Western activism on Darfur could hamper solution

INTERNATIONAL DRIVE: France is bringing the US, China and 15 other nations together for a conference today in Paris to discuss atrocities in the region of Sudan

AFP , PARIS

Mon, Jun 25, 2007 - Page 6

The spectacular popular mobilization seeking an end to conflict in Sudan's Darfur region could damage efforts to stop the bloodshed at a time when real progress might be within reach, experts say.

An interpretation of the conflict as one between Arabs and Africans or even between moderates and Islamist extremists has helped mobilize the worldwide campaign, said Alex de Waal of the Social Science Research Council in New York.

"It's easy to take this simplified construct of Arabs and Africans and turn it into something that's meaningful, even though it may not be ethnographically or historically correct," he said.

France brings the US, China and some 15 other nations together for a major conference today in Paris aimed at launching a new international drive to end the atrocities in Darfur.

The conflict in Darfur has pitted a rebel insurgency against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum and its proxy militia known as the janjaweed, whose leader stands accused of war crimes.

200,000 killed

At least 200,000 people have been killed and 2 million driven from their homes in Darfur since 2003, the UN said.

Khartoum, however, has always disputed those figures are too high.

The simplification of the conflict in the media and by pressure groups has helped the Darfur issue become so prominent in the US, de Waal said.

Lawrence Rossin of the Save Darfur Coalition, an alliance of groups that has been stridently pressing for international intervention in Sudan, says the US mobilization over Darfur is the biggest such activism there "since the campaign against the Vietnam war, especially among students."

The university activism ranges from appeals to block investment in Sudan to a video game devised by a student which places the player in the position of a refugee from the conflict.

"We have a million militants and 180 member organizations," said Rossin, a former US ambassador, who notes that he has been aided by Hollywood stars such as George Clooney and Mia Farrow.

But de Waal denounced the oversimplification of the conflict that has been made in order to draw in the wider public.

"A lot of the `African' groups have defected to join the government and a lot of the `Arab' groups have defected to join the rebels," he said.

The belligerents on both sides are black and Muslim, with Islamists present in both groups, he said.

Experts say that the government in Khartoum instrumentalized antagonism caused by desertification to pit traditional farmers against nomadic herders, from which came most of the janjaweed militia who are accused of the worst atrocities.

`Changed hugely'

"In the case of Darfur, where the situation is not only complicated but has changed hugely in the last three years, that simplification can be very problematic," de Waal said.

"The statements that genocide and massacres are still continuing is another ... and they're not, the predictions that unless urgent action is taken hundreds of thousands of people will die is another simplification," he said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who has said that resolving the Darfur crisis will be one of his priorities, wrote in Le Monde newspaper last December of "Arab militias chasing black populations, fundamentalist Muslims trying to impose Shariah law on moderate Muslims."

"Darfur is still burning," Jacky Mamou, the president of Urgence Darfour, a coalition of rights groups in France, wrote in a recent book that carried Kouchner's Le Monde statement.

"The forced exodus of populations from Darfur is continuing," he said.

"We're no longer in the situation we were in in 2004 when there were 10,000 deaths a month, but we are in a very bad situation which cannot last," he said.

Former president of Doctors Without Borders Rony Brauman said that "giving a misleading vision of the situation will lead to totally inappropriate propositions for a resolution" of the conflict.

"What is at stake today is not to send in an intervention force because there is no space for intervention, it is rather to incite the belligerents to regroup, to reorganize and to begin discussions," he said.

Pressure

Sudan has bowed to months of pressure and agreed to the deployment of peacekeepers in Darfur under the UN and the African Union.

But Khartoum is boycotting today's Paris conference, angry that it was not consulted during preparations for the meeting and arguing that the French initiative will unnecessarily duplicate efforts by the UN and the African Union.

The African Union is also staying away, skeptical about the meeting's purpose and miffed at being kept out of the planning.