Saturday, April 6, is the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, which claimed 800,000 lives in 100 days. In the wake of Rwanda, the world vowed 'never again.' The atrocities occurring for the past five years in Darfur question the world's commitment to tha

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Darfur citizens

Photo courtesy of Yoni Levitan

A DIRE SITUATION NEEDING ATTENTION. The crisis in Darfur, Sudan has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives over the past few years. Tangible support is needed from peacekeeping nations.

This Sunday will mark the 14th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide, an event of systematic murder that saw an estimated 800,000 people die over a mere 100 days.

On March 14, Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire came to Western to talk not only about the horrors he witnessed during his time in Rwanda as head of the United Nations’ Peacekeeping Force, but about the worst humanitarian conflict of the 21st Century " Darfur.

Ever since the conflict first gained international attention in 2003, government action has been sluggish, a fact that can be attributed to a lack of personal connection between Western societies and victims of violence, according to Dallaire.

“[With natural disasters], your instinctive reaction is, you know, ‘that could be me.’ And so you can personalize it,” Dallaire said. But he emphasized the necessity of holding the same mindset when it comes to violent conflict.

Students Taking Action Now: Darfur, a student group created at Western, has spent the last several years bringing Darfur to the forefront of public debate. However, the amount of change overall appears small.

Many blamed this on apathy. Yoni Levitan, executive director of STAND, called it psychic numbing: “Because people can’t wrap their heads around it, they choose to almost ignore it.”

Leah Meidinger, co-divestment vice-president for STAND Western, agreed: “They’re humans like we are and we could be easily living in their situation. It’s just the right thing to do.

“If you saw someone being killed in front of you and you stepped aside and watched, you’re just as guilty as if you had a knife in your own hand,” she explained.

Dallaire urged students to bear witness to the atrocities.

“Gain a personal experience in the field, come back, and let the people look in your eyes and [let them] be convinced by that,” Dallaire emphasized. “It is not just sort of something that you think is worthwhile. It’s something that you’ve committed yourself to,” he concluded.

One of the main difficulties with the conflict in Darfur is the inability to mount a united international response. Nations cannot agree whether the government-sanctioned attacks on civilians truly constitute genocide.

If the UN labeled the displacement and murder in Darfur as genocide it would be forced to live up to the promises it made under the UN Action Plan to Prevent Genocide laid out by former Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2004. This has led to criticism, especially in light of Annan’s statements regarding genocide while at the UN.

“If we are serious about preventing or stopping genocide in the future, we must not be held back by legalistic arguments about whether a particular atrocity meets the definition of genocide or not,” Annan said in his 2004 speech announcing the plan.

Several months after Annan’s announcement, Doctor Jean-Hervé Bradol, president of the French division of Médecins Sans Frontières explained in an interview the use of the term “genocide” can create confusion.

“The situation is severe enough to be described for what it is " a mass repression campaign against civilians,” Bradol said.

“And we should say ‘pro-government militias’ not ‘Arab militias’” Bradol continued. “The social and tribal reality in Sudan is far more complex than such a simplification.”

MSF has not recognized the Darfur conflict as genocide, though it has maintained a heavy involvement in humanitarian efforts, providing health facilities for approximately 500,000 displaced people.

Naomi Sutorius, MSF Canada’s press officer, said, “MSF’s position is that the events taking place in Darfur are of such grave and serious magnitude as to warrant the world’s full attention and reaction, irrespective of whether or not one chooses to put a ‘genocide’ label on it.”

Levitan agreed: “Whether or not it’s genocide, the same number of people have been killed, the same number of villages have been burned.”

Glen Pearson, MP for London North Centre, agreed the use of the word genocide is not important when it comes to action at the individual level.

“If my kids [had] died in Darfur, it wouldn’t have mattered if it was a genocide or not,” Pearson argued.

On his recent visit to Sudan, Levitan met a woman who fled home when the pro-government militia attacked her village.

Her husband was killed and she was forced to leave several of her children behind.

Levitan recalled, “She has almost no way of ever finding out what happened to her children. It’s something that’s going to weigh on her for the rest of her life.”

Although there is risk of dying from starvation or lack of shelter, civilians are constantly fleeing to the south of Sudan where they can at least escape the violent oppression of the Janjaweed militia.

But the already horrendous conditions for internally displaced persons are likely to worsen as the threat of a new clash between the north and south is continually growing.

“They’re going to have nowhere to go really,” Levitan explained. “It’s going to lead to more deaths and more people living in crowded camps in even worst conditions than they are in the moment.”

Pearson and his wife have been volunteering in south Sudan for 10 years and have adopted three kids from the war-torn country.

According to Pearson, groups like STAND can be very persuasive. That’s why he opened his office to the student group this summer for three months, allowing them to use resources not normally available to them.

Pearson said STAND’s efforts are beginning to have an effect in Ottawa. In fact, a new private member’s bill was recently brought forth in parliament asking for the complete divestment from Iran and Sudan.

Levitan thought the motion was a step in the right direction.

“It shows it’s becoming a higher profile issue on Parliament Hill.

“A big piece of the puzzle that has been missing is the people that are in positions of leadership, both in public and private sector,” he explained.

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