X: Samantha Power, Obama and Darfur

X: Samantha Power, Obama and Darfur


Howard Adelman

Between the time Samantha Power (SP) traveled to Darfur in the first half of 2004, the publication of her article in August of that same year and the rally in Boston in 2007, a large number of initiatives were underway in Darfur. When Samantha circled back to the beginning of her piece at the end of her New Yorker article, back to the refugee camps in Chad, she exuded despair while echoing the hopes of the refugees for the arrival of international peacekeepers. In April 2004, a ceasefire had been negotiated in Darfur. The African Union then sent peacekeepers to Darfur, NOT to protect civilians, but to protect the EU monitors that had been sent to the region to monitor the ostensible cease-fire between the rebels in Darfur and the Sudanese government. In the same month that SP published her piece in The New Yorker, August 2004, 150 Rwandan soldiers of the African Mission in Sudan (AMIS) arrived in Darfur.

Within a year, the force grew from an original small contingent to a force of 7,000. However, given that Darfur is the size of France, the inadequate training and equipping of AMIS, the rhetorical cooperation but on the ground non-cooperation of Sudan, the repeated breakdowns in the cease-fire, the repeated schisms that developed among the rebel factions (originally there were two, JEM, the Justice and Equality Movement, and the SLA, the Sudanese Liberation Army, but eventually there were twelve), and the mobility of the Janjawid, this proved to be an impossible task even though countries like Canada tried to help by enhancing AMIS’ equipment and mobility. At the end of 2006, Canada had sent 105 armoured personnel carriers to Darfur when AMIS was to come under UN auspices. For the rebels had turned against AMIS, branding it as an arm of the Sudanese government, and humanitarian convoys started refusing AMIS protection lest they be attacked.

UNAMID, the United Nations Mission in Darfur, was established to take over from AMIS in September 2006, but was not actually deployed until the end of December 2007, after the Boston rally. Sudan each time acceded to African Union and then UN pressure to permit the entry of peacekeepers because an oil embargo was threatened and because of internal pressure from the new autonomous South Sudan within the government to settle the conflict in western Sudan. However, the Sudanese government would no sooner accede to international demands than it undermined its implementation. Thus, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council repeatedly had to renew the mandate of AMIS, first from 1 April 2006 to the end of September. But when the 31 August 2006 UNSC resolution 1706 could not be implemented, the AMIS mandate was extended again, first to the end of 2006, then to July 2007 when the UNSC passed resolution 1769 mandating the deployment of UN peacekeepers, until the end of December 2007 when, at long last, the AU troops were folded into the UN peacekeeping force and 20,000 peacekeepers were deployed.

Between Sudanese stalling tactics, largely by means of arguments over the details of the deployment, the collapsing financial and security situation for AMIS troops and the inability or unwillingness of UN members to pay for the peacekeepers, the UN peacekeeping mission was repeatedly stalled. AMIS had gone beyond its crisis point when 10 AMIS soldiers (7 Nigerians, I Mali soldier, 1 Senegalese and 1 from Botswana) were killed when 1,000 SLA rebels overran an AMIS base in Haskanita on 30 September 2007. Sudan had only agreed to the deployment when the threat of sanctions was removed from the authorizing resolution and the principle of absolute state sovereignty clearly trumped R2P and the right of the international community to intervene without the approval of the nation in which UN troop deployment was to take place. However, finally, peacekeepers had a mandate to protect civilians as well as monitor the arms embargo, protect humanitarian workers and support the implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement.

By the end of 2014 when Sudan insisted on downsizing the force and the removal of the UN heads of both the humanitarian and development UN mission in Sudan, when the UN human rights office in Khartoum had been ordered closed, when reports of mass rape by Khartoum forces, not Janjawid, of 200 women that UNAMID refused to confirm, ostensibly because its “partnership” with the Sudanese government would be further imperiled, the conviction had settled in that the peacekeepers had been ineffective. Last week, in two separate incidents, UN peacekeepers were directly attacked. The Janjawid had not been stopped. The war between rebels and the government continued. The protection of civilians had evidently not improved. And now the attacks against the UN forces that had reached a peak in mid-2013, seemed to be on the verge of escalation once again.

When Samantha acquired influence and then a position of power in the Obama administration, in 2009, why did she not manage to influence Obama to take real action? Why was the civil society constituency she helped grow and raise funds for on the Darfur issue, the sine qua non for Presidential action according to her, not more effective? On 20 July 2012, when she was a prominent fixture in the White House, she spoke at Harvard at a Facing History and Ourselves conference. SP had been a fixture at Facing History and Ourselves conferences going back to at least 2005 and including speaking engagements in LA in March of 2006. Once again in 2012, using the atrocities in Darfur as an example, she insisted on the difference that, “students can make in stopping gross violations of human rights…as an example of creative participation in the face of an ongoing genocide.” She apparently had not changed her views. Yet, the situation had not improved, and, in the opinion of many observers, had grown much worse.

On 27 December 2014, under intense pressure from the government of Sudan, the United Nations planned “to shrink its floundering peacekeeping force in Darfur.” What is the difference between the American position in April of 1994 with respect to Rwanda and Obama’s current position with respect to Darfur, except that ten years had passed and not several weeks, and that Obama cannot offer ignorance as an excuse. The Government of Sudan expelled the UN Resident Coordinator, Ali Al-Za’tari, and UN Development Program Country Director, Yvonne Helle, from Sudan. Samantha complained that, “The decision…damages the Government of Sudan’s credibility with the international community and represents one in a series of actions taken by Khartoum that have frustrated the UN’s ability to meet its humanitarian, development, civilian protection and security objectives in Sudan.”

What actions would follow: “consultations with our UN Security Council colleagues” to raise U.S. “serious concerns” while stressing “the importance of UN peacekeeping and development personnel being able to continue their work unimpeded and without fear” just when the UN was withdrawing part of that UNAMID peacekeeping force and just after reports were received that 200 more women had been raped in the Darfur village of Tabit in spite of the fact that the joint Sudan/AU peacekeeping mission has 16,000 military personnel, with the second-highest budget of all UN peacekeeping forces. The U.S. pays 1.3 billion annually for its costs. Nevertheless, the U.S., through Samantha Power as the spokesperson, simply urged Sudan to reverse its position. After an additional motherhood proposition, the statement concluded: “The United States reaffirms its commitment to working with the UN to try to ensure that all UN missions, agencies and personnel are able to carry out their efforts to serve the people of Sudan.” One could not craft a weaker statement of protest however hard one tried. It deserves an inverted Pulitzer Prize.

A lot of good 7-8 years of the Darfur lobby, the Enough Project, had accomplished. The lobby had its own person in the White House and the President nevertheless was left to exude impotence. Further, while I have heretofore been reluctant to use the term “genocide” and previously preferred ethnic cleansing to describe the situation there, last year I became convinced that key people in the regime, including Gosh and Al-Bashir himself, are now committed to genocide as well as the scorched-earth practices of the last decade, in part, ironically, in reaction to the war crimes and crimes against humanity indictments issued by the ICC. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” as the old English expression goes when the penalties are exactly the same anyway. Besides, with Russian troops occupying eastern Ukraine, the war in Syria, the resurgence of the war in Iraq with the sudden and effective emergence of Islamic State, the problems in Libya and in West Africa, the Ebola crisis, the truly evil regime of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir and its actions against Darfur and Darfurians throughout Sudan has moved off the radar screens. Hence, the minimal publicity given to the massacre perpetuated on the students of Darfur Students Association at the University of Khartoum on 10 March 2014 with tear gas, canister bombs and live ammunition. Two days after, Samantha Power spoke of the lack of protection for civilians in Sudan, but her words never translated into actionable policies. The Doha Document for Darfur Peace (DDDP) has not been exposed for the fraud it clearly is. No moves have been made to arm the rebels, though, admittedly, and much more than in Syria, the rebels have splintered into multiple factions. Once more, three months from now, al-Bashir will be “elected” president of Sudan.

A year before those scheduled elections, Janice Elmore, a former foreign service officer in the American State Department who attended the 2004 ceasefire meeting in N’Djamena and follow-up meetings in Addis Ababa and Abuja, wrote a piece entitled, “Never Again – Until Next Time,” in War on the Rocks published on 17 April 2014. Like Samantha, she noted how the world stood by while the Rwanda genocide forged ahead over 100 days. Unlike Samantha’s illusions, however, Elmore accurately, and presciently, described the realist position of nation-states. “Nations act and react in their perceived national interest, while spending billions of dollars on U.N. peacekeeping missions that benefit participating countries and U.N. officials more than the victims.” Janice did not offer Samantha’s explanation that the only way to get President’s to act was the strong exertion by civil society organizations of enough pressure. Rather, “It was, and is, in our national interest to support a strong reaction, but the argument to do so has at best been relegated to the back pages due to our poor understanding of the conflict and its concomitant issues.”

Accurate knowledge and incisive analysis were key. As she explained the situation, geography, history and culture (moderate versus Islamist) separate Darfur from Khartoum, though Samantha had offered a glancing mention of history in her article. The treatment of Darfur prior to the rebellion was not a matter of benign neglect, as Samantha claimed, but of a deliberate policy of de-Africanization as Samantha herself suggested at a different point in her article. However, African countries have learned a very different lesson that the erroneous one Samantha took from Rwanda and applied willy-nilly to Darfur. As Elmore put it, “Regardless of labels of ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing,’ Western democracies were not particularly interested in getting involved in anything beyond humanitarian assistance and giving advice on living together peacefully, democratic elections, and rule of law — none of which applies to burning homes, dead livestock, raped daughters, and poisoned wells.”

Ocampo has been unable to bring Omar al-Bashir before the International Criminal Court nor the other high officials in the Khartoum regime. The Sudanese government argued that the ICC indictment was the true spoiler of peace. However, the argument that the ICC threatened the peace process seems fatally flawed, not because the indictment exacerbated the violence, which I believe it may have, but because no credible peace process was ever underway. Al-Bashir may have fomented more violence in Darfur and certainly undermined the position of the peacekeepers to at least prove his contention that the ICC indictment would foment more violence.

Last week I watched the 2007 documentary Darfur Now and the terrible news is that so little has changed. Don Cheadle, the Oscar-nominated actor in Hotel Rwanda, Adam Sterling, a waiter from an activist family who helped organize the passage of a California Bill requiring the state to divest itself of funds related to companies doing business in Sudan, a process which simply opened up room for Chinese investments in Sudan and for China to become Sudan’s protector in the UN, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor already discussed, the cheerleading Pablo Recalde, who headed the World Food Program in West Darfur, Ahmed Mohammed Abakar, a former contractor and farmer who ran a 47,000 IDP camp in Sudan, and Hejewa Adam, a Darfurian whose child was beaten to death by Janjawid and who was then a soldier in the Sudanese Liberation, were all featured in that film. From today’s perspective, without the intervention of a powerful state, their efforts seem both inconsequential and irrelevant.

In 2004, Barack Obama said that, “Genocide is underway in Darfur, Sudan. Already, 50,000 African Muslims have been killed and 1.2 million displaced by the Sudanese Government and by Arab Janjaweed militias armed and encouraged by Khartoum…We cannot, in good conscience, stand by and let this genocide continue.” In 2007, when he was campaigning for president, Barack Obama insisted that the United States, as the most powerful nation on earth, had a moral obligation to prevent and stop atrocities. During that campaign, he dubbed the reports of the Bush Administration’s “negotiating a normalization of relations with the Government of Sudan” as “reckless and cynical,” an initiative that “would reward a regime in Khartoum that has a record of failing to live up to its commitments.”

Then, in 2009 when he had become President, Barack promised a “menu of incentives and disincentives” for Sudan, a government that the U.S., and Obama in particular, has repeatedly accused of genocide. The incentives and disincentives did not work. Sudan is in the process of wriggling free of the UN presence. Last year at this time, Mia Farrow, a pro-Darfur activist along with Samantha Power, wrote, “There was a time when Mr. Obama expressed outrage over the mass murder and aerial bombardment of civilians in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Now President Obama has joined that silence.” For Samantha, Power and the Obama Administration, “Never Again” remains just a slogan and R2P a defunct doctrine.