur - troops she describes as having a weak mandate to observe atrocities instead of stopping them. Also, she urges the UN Security Council to adopt tough measures to help stop the genocide and other crimes against humanity in Darfur. Current response, she says, has been “paltry.”

She’s also concerned that the Asian earthquake and tsunami will draw needed attention away from the crisis in western Sudan.

"And that’s generally the pattern that happens. And not to say that the situation in Asia doesn’t deserve a huge outpouring of attention. But the world’s attention span is generally limited to processing only one or two major disasters at a time," she says.

Professor Lischer is author of the soon to be published book: Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid.” It’s due out in February.