This Is No Humanitarian Crisis - Darfur Is a War

By Lischer, Sarah Kenyon | The Christian Science Monitor, January 3, 2005 | Go to article overview
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This Is No Humanitarian Crisis - Darfur Is a War


Lischer, Sarah Kenyon, The Christian Science Monitor


Forced evacuations and mass rapes; brutal ethnic killings and rampaging militias; oil profits and arms sales. The deadly mix of politics, economics, and insecurity has displaced 1.6 million people and killed tens of thousands in the Darfur region of western Sudan since early 2003. The United Nations recently described Darfur as the "world's worst humanitarian crisis."

This is not a humanitarian crisis. It is a war. Humanitarian assistance, in the absence of political and military engagement, can actually exacerbate the conflict.

The label "humanitarian crisis" conveniently absolves the rest of the world from taking political and military action in Darfur. By providing generous humanitarian assistance, governments and the UN claim to take meaningful action. But genocide cannot be resolved by donating blankets and food to the potential victims.

A purely humanitarian approach can worsen the war in three ways. First, it obscures the political and strategic importance of refugee populations as potentially destabilizing forces. Second, a humanitarian response empowers militants and fuels a war economy. And last, by dispatching aid workers rather than soldiers and politicians, governments increase the security threats faced by charitable organizations.

The crisis has now spread outside Sudan's borders and threatens to ignite a regional conflict. An estimated 200,000 Sudanese refugees have escaped from Darfur across the border into Chad. Policymakers and aid organizations lament the miserable situation of these refugees.

In addition to the human misery they embody, the refugees also have the potential to spread the conflict further. Refugees present a political obstacle to the Sudanese government and a political opportunity to the rebel forces. The mere presence of the refugees represents a potent indictment of the Sudanese regime. In response to the perceived threat, Sudanese forces have raided the refugee camps and nearby Chadian villages. If sufficiently provoked by cross- border attacks, Chad could enter the conflict. An international war will be even harder to resolve and contain than the current civil war.

The UN has broadcast desperate appeals for increased funding for basic necessities - such as tents, food, and medical care. It should also appeal for improved border security to prevent the spread of war.

Humanitarian assistance empowers the combatants when they control aid distribution. The combatants - both the Khartoum government and rebel forces - have used humanitarian assistance as a bargaining chip. The Sudanese Army and police have repeatedly raided camps for internally displaced civilians, brutally dispersing the residents.

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