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The danger of Sudan repeating Rwanda



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

October 6, 2004

LONDON - Last week, Sudan's minister of state for foreign affairs told a press conference in Khartoum that the Darfur crisis was "a smokescreen" to hoodwink the international community into aiding political opponents who seek to overthrow the government.

I immediately phoned up Olusegun Obasanjo, the president of Nigeria and the current chairman of the African Union. Obasanjo who is hosting a peace conference later this month between the warring parties and Nigeria, along with Rwanda, has sent peace-keepers to Sudan to monitor the conflict. As usual Obasanjo was to the point: "If there is any smokescreen at all it is coming from the Sudanese government".

I asked him if the situation today was very different from the one that preceded the massacres in Rwanda a decade ago when the U.S. and Britain squashed attempts in the Security Council to beef up the tiny UN presence in Rwanda. "I'm sure", he replied, "this time the international community does not want another Rwanda."

So this time it is going to be different. But how long do we have to wait? Since the international community prefers to deploy African troops and there are few of these trained for the task it is going to be, Obasanjo admits, a slow task.

An optimist will say at least something is being done. A year ago it was also a slow business getting Nigerian and Ghanaian troops on the ground in Liberia but, as I saw first hand, once there, with some useful back up help from American soldiers, they did a first class job. Liberia has now had a year of peace. A pessimist would say much killing would have been avoided if the peace-keepers had arrived in Liberia earlier and that 50,000 people have already died in Darfur. Whilst this does not compare with the 800,000 murdered in Rwanda, every day the numbers are climbing.

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I am in the pessimists' camp. I have spent a decade trying to unearth what went wrong in Rwanda and the search has convinced me of only one thing - the big powers only act when press, parliaments and public opinion batter the doors down. We cannot count on the big powers not to finesse the situation again. Although in a remarkable step forward U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has termed the Sudanese situation "genocide", the U.S. is briefing the press that it is Chinese, Russian and Arab resistance that is holding up the Security Council throwing its combined weight into action. Powell doesn't like to admit that the U.S. has used up all its credibility at the UN over Iraq and that, of course, there is a legitimate nervousness about a U.S.-organized "take-over" of another (mainly) Muslim country.

But I don't just blame the Bush Administration for a lack of American credibility. It goes back further than this. I was in the room three years ago when former president Bill Clinton was asked why he didn't act over Rwanda. He replied that for inexplicable reasons the issue was never brought to his desk until it was too late, but that he was determined in the course of researching his memoirs to get to the bottom of why. The memoirs were written and recently published. There is barely a word on Rwanda and certainly no explanation.

And I don't just blame the Americans. The British were equally tight lipped and misleading. And what is worse so was the UN leadership itself. A reading of the meticulous report, "On the Actions which the UN took at the time of the genocide in Rwanda", commissioned by the secretary-general and written by Ingvar Carlsson, the former prime minister of Sweden, reveals that the peacekeeping department (then headed by Kofi Annan) "did not brief the secretary-general" about a key cable warning of what was likely to happen from the UN's force commander in Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire of Canada, and "the Security Council was not informed". Later in the report Carlsson writes, "Several members of the Security Council have complained that the quality of information from the Secretariat was not good enough".

When I asked Carlsson if Annan should have resigned he said diplomatically, "I don't know". But how can Annan really have the credibility to lean hard on China, Russia and the Arabs when he himself was so inept last time round?

I fear for the worst. The resolutions in the Security Council may be a little tougher than they were at the time of the Rwanda crisis but in relation to the speed at which the murders and raping are proceeding in the Sudan real substantive action is still grossly inadequate. In ten years' time will we still be analyzing what went wrong or will we shout now?


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:




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40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

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