OTTAWA—Canada must take stronger action to help end the genocide and deteriorating humanitarian crisis in war-torn Darfur in western Sudan, said activists who held an awareness-raising rally last week.
Students from University of Ottawa (UO) and Carleton University were joined by Sudanese-Canadians and other supporters at a rally on the UO campus, followed by a march to the Embassy of Sudan.
“In the last month [the crisis in Darfur] has gotten a lot worse,” said Jonathan Laski, a UO student and former communications director of STAND Canada (Students Taking Action Now: Darfur).
First there was good news, Mr. Laski said. On March 4 the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, indicting him for war crimes and crimes against humanity—including murder, rape, and torture—committed in Darfur since 2003.
The 65-year-old leader of African’s largest country became the first sitting head of state ever indicted by the ICC.
But because Sudan does not recognize the ICC, Mr. Bashir retaliated by expelling over a dozen of the most experienced international aid agencies from the country.
These humanitarian NGOs had been providing food, water, medicine, healthcare, shelter, and other lifesaving assistance to the many internally displaced people (IDP) in Darfur and other parts of Sudan.
Among the groups were Oxfam, CARE, Save the Children, and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.
“They know how to operate in such a large area with so many people. The number of people the Canadian government and the international community are saying are affected by those 13 groups is 1.1 million people,” said Mr. Laski.
They are among the people “wandering in the deserts of Darfur or displaced in all parts of the globe in an attempt to escape from death at the hands of the Sudanese president,” said Abdel Ghaffar Ahmed who spoke at the rally on behalf of the Sudanese Initiative-Ottawa.
In addition to Darfur, Sudan is struggling with a troubled peace agreement that ended the 22-year 1983 – 2005 north-south civil war. The conflict between the Muslim north and the mostly Christian and animist rebels in the south killed over 2 million people and displaced more than 4 million people.
‘Now the Picture is Darker’
The deadly conflict in Darfur began in 2003 when mostly non-Arab Sudanese rebelled against Mr. Bashir’s Arab regime centred in Khartoum.
The rebel groups accused the regime of neglecting the drought-ridden region facing desertification and overpopulation. They also charged Khartoum with arming the Janjaweed, a militia mainly composed of nomadic Arab tribesmen, against African farmers and other inhabitants in Darfur.
Experts estimate that from 200,000 to 400,000 people have died since the uprising, and that as many as 2.5 to 2.7 million people have been driven from their homes. Meanwhile, the Sudanese government places the death toll at 10,000.
Neither efforts at ceasefires and peace talks nor the deployment of United Nations and African Union peacekeepers in the region have succeeded in stopping the violence.
“Now the picture is darker because within a month five workers had been kidnapped,” said Mr. Ahmed.
On March 12 three aid workers, including Canadian nurse Laura Archer working for MSF, were held hostage for three days by unidentified militia before being released.
Ms. Archer returned to Canada on March 21, but two aid workers with France-based Aide Medicale Internationale were kidnapped on April 4 in Darfur, including one Canadian and one French citizen.
Ransoms were demanded, and Mr. Ahmed, like other observers, sees a link between these kidnappings and Mr. Bashir’s anger and defiance toward the ICC indictment.
Even prior to the indictment, aid workers had been working under increasing insecurity, facing attack by the Sudanese Armed Forces, local militias, rebels, as well as bandits.
The arrival of the rainy season will make things even worse for the people, said Mr. Laski. “In two or three months, the transportation routes will be flooded, and getting new food, shelter, and aid to the IDP camps will become a lot more difficult, take more time, and take more money.”
The camps also face the danger of running out of clean water and the threat of disease such as diarrhea, meningitis, malaria, and cholera.
Need for Canadian, International Decisive Action
Stand Canada and other activists are urging the Canadian government to publicly condemn the government of Sudan and work closely with the international community to bring justice and aid to Darfur.
They want Prime Minister Stephen Harper to publicly state his government’s support for the ICC’s findings and to confirm that it will arrest Mr. Bashir if the opportunity arises and turn him over to the ICC.
Canada should also “appoint a high-level envoy for Sudan to provide constant, timely information on the fate of the Darfuri people and Canadian citizens providing aid in the region.”
Finally, Canada, as co-chair of the Friends of the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), should push for full deployment of this mission, the activists said.
The UNAMID was expected to be operating in full force in 2008 with 26,000 police and military personnel, but Mr. Laski said that to date only about 60 percent of the troops have been deployed.
In addition, Stand Canada is urging the Canadian government to provide more helicopters for the mission and consider supporting creation of a no-fly zone over Darfur.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post in March, former U.S. Air Force chief of staff General Merrill McPeak and Democratization Policy Council senior associate Kurt Bassuener suggested that taking away the Sudanese government’s use of air power to terrorize its population would give the West enough leverage with Khartoum to negotiate entry of a stronger U.N. ground force.
However, imposing control over Sudanese airspace must be a decisive international effort involving NATO and European Union allies, they said.
Mr. Ahmed agreed that “it’s necessary to send the message to the Sudanese government that the international community will not let the situation in Darfur get worse.”
“As a member of the ICC, Canada has an obligation to help the ICC hold Bashir to account, to arrest, so he will be accountable to the charges against him,” he added.
Mr. Laski emphasized the importance of pursuing justice in Darfur and allowing the aid groups to return in a timely fashion.
To do this, “publicity is important. We’re trying to help Canadians understand this situation. When they hear the PM talking about how important the situation is, then a lot more [people] will become engaged,” he said.