Genocide in the Sudan

Joseph Britt
Thursday, July 14, 2005 1:00 PM

Genocide in the Sudan is being committed by Arabs. What role should Arabs play in stopping it?

Joseph Britt , a writer in Kennesaw, Georgia, was online Thursday, July 14, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss indifference and solidarity in the face of mass violence.

Read Britt's Op-Ed, Arab Genocide, Arab Silence.

A transcript follows.


Brandermill, Va.: What is the "upside" to Arab states of their solidarity with the Sudanese government? Is there some economic or strategic advantage?

Joseph Britt: Hi, Brandermill. Nominal solidarity among Arab states is the default; differences between governments can be expressed privately in vivid language, or in public in veiled language. But Arab solidarity is a concept taken seriously. So is the idea that each country should handle its internal affairs as it sees fit -- an idea one would expect to appeal to a group of nations governed mostly by hereditary monarchs and military dictatorships. Sudan has some oil, and through that a developing connection with the Chinese, both of which appear to have some significance to Egypt in particular. Finally, Sudan's leaders and the people they associate include some violent people. Averting eyes from outrages committed within Sudan by Sudan's government reduces one's risk of becoming a target.

Deference to national sovereignty is not a principle I or most other people object to under normal circumstances. Genocide is not normal, however, and the fact that other Arab states need good relations with Sudan much less than Sudan needs good relations with them adds an element of shameful complicity to their conduct in this matter.


Ann Arbor, Mi.: How did you get interested in Darfur?

Joseph Britt: Darfur stood out for me because, whatever one's views on how a stable, civilized world order should be structured, mass murder on this scale just cannot be part of it. It isn't just that it wrecks regional economies and destroys the lives of many people -- it degrades the whole tenor of international relations. The Arab role -- that is, the role of Arab governments and media outside of Sudan -- caught my attention because it is the obvious piece of this puzzle that is missing.


Washington, D.C.: What is our government doing to filter aid to the right people in Sudan?

Joseph Britt: With respect to the American government's actions on Darfur, there has been quite a lot accomplished recently. Deputy Secretary of State Zoellick deserves a great deal of credit for pressuring Sudan's government to suspend air and logistics support for the janjaweed militia and for helping to negotiate an agreement to settle Sudan's north-south civil war that has been going on for over two decades now. This settlement, if it holds, could help discourage a resumption of combat in Darfur, as the southern rebel leader (and new Vice President in the new Sudanese "unity" government), John Garang, is said to have ties with one of the Darfuri rebel factions. We've provided transport for some of the African peacekeeping force as well.

You asked specifically about aid. The figure I have is between 86 and 90 percent of the aid coming into all of Sudan right now is American. This figure comes from a briefing Zoellick gave at the State Department last week; it includes aid for regions of Sudan other than Darfur, affected by the north-south civil war I mentioned earlier. I don't know the breakdown. It also includes aid already delivered. My understanding is that Canada and European governments have pledged considerably more that has not arrived yet. Perhaps one of our readers has current information on that.


Alexandria, Va. : How does Sudan's oil play into the government's corruption and the genocide? Or does it?

Joseph Britt: It doesn't directly. Sudan does have oil resources, but these are remote from the civilian populations that have been attacked over the last two years in Darfur. Though the Sudanese government has reacted to pressure from the United States and other Western governments, having oil revenues in prospect may well have reduced its responsiveness to international pressure.


Midlothian, Va.: Fahreed Zakaria has written in Newsweek of movement by Arabs to denounce the London bombings and disassociate themselves more aggressively from murder. Might that carry over to the Sudan?

Joseph Britt: I'd like to think so, but I doubt it. The war against civilians in Darfur has been going on for two years now; it has claimed many more victims than all acts of terrorism against Europeans and Americans combined. The fact that it has occurred within the borders of Sudan is one factor; frankly, there is probably a racial element involved as well. The history of Arab conduct toward Africans makes for unpleasant reading.

The truth is, Darfur has not been much discussed in the Arab press as far as I've been able to tell. Terrorism is on the radar screen; Sudan's war against civilians has not been. That needs to change.


Annandale, Va.: How are neighboring countries responding to the massacres?

Joseph Britt: "Neighboring countries" is a relative term in that part of the world because of the distances involved. Rwanda has contributed troops to the African peacekeeping force -- it borders Sudan but is a long way from Darfur. As to Sudan's northern neighbors -- Egypt and Libya -- they have responded essentially as I wrote yesterday. They have backed Khartoum, and their state-controlled media has given the genocide less attention than newspaper in countries thousands of miles away.


Syracuse, N.Y.: Any chance of war crime tribunals against the Sudanese responsible for genocide?

Joseph Britt: No.

That's my opinion. There are others, particularly in Europe, who would not only disagree but insist that war crimes trials in the International Criminal Court are an essential element in the path we take from here. I just don't see trials happening if the Sudanese aren't willing to turn over key officials in their own government. Since they are not facing the US Air Force as Serbia was in 1999, they won't be.


Washington, D.C.: Response to this genocide and humanitarian crisis on the part of religious and humanitarian groups in the United States has been tremendous. The Save Darfur Coalition, which represents over 130 different organizations, is an example of the way that people of different faiths and backgrounds have united on this issue. The member organizations of the Coalition are encouraging the American public to express their concern for the safety of the civilians of Darfur to the Bush administration. There are similar organizations in Britain and in France, but how can this effort expand worldwide?

Joseph Britt: I would settle for it spreading regionally. It isn't so important if people in Vietnam or Uruguay are revolted by atrocities in Darfur and resolved to stop them. It is essential for people in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to feel that way, and do something about it.

Where does it start? Western media would be a good place. Let me confess something -- there are probably about 500 American and European journalists better qualified than I to write on the theme of my Post piece yesterday. They know more than I do; they've followed the issue longer. Look at the New York Times' Nick Kristoff (I hope I'm allowed to mention the competition here :)). He's done some very good reporting on Darfur, and to my knowledge has never written about Arab indifference to the genocide there.

Western media has really fallen down on the job in this respect. I sincerely hope I'm not the last person to discuss this subject.


Boston, Ma/: It is often the women who suffer most in this conflict. Many have been raped and then ostracized, as if the rape was their fault somehow. While a few commendable newspapers have done stories, the plight of these unfortunate and often illiterate women doesn't seem to move the TV media the way runaway (white) brides and missing (white) students in Aruba do. I am not playing the race card here; I am just puzzled by why such a human tragedy seems to evoke so little empathy in the west. Also, what, if anything, can those of us who want to help these women and their children do to improve the quality of their lives?

Joseph Britt: Well, I live in the home state of the runaway bride (Georgia). I would argue that the place to start is to give less attention to stories like that.

Empathy is a tricky thing. It is easier to feel for people like us, and for people near us. I don't really have a good answer for you as far as Americans are concerned. What I would like to see is for people in the Arab countries that have supported Sudan's government answer your question.


San Diego, Ca.: You seem to imply that the US government has done "enough" to stop the genocide and it is up to the Arabs to do more. Shouldn't the US try to do all it can to stop the bloodshed regardless of the Arab response?

Joseph Britt: Well, the US government in my view certainly did not do enough in the 2003-04 period. My impression is that things started to change when Deputy. Secretary of State Zoellick got the go-ahead to try and make something happen.

Honestly, the progress made in the last few months is not just due to American efforts. Frankly, a big reason mortality in Darfur is down is because so many people have already been killed and so much land vacated by Dafuri refugees crossing the border into Chad or fleeing to refugee camps. But this year, American efforts have made real progress. Having said that, one thing we haven't done is call Arab governments on their indifference to genocide by other Arabs -- by a government much closer to theirs than ours is -- against fellow Muslims in their own neighborhood. Our government has been silent on that point, and so have other Western governments. That is a mistake.


Washington, D.C.: Why does it appear that there's been no progress in Sudan? Has the media just been bad at covering the progress? Or has there just not been much?

Joseph Britt: See some of my previous responses. Truthfully, the American media (I cannot speak with authority on European media) have not done that good a job recently. Some newspapers, which I will not name, publish more relevant information about Darfur in their editorials than in their news articles. And of course some key questions about the attitudes of Arab peoples and governments toward genocide in Darfur haven't been asked at all, which as I said earlier is a real failing.


Charlottesville, Va. : Given your claims that the United States officials have worked "feverishly" to help stop the genocide in Darfur, are you suggesting that the United States has done enough?

Joseph Britt: See my earlier response on to a similar question. Whether we do "enough" or not, disasters like Darfur will happen over and over if the United States and a few other Western countries are the only ones who do anything about them.


Brandermill, Va.: Mr. Britt, many times in the US it is public opinion (expressed through demonstrations, etc.)that drives the government to take action. That freedom to demonstrate without government sponsorship isn't available in most Arab countries. Might that be some part of the explanation for this astounding lack of interest in genocide?

Joseph Britt: Frankly I think indifference is a bigger issue than either Arab popular support for Sudan's government -- I doubt most Arabs have given it much thought -- or restrictions against public dissent. Certainly the Arab media coverage suggests that stories that feature Arab victims are bound for Page One by consent of both governments and peoples; stories that don't, don't matter so much, even if the victims are fellow Muslims and perhaps especially if they are Africans.


Northern Virginia: Is there any drug production in Sudan? If so, are narcotraffickers supporting its government?

Joseph Britt: Not that I know of.


Munich, Germany: Are the Western World's (i.e. the U.S.'s and Europe's) hands tied in the Darfur dilemma because of the Iraq crisis? How do you think that a George Bush or a Tony Blair could defuse the situation enough to start a productive dialog in Sudan regarding the Darfur crisis?

Joseph Britt: Certainly the commitment of Anglo-American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan reduces our flexibility in meeting other calls for help. The one thing Arab governments like Egypt's have been vocal about with respect to Darfur is that they don't want "non-African" troops involved -- they won't help ameliorate the crisis or the suffering themselves, and they object to Western forces doing so either. Nice people.


Arlington, Va.: Why is the NAACP and Transafrica silence on this?

Joseph Britt: Ask them. Personally I think they ought to be all over this subject.


Lyme, Ct.: It is my understanding there are a handful of troops attempting to protect millions of people from potential genocide. Isn't this a perfect example where American assistance, to at least see that many do not die, is necessary? The response I get is our troops are already spread too thin. Yet, it is also my understanding that not many troops are needed, and indeed what may be needed is more in terms of supplies and seeing that delivery is provided to those who need it. Again, how may we continue to issue an appeal for people to react now, and not in a few years when a movie comes out that shocks the public into recognition of our inaction?

Joseph Britt: As I suggest upthread, Darfur has gotten the American government's attention as of several months ago. There is evidently a concern about the timing of aid from Europe that has been pledged but not delivered.

It's too late. We should have reacted sooner. And -- I hate to be a broken record about this -- we have no excuse for trying to solve problems in Darfur by ourselves without ever asking publicly why Arab governments are indifferent to it.


Davenport, Iowa.: WE are having a big interfaith Sudan public witness in the Quad Cities in August. We will ask our local media to cover more international affairs. But one of the clergy organizers submitted this question after reading your op/ed piece. Can you help? I have a question that exposes my ignorance. What is the purpose for the Janjaweed and the Sudanese government to attempt to destroy the people of Darfur. If they are Muslim, why are Arab forces murdering them? Is is a political thing--the people oppose the current government? Is it an ethnic thing--the people of that region are ethnically different in some way that seems inferior to the government? Is it simply a greed thing--they have land which those in power want? I've looked for answers and failed to find anything that satisfies me.

Joseph Britt: Basically the Sudanese government reacted to a rebellion of some tribal leaders in one part of Darfur with a massive campaign against the civilian population, using local Arab tribesmen called Janjaweed as foot soldiers and providing them with arms, supplies, transportation and air support. This disaster could not have happened without the Sudanese government willing it. Incidentally, it has reacted to some local disturbances in eastern Sudan near the border with Eritrea in much the same way recently.


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