The Unacknowledged Humanitarian Disaster

By Stephen Gowans

In a speech before the UN General Assembly, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the conflict in Darfur “the greatest humanitarian disaster the world faces today.” (1)

Britain, along with the United States and other Western countries, have been pushing Sudan to accept a beefed up contingent of peacekeepers in Darfur. The new mission, which will operate under UN command, will replace the current African Union mission.

The AU mission represented a compromise between African nations and the West.

“The Americans and Europeans promised…that as long as the Africans deployed in these kinds of situations, (they) would pay for the soldiers and equip them.” (2)

That suited the Sudanese government, which feared the West would use a UN peacekeeping mission to re-colonize Sudan.

But Washington wasn’t pleased. The Bush administration complained of “the pervasive role played by the government of Sudan in Sudan’s petroleum and petrochemical industries,” describing Khartoum’s stewardship of the country’s oil resources as a threat to “U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.” (3)

Western financial support for the AU mission began to dry up. Soon after, Washington started to call for a UN force, arguing that the (underfinanced) AU mission was too small and too underequiped to be effective.

After months of pressure, cajoling and threats from Washington, the UN Security Council finally gave Washington want it wanted. It authorized the deployment of 26,000 soldiers and police to Darfur under UN, not AU, command.

Brown’s describing the conflict in Darfur as “the greatest humanitarian disaster the world faces today” was intended to raise support for the new UN mission.

But is Darfur really the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster?

Not by a long shot. There are many humanitarian disasters, but few are as great as one Brown’s own government shares a large part in creating: Iraq.

“Iraq’s civilians are suffering from a denial of fundamental human rights in the form of chronic poverty, malnutrition, illness, lack of access to basic services, and destruction of homes, vital facilities, and infrastructure, as well as injury and death,” (4) reported Oxfam International just days before Brown declared Darfur the world’s principal humanitarian disaster.

Eight million Iraqis – one-third of the population – “are in urgent need of water, sanitation, food and shelter.” Seven in 10 do not have adequate access to potable water, up from 50 percent in 2003, when US and British forces invaded on fraudulent grounds. More than one-quarter of children are malnourished, up from 19 percent in 2003. (5)

It’s unclear how many people have been displaced by fighting in Darfur. The UN says 686,000. (6) Other estimates reach as high as 2.5 million. While these figures are alarming, they’re not as alarming as the figures for Iraq. Some four million Iraqis have fled their homes since the US and Britain invaded, the greatest refugee crisis in the Middle East ever, topping the Nakbah of 1948 and as great as the refugee crises of WWII Europe.

An estimated 200,000 have died in Darfur, most from malnutrition. But in Iraq, a 2006 Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health study estimated there had been between 426,000 and 794,000 excess civilian deaths since the start of the invasion in 2003. (7) Considering there were 150,000 civilian deaths as a result of the Gulf War, 1.5 million deaths as a result of 13 years of sanctions, and somewhere in the order of 650,000 deaths as a result of the latest Anglo-American war on Iraq, the total death toll reaches as high as 2.3 million.

The US and Britain are the authors of this unacknowledged disaster – a disaster on a greater scale than the one that bedevils Darfur. Who, but the truly naïve, would believe a UN Security Council dominated by the US and Britain can solve – or indeed, is even genuinely interested in solving — the crisis in Darfur?

(1) New York Times, August 1, 2007.
(2) John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, Washington Post, May 12, 2007.
(3) Cited in Nativdad Carrera, “U.S. imperialists increase efforts to recolonize Sudan,” Party for Socialism and Liberation, November 3, 2006.
(4) The Washington Post, July 31, 2007.
(5) The Independent, July 30, 2007.
(6) Guardian, June 23, 2007.
(7) New York Times, October 11, 2006.

3 thoughts on “The Unacknowledged Humanitarian Disaster

  1. Sorry about the mispellings. I did mean the “Hippocratic” Oath of doctors and “undue” faith in UN peacekeepers.

  2. I think the comment above misses the ‘overall’ point of the article. No where does it say, nor imply that Darfur is less important than anywhere else. And it does not imply nothing should be done about Darfur.

    I think the point is to make those of us who do place undo faith in a UN “peacekeeping” force aware that this is no solution. It is also to make us aware that there are propaganda reseasons why many in the US(who may very well be appalled at the sitation in Iraq) are putting more emphasis on Darfur, while thier own government is committing tantamount atrocities in Iraq. That should be thier first priority.

    No where does the article say the civilians dying in Darfur should be ignored. It is very clear in stating that we can not expect the solution for the people of Darfur to come from imperialism and it is disengeuous when the representatives of imperialism prop up “Darfur as ‘the greatest humanitarian disaster the world faces today'”.

    I understand the commentor’s concern that no alternative is being offered. I’m concerned about that too. But i can’t put that on the author, Gowans. The commentor also hasn’t offered an alternative either. Only criticized this article for not providing one, which was written for a whole other objective. Frankly this article has less of an obligation to offer an alternative than the comment does.

    And maybe better than an “alternative” is a solution. Because there IS actually an alternative to a US/UK instigated UN force. It’s not pretty, but the alternative is to not have one; to leave bad enough alone. The alternative is to not increase the harm to Africa in the guise trying to help the people of Darfur.

    One of the reasons the hypocratic oath doctors take begins with “do no harm” is because they know it is NOT always better to do something rather than nothing, if there is a strong probability more harm will be done. Not a very comforting fact. But a fact nonetheless.

  3. While this article does raise good points, just because other people are suffering in the world doesn’t mean Darfur is any less important. Sure a UN force may not be the best thing as the UN does not have a very good track record. But, to compare numbers of deaths/displaced persons is just an absurd way to form an argument. Should more people be doing something about Iraq? Absolutely. I wouldn’t doubt that most people who follow the Darfur issue are pretty appalled with the situation in Iraq. Sure the PM labeled it the “worst humanitarian crisis” but he’s a politician, they say things like that. It is a huge issue, and people should not be dying of malnutrition – in Darfur, Iraq or where ever it may be in the world. The basis of this article is weak, and I would argue it simplifies the issues. The world is complex and has complex problems. We need to consider all of them yes, but one thing is not more or less important than the other. I agree completely, Iraq is a travesty, and people need to get up and voice their concern and make a legitimate effort to bring change. However, that does not mean that the civilians dying in Darfur should be ignored just because the U.S. is not directly responsible for their current situation. So I agree with the concerns of the UN in Darfur, because obviously it is impossible to believe that the US/UK governments are genuinely interested in ending human suffering. What is the alternative? Instead of writing articles such at these, let us continue to write articles (better thought out ones) and perhaps ones that propose think about or propose the alternatives.

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