The Seven Excuses of Inaction for Darfur

The following is based on remarks delivered by Dr. Mukesh Kapila, the former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, at a June 16, 2009 panel on “Women in Conflict and the Human Rights Situation in Sudan,” organized by UN Watch as a NGO side event during the 11th session of the UN Human Rights Council, together with the Darfur Peace and Development Center and LICRA. The other panelists were Hillel Neuer, Gibreil Hamid, and Diagne Chanel.

The Seven Excuses of Inaction for Darfur

Dr. Mukesh Kapila

I was wondering what I should speak about in such a gathering where you must know so much. It is pointless to rehearse the continuing agony of Sudan, and of Darfur in particular, and catalogue yet again the endless human rights tragedies that are taking place all over Sudan and in Darfur. So I will discuss a couple of themes.

One that worries me a great deal is the progressive revisionism in Darfuri history. We are beginning to see now, several years into the latest phase of conflict in Darfur, we notice from many commentators that are gaining prominence a sense of trying to “balance the history,” as they call it. And this revisionist view of what has happened in Darfur, and what continues to happen in Darfur, is something that organizations like yours need to be vigilant of.

The Seven Excuses

And I don’t know why this is the case. But what I do know from my own experience as the former UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in 2003 to 2004, when the whole Darfur thing exploded in the consciousness for the first time, in recent times at least, I would say that from the constraints and difficulties that I had, I identified what I call seven excuses why people don’t listen to the writing on the wall.

1. Cynicism

The first one is cynicism-a general feeling that, sure, Sudan has got many troubles, it’s a country in conflict, a country that has always been in conflict, a conflict of many decades, and what do you expect in a place like that? Terrible things are done by people in the heat of conflict, so don’t be surprised if rapes take place, if violence against women takes place, and many other forms of horrible abuses take place. So the first excuse people give is to be cynical, or the first reaction is cynical.

2. Denial

The second reaction is denial. “Surely the situation is not as bad as you make it out to be,” they argue. “You’re exaggerating to gain attention.” And so they try and say, “Prove it.” Numbers and statistics and all that. And ultimately the whole ethos of the apologists is to try and reduce the impact of the message, and even to deny-just as we had the Holocaust deniers of the Second World War and still do, many of them-that what is happening in Darfur is a form of crimes against humanity or genocide, whatever you want to call it. There is that denial school.

3. Prevarication

The third reaction, or excuse people have to do nothing, is prevarication. An argument goes, and I had this given to me many times when I was the head of the UN in Sudan, “You have to be patient, it takes time, these are complicated matters, and in any case it’s best if the people of Sudan, the people of Darfur find their own solution to their own problems.” That’s an awful reaction, a sort of prevarication. “Takes time, be patient, these are complicated matters.”

4. Caution

The fourth excuse that people give is caution. “You know that these are very complicated and difficult issues,” they say. “Sudan is not a small country, it’s got a very complex past, a very complicated political and social dynamic. If we intervene it will only make matters worse; let us think carefully and long before we actually do anything.” So, caution.

5. Distraction

The fifth excuse is distraction: You know, we have many other things to do. There is the Middle East, there is Iraq, there in North Korea, there is Iran, there is Myanmar, there is climate change, there is HIV and AIDS, there are Millenium Development Goals, there are cyclones, there is a financial crisis, all sorts of things. We have many other things to do. Let’s solve the other bigger problems in the world first, solve the other problems which are equally important, and then we’ll get around to you on this particular problem.

6. Buck Passing

The sixth excuse is buck-passing. “Why does it always have to be us?” they say. So you go to London, you go to Washington, you go to the Security Council, you go to Brussels, you go wherever you like, and they say, “But you know, why is it that we always have to deal with these sort of issues? All these other countries, groups-the African Union, the Arab League, this, that, and the other-they should all be doing their part in this. So let them take on the leadership on this and then we will join in.” And that’s the sort of buck-passing that is used.

7. Evasion of Responsibility

And finally there is an evasion of responsibility excuse. “Oh, we have brought this to the attention of the Security Council, the President, the Prime Minister, the Pope, the Commission, the Council, the Committee, the whatever-you-like. And everyone is now kind of exercised by this issue. It’s being discussed at a very high level. So let’s see what they decide.”

So, ladies and gentlemen, my message to you, to UN Watch, to Human Rights Watch, to any other Watches that there are, is that watching is not enough. That actually unless you have some practical ways  to address these seven reasons-cynicism, denial, prevarication, caution, distraction, buck-passing and evasion of responsibility-then I’m afraid we will continue to be a side event, we will continue to be tolerated in the margins.

If we don’t find practical means to address these kinds of obstacles, then I’m afraid that one group will remain at the margins, and one will remain as kind of a pressure group, and it isn’t going to be enough. That’s my first set of observations. So the challenge to you is: What more can we do?

My second set of remarks is about two current events which are not new ones, and are well familiar to you. The first is the debate between human rights and humanitarianism, and the second is the trade-off between peace and justice. They are different debates, but they are also related debates.

False Dichotomy 1: Human Rights vs. Humanitarianism

Let’s go to the human rights and humanitarianism debate. You heard in the last few weeks, months, after the International Criminal Court indictments, a whole army of humanitarians suddenly rose up and started protesting that the process of the International Criminal Court [indicting Sudanese President Al Bashir for genocide] was going to interfere with the provision of humanitarian aid, suffering is going to get worse, and that this whole judicial process is highly controversial and so on-political as some would argue-that it’s all very well, but it’s really anti-humanity, because it’s actually going to stop the humanitarian organizations. That people are suffering, and now the President of Sudan is going to go sulk in the corner and get very nasty, and throw the NGOs out, and people are suffering more, and what have you achieved?

The humanitarians-including some of the leading humanitarian organizations and leaders of the world-are basically castigating those who were going down the route of due judicial process.

Allow me to just reflect on the true nature of humanitarianism, and the linkages between human rights and humanitarianism, and whether or not there must always be a trade-off, and where the line is.

My own take on this is from my own experiences in Darfur and Sudan, and also dealing with these excuses that you heard me mention. Maybe before we in the international community pass judgment on which has higher precedence-humanitarian access or bringing about actions that will indeed protect and promote human rights-why don’t we actually ask the people of Sudan, and especially the people of Darfur, what they would like?

Now, from my vantage, and I don’t know whether we’ve done any surveys or not, but if we haven’t, then organizations, including Darfuri organizations, should do this, and this is to find out exactly what the people of Darfur are willing to sacrifice-and make more sacrifices if it means a solution to the ultimate problems that they face. I’m willing to bet that many of the people in Darfur will say, and they say this to me in the context I have, they’ll say, “You know, we’ve already suffered a great deal. The desert is colored in blood. Millions of our people have suffered and they’re still suffering. Displaced and refugees and so on, traumatized, and the trauma transmits from generation to generation. Are you saying to us that we can simply forget all this simply in the cause of bringing more food aid, a little bit of water, a little bit of that, we can put aside the sacrifices that have been made?”

And I would say to you that probably the people of Darfur are more resilient than those of us who lead soft humanitarian-conscious lives here. And I would suggest that people are prepared to fight for their liberty. Mandela was prepared to be incarcerated for decades in a labor camp in a prison-for what? For the dignity of freedom, for human dignity. Then I suspect that those humanitarians who kind of dilute the global commitment to bringing about a resolution of the underlying causes of the conflict in Darfur, I think they really should ask themselves whether they’re doing a favor or a disfavor to the world.

I ask those humanitarians: What is a true humanitarian? Is a humanitarian simply one who, when someone is suffering, hands out a piece of bread, as an act of charity, or is a true humanitarian one who asks the question, why are the people suffering?

If you go back to the original roots of humanitarianism, the issue of dignity far overrides the issue of charity. And if that’s the case, then it is true that people who want to achieve their rights have to fight for them. I’m not here to make any political statement about fighting in the armed conflict sense of the term, but I do mean fighting for the rights of people all over the world, for their economic and social and cultural rights.

So you see where I stand. I would say that if there’s a debate between the humanitarians or the human-rightists, then it must be the human-rightists that must prevail. Otherwise, the suffering of Darfur will simply go on, and in any case none of the humanitarian organizations-even if you double the access, quadruple the resources, and had a government of Sudan which suddenly turned itself into a humanitarian-minded government-would be able to solve the humanitarian issues of Sudan.

False Dichotomy 2: Justice vs. Peace

My third and final point is on the debate between peace and justice. It’s extraordinary that there are still people in the world-I can’t understand how ignorant-who don’t appear to have learned any lessons from three to four decades of conflict- management around the world. Wherever we go in the world-go back to the wars of Latin America during the seventies, go back to the struggles in Africa or in other parts of the world-we know that peace agreements, if they’re not founded on a foundation of justice, always unravel.

I myself, at the time when I was head of the Humanitarian Conflict Department in the British Government, in the Department for International Development, had a direct involvement in the negotiations and proceedings that went on in Liberia and particularly in Sierra Leone. I don’t know how many peace agreements there were in Sierra Leone-some 16 or 17-and all of them failed, until one could address the issues of accountability and justice.

This does not mean that people have to be locked up in prison, or to be hung or whatever, but rather a process of saying: “I’m sorry, I did wrong, it was my fault, and let us learn lessons, let us make up, let us offer some compensation.” Compensation in the sense that anyone can offer-it’s not money that is the matter here, it is simply the acknowledgement of ill-doing, and the desire to correct that ill-doing and to move on. If we don’t do that, then there is no peace in Sudan, in Darfur, or any other region like that in the world.

This we know from history, from all the examples of every single peace agreement that we can be conscious of over the last years. Not a single peace agreement has ever succeeded unless there has been a foundation addressing the issue of accountability. So I would say to watchers generally that one has to bring these issues together: the human rights issue, the humanitarian issue, the justice issue, and systematically address the obstacles and excuses people give. And to do that in a forensic and decisive manner. Only by doing that in a very targeted manner will we actually make progress against the vast forces and the resources that are aligned together against the cause of peace, justice and human rights in Darfur.

(Transcribed by Abigail Chernick and edited for publication by Hillel Neuer.)

UN Watch