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African Challenges and Darfur

David's Talk to Oklahoma City University Law School
March 21, 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This talk is intended to offer some insights on our ethical responsibilities to those in other places.  Perhaps I should admit for context that the great grandfather on my mother’s side was a lawyer and judge for many years in Prairie Canada, as was the grandfather on my father’s side—indeed they sat on the same bench for a short period – as is my wife Laura.  In short my family has had some experience with the ethical problems lawyers have faced on one side of the border over a long period.

 I will offer some foreign policy initiatives directly or by implication-hopefully principled ones-that you as thoughtful and probably politically active citizens might wish to consider. Rather than attempt to speak more broadly, I’ll restrict my comments to Africa, which is a vast and diverse continent about which virtually any generalization is usually foolish and insulting. Being recently back from a five week visit to four countries in eastern and northern Africa, however, the peoples of the continent are much on my mind, especially the African residents of  Darfur.

President Woodrow Wilson said fully 90 years ago: “We (Americans) are participants, whether we would or not, in the life of the world. The interests of all nations are our own also. We are partners with the rest. What affects mankind is inevitably our affair as well as the affair of Europe and Asia.” Any American president speaking today would no doubt say essentially the same thing, with “human kind” replacing “mankind” and presumably Africa and Latin America being added to Wilson’s list.  I know that Noam Chomsky for one does not admire Wilson for his own reasons, but he was certainly your most internationalist president to date while in office. I think he is someone Americans, Canadians and other fair-minded people should continue to  respect.


The 880 million residents of Africa should in my judgement be the first priority of any new  foreign policy initiatives adopted by the United States, Canada and other mature democracies for a number of reasons.

Poverty is the continent’s major obstacle in achieving sustainable development. One in two Africans today live daily on less than US$I, with the entire economic output of the continent contributing only about 1.3 per cent of world GDP. The continent’s share of world trade has dropped to half of 1980s levels; its portion of global investment is less than one per cent. Some studies conducted in connection with the 2005 G8 summit indicated that over the past five decades the continent received about a trillion dollars in assistance ( half in aid and the other in debt forgiveness), yet its peoples today appear generally to be worse off in relative terms than during the 1950s.

It is the only region in the world where school enrolment is dropping and it has the highest illiteracy rate on earth. Approximately forty per cent of all Africans–and half of its women–are illiterate. Where else on earth is life expectancy falling except in Africa? All 25 of the nations that rank lowest on the UN human development index are African.

In respect of AIDS, sub-Saharan Africa, while holding only a tenth of the earth’s population, today has more than 70 per cent of its HIV/Aids cases. New ones are starting at the rate of an estimated three million annually. The pandemic is killing, for example, all-important teachers in some countries at a much faster rate than new ones can be trained.

A genuine African renaissance is both necessary and feasible; it will be led by Africans themselves, but the friends abroad of the incredibly diverse peoples there can start helping in some different ways from the past. The renowned development theorist Amartya Sen in his Development as Freedom defines poverty as “capability deprivation”, which the dominant system in a country creates or enforces.  More principled governance “of, by and for the people” is needed in every country on earth, including your own, mine and the 53 countries of Africa.


Here are some new approaches which would appear to offer more value to Africans generally:

1          Governments of nations such as Senegal and Uganda, which are combating AIDS effectively, should be encouraged more determinedly by partner countries. If Uganda, for example, can reduce HIV incidence in its adults from the 30 per cent range in 1992 to 5 per cent in 2002, why should all the friends of the continent--governments, international bodies like the African Union (AU), UN, nongovernmental organizations (NGOS) etc-- not try much harder to persuade other governments and national populations to adopt similar methods at least within their own cultural limits? I know that there have been attempts to do so, but are they really enough given the size of the crisis? Why don’t all those involved use more common sense in combating malaria, TB and other terrible diseases across the continent as well?

2          Africans today continue to export mainly raw materials, such as oil, diamonds and copper, and crops, such as cocoa, vegetables and cut flowers, with a low return on investment. Why not seek ways to add value to such products by, for example, making chocolate bars from cocoa or finished jewellery from raw diamonds so that Africans can increase foreign exchange and reduce foreign debt in their respective countries? .

3          Despite severe problems with drought, soil erosion and desertification (and co-operation funds should be going to help here), Africa still has much good soil, warm sun when northerners are in winter and competitive work forces. Africans should be sending much more food and textile products to our markets, but instead they are the very imports which are the most blocked through our use of small quotas for farm exports from Africa and steep tariffs. We wealthy countries then compound this injustice by giving our own farm producers huge subsidies, amounting overall to almost a billion dollars a day. This is cumulatively more in subsidies each year than the entire economic output of the sub-Saharan region of Africa. The final insult arrives on African doorsteps when Western food surpluses, reaching market at a fraction of their unsubsidized cost, are dumped into Africa, thereby undercutting producers there. What could be more unprincipled?

4          America’s  post-1988 policy of favouring a small selected group of African leaders, based on Washington’s perception of their personal commitment to democracy, human rights and economic reform, did not work out well in practice. Better and much fairer for all donor governments to state transparently what the criteria for assistance will be for say the next three years--with good democratic governance  being the most important -- and then apply them to all  with no exceptions.  If Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, for example, viciously imprisons newly elected MPs from opposing parties, protesting democrats, journalists and human rights workers, as he did following last year’s election, development assistance to his government should be terminated immediately in favour of moving the funds to responsible non-governmental organizations and international bodies operating in Ethiopia. All governments receiving assistance must know the rules; donor countries must apply them without fear or favour. One of the priorities must be the poorest of the poor across Africa, women;   aid conditionality must ensure that all co-operation programs reflect women’s needs.

5          Fifteen African heads of government produced the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) five years ago, committing themselves to democratic principles, good governance and sound economic management, including a peer review mechanism to encourage good practices. Industrialized nations quite reasonably were asked in turn to remove trade barriers aimed at African agricultural products and textiles, to increase development assistance to the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of GDP–I believe that your country and Canada are now two of the worst offenders here, with virtually all other wealthy countries either having specified how they will reach 0.7 by 2015 or having already got there–and to invest more in Africa’s private sector. The goal was to increase economic growth to seven per cent and cut poverty by half by 2015 in the participating countries. There is some doubt over whether those which have completed the first stage of the peer review are receiving the  anticipated assistance from NEPAD partners and in a timely manner. The goal of poverty eradication is not achievable without helping women, who are the majority of the poor and also of those living with HIV/AIDS in Africa.


Probably like some of you, I received recently an email from Don Cheadle, the star of Hotel Rwanda and Crash. In appealing for a donation to the Save Darfur Coalition (, Cheadle makes two important points:

  • “Not since the Rwanda genocide of 1994 has the world seen such a calculated campaign of slaughter, rape, starvation and displacement as is happening right now in Darfur.”
  • “In Darfur, government-backed militias, known collectively as the Janjaweed, are systematically eliminating entire communities and ways of life. Villages are razed, women and girls raped and branded, men and boys murdered, and food and water supplies targeted and destroyed...Hundreds of thousands have already died. Millions more are at risk.”

Nicholas Kristof in his New York Times column this past weekend makes some powerful ones too, including:

  • 32-year-old Idris Ismael described to Kristof  how  his village in Chad was attacked by the janjaweed and he had been separated from his pregnant wife and four young children. Ismael then added these haunting words:”The janjaweed will rape and kill my family, And there’s nothing I can do.”
  • The column quotes Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel referring to victims of the Holocaust: “Let us remember: what hurts the victim the most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.”

 Many of us would like to know  what has happened in Darfur since April, 2003 and  recently in Chad that is not well known in Washington, Ottawa and probably all the capitals of the African Union and Arab League member countries.


A total number of dead probably now well in excess of 400,000.

Professor Eric Reeves of Smith College is asking the key question: “Will this number be allowed to grow to half a million? to 800,000? to one million? Is there some ghastly, unarticulated threshold of human destruction that will finally supersede Khartoum’s assertion of ‘national sovereignty’? (UN Sec Gen Kofi) Annan is not alone in refusing to answer this most urgent question.”  At some point, mobilized finally by shame, we in the international community will have to screw up our political will and stop the killing as we did in Bosnia and Kosovo.


 With the collapse of security in large areas of Darfur, humanitarian operations are no longer able to reach many civilians. Remaining villagers not already in displaced persons camps are now even more vulnerable to Khartoum’s regular soldiers and janjaweed. The UN humanitarian head in the region, Jan Egeland, noted for example that 300,000 persons on the Chad border cannot be reached, with the result that they will “soon get massively increased mortality because there is nothing else but international assistance.” Khartoum is increasing restrictions and harassment on UN and nongovernmental organizations for travel permits, entry/exit visas, custom issues and hiring restrictions,   clearly wanting to get anyone with a camera from “away” out of the region so that it can finish its hideous work.


The continuing mass killing, gang rapes, village burnings and starvation in both Darfur and Chad are motivated by capital “R” racism in Khartoum. It is not, as commonly thought, motivated by religious differences because both Arab and African Darfurians virtually all share the same Muslim faith.

An African professor who visited Darfur quite recently put this bluntly: “The regime in Khartoum does not consider African Darfurians to be human beings.” If so, what could be more contrary to the values of the US, Canada and virtually every other country around this shrunken planet at the start of the 21st century? If you don’t believe the professor, read two excellent recently-published books: Darfur-A Short History of a Long War by Julie Flint and Alex de Waal and The Ambiguous Genocide by Gerard Prunier (Both excellent works are reviewed on my website ( It is very clear that those in power in Khartoum intend to “empty” Darfur of its large non-Arab African population.

Your Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellich, has mischaracterized what has been going on in Darfur since April, 2003, as a “tribal war”, presumably in an attempt to minimize the need for your government and others to intervene. Those who similarly wanted to keep the international community out of Bosnia in the mid-1990s  then spoke of “ancient hatreds” as reason for  continued bystanding . They failed once the American, Canadian and nationals of many other countries realized the real nature of what was happening in Bosnia and later in Kosovo, I believe principle will prevail here too.

Or consider what a son of Darfur (who will not be named because he still has family there) said on behalf of the Darfur Association of Canada at a conference in Ottawa recently, He showed participants photos of his parents’ bombed and shot-up village and what was left of his father’s tiny store, adding that survivors are presently living in a “concentration camp”. He stressed that Africans and Arabs have lived in harmony there for centuries and that many Arabs continue to oppose President Bashir’s campaign to inflame ethnic conflict. He also quoted Bashir as saying publicly of his attacks on up to 3000 African villages across Darfur: “I don’t want (any) wounded” He told us that Bashir’s  government is destroying the refugee camps where it can so that displaced villagers will have no place of refuge at all. Finally, he noted that those who act as police by day gang rape women and girls (as young as 11) by night.


Nicholas Kristof  wrote another eloquent column about the situation last week which concluded: “The present Western policy of playing down genocide and hoping it will peter out has proved to be bankrupt practically as well as morally… ignoring brutality has only magnified it. And it’s just shameful to pretend not to notice the terrified villagers here (in Chad), huddling with their children each night and wondering when they are going to be massacred.”                                              


Last year, the UN Security Council, which, as you’ll know, to date has achieved virtually nothing  to fulfill its UN charter mandate over conflict in situations like Darfur, called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate the Darfur crisis. Secretary General Annan is strongly believed to have provided subsequently a list of 51 persons who will be charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes under the Statute of Rome. In that President al-Bashir has indicated that he’ll never extradite any Sudanese national (presumably including himself) to any foreign court, skeptics are now asking whether the new court is powerless in the case of Sudan.

The respected journalist Mark Lacey wrote after a recent visit to western Sudan: “[Darfur] is a great crime scene. There are assaults and homicides and rapes and larcenies across Darfur, but there is hardly anyone, it seems, seriously trying to solve the crimes”.

In fairness to the ICC, I understand that its chief prosecutor was recently in Sudan and took away more than 100 crates of evidence. As a former prosecutor myself, I empathize with his challenges. But why not release the names of the 51? Why not seek Interpol international warrants for the 51? Such initiatives might just slow down the killings and other atrocities in Darfur until UN peacemakers, presumably supported by bridge building and logistical help from NATO, can finally arrive in Darfur.


Finally, Professor Reeves wrote earlier this year about the Report of Physicians for Human Rights: “In its extensive field work (in Darfur), detailed research, and compelling legal reasoning, the report incinerates any remaining possibility for skepticism on the issue of whether ethnically targeted human destruction amounts to genocide . . . Most tellingly, the report makes clear just how comprehensively the means of living for non-Arabs or African populations has been destroyed”.

Reeves then quoted the report itself: “Physicians for Human Rights has paid particular attention to the internal destruction of land holdings, communities, families, as well as the disruption of all means of sustaining livelihoods and procuring basic necessities. By eliminating access to food, water and medicine, expelling people into inhospitable terrain and then, in many cases, blocking crucial outside assistance, the Government of Sudan and the Janjaweed have created conditions calculated to destroy the non-Arab people in contravention of the [1948 UN] Convention on the Protection and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide”

You’ll perhaps be interested to know that Physicians for Human Rights recommended  that the UN Security Council “immediately authorize a multinational intervention force in Darfur”, three times the size of the present African Union force, and that this force operate “under chapter 7 of the UN Charter” i.e. with peacemaking (not merely peacekeeping) authority”. Why don’t the fair-minded governments now represented on the Council call the bluff of China (which now gets ten per cent of its oil from Sudan), Russia (which sells weapons to Khartoum) and Qatar? An increasing number of observers judge that none of the three would want to be exposed to the entire world as supporting genocidaires in Khartoum.


 One conclusion about all of this seems obvious: “Never again” means nothing in the new century to most of the Darfur bystanders in the greater international community? Did we learn nothing from Armenia, the Holocaust (Auschwitz, Treblinka), Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Kosovo? How could more than sixty nations find the political will to send 60,000 plus peacemakers to Bosnia, Europe, in the mid-90s, but none for the horrific circumstances continuing in Darfur, Africa, today ? In this new century, it seems that our African brothers and sisters are not even to be eligible for Security Council protection. If so, as a Canadian of origin in Sudan asks, are their governments no longer to be full members of the UN?

 The Physicians for Human Rights have it about right. It is certainly a further setback that the African Union last week allowed itself to keep UN peacekeepers out of Darfur for another six months. We are all failing the “Rwanda test”. The catastrophe will thus continue until some peoples and governments with consciences around the world can no longer accept what is going on. I only hope that your government and my own will be among those who finally stop being bystanders.



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