You could call it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Almost by accident, Canada has found itself uniquely positioned among the United Nations’ member states to put in motion a multilateral initiative that would end an ongoing genocide in Africa that the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century.
But we’re not doing it, and you could say it’s simply because Canadians aren’t forcing Ottawa to act. But that’s just the short answer.
At least 400,000 tribal people have already died in Sudan’s Darfur region, and perhaps three million people are cowering in refugee camps there. Canada’s strategically pivotal opportunity to stop this slow-motion genocide arises from a fortunate alignment of factors.
We’re a reputable middle power. We have sufficient influence at the UN to build a coalition of partners. We don’t have the baggage that comes with any colonial history in Africa. We already have the advantage of experience in Sudan. And we have the troops to spare: a 1,200-troop task force that can be rapidly deployed without drawing down our forces in Afghanistan.
That’s the way Senator Roméo Dallaire, the humanitarian and retired general, sees it. Dallaire was the UN peacekeeping commander who tried bravely, but in vain, to stop the 1994 Rwanda genocide that ended up in almost a million deaths.
Dallaire argues that Canada also happens to be burdened with a unique responsibility in Darfur: Canada was the principal author of the UN’s “responsibility to protect” doctrine. And that doctrine was adopted specifically for crises of the kind unfolding in Darfur.
Dallaire has emerged as an unlikely leader within a largely spontaneous, grassroots, Canada-wide effort—made up mainly of high-school kids and university students—that has been doing its best to convince Ottawa to take action on Darfur. The effort began more than two years ago, and it took persistent agitation to get the previous Liberal government to take Darfur seriously. But when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took over last January, it was back to square one.
The New Democratic Party routinely voices its support for some kind of peacekeeper-type intervention in Darfur. But elsewhere on the Canadian left—among political activists, the “antiwar” movement, and social-justice advocates—the Darfur issue has failed to establish any real momentum.
Clement Apaak, the 36-year-old founder of Canadian Students for Darfur (www.csfdarfur.net/), has been involved from the beginning. He started mobilizing campus support for a robust Canadian response as soon as it became obvious that the corrupt Islamist regime in Khartoum was arming Janjaweed militias to slaughter Darfur’s civilians.
Apaak has encountered a disturbing indifference to the tragedy in Darfur that involves “some level of racial undertones” in all developed countries. But it’s the indifference within the Canada’s “activist” left, Apaak told me the other day, that is especially galling. It’s a key reason why the effort to mobilize public support for meaningful action on Darfur has failed to gain any real traction.
“Sadly, after two years I don’t see a lot of movement,” Apaak said. “I consider myself centre-left, and I have been very active and vocal on a lot of issues, but I have to admit I have been very disappointed about the blatant silence of the left on this issue.”
It hasn’t been complete silence, of course. Many Canadian trade unionists and ?international-solidarity activists have been paying attention to the Darfur crisis, but in the main, the left has been conspicuously absent in the effort. Apaak blames a knee-jerk anti pathy to the current United States administration, which is widely regarded as being hostile to the regime in Khartoum.
“I think that’s a big mistake,” Apaak said. “The left is being very hypocritical, and they are not willing to see the issue for what it is. It has nothing to do with whether the U.S. is supporting Darfur or not.”¦You cannot let that blind us from doing what is right. The fact is, people are dying and women and girls are being raped.”
Another reason for the left’s general abstention from Darfur activism is an irrational suspicion about the involvement of Jewish organizations in raising public awareness about the Darfur genocide, Apaak said. The Canadian Jewish Congress was a cosponsor of the September 17 “Day for Darfur” rallies across Canada, for instance.
It probably hasn’t helped that Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir is more than happy to exploit delusional theories about sinister Jewish manipulation of international crises. Bashir has explicitly objected to the proposed UN peacekeeping force in Darfur on the grounds that it is really just a cover to “redraw the region”¦in order to protect the Israelis, to guarantee the Israeli security”.
The silence on Canada’s left has also been noticed among the religious leadership of Canada’s Muslims, meanwhile. Mohamed Haroun, president of the Darfur Association of Canada, told Tarek Fatah in a May 3 Globe and Mail article that it’s simply because too many Muslims “do not consider us African Muslims as equals”. Most of the Darfuris who have died in the upheavals in Sudan are Muslims, but they also happen to be black.
“How many more people have to die before we do something?” Apaak asked. “This is about war and peace and death and life. This is a human-rights issue.
“If you can find out why the left has been so silent about this, I would like to know.”