On Our Watch

Mukesh Kapila

Kapila

A medical doctor and former British diplomat, Mukesh Kapila was the U.N. resident humanitarian coordinator in Sudan from 2003 until 2004, when he was recalled. He details here the evidence of genocide that he saw early on in Darfur and how he alerted the Sudanese government, U.N. leaders and foreign ministries around the world, to little avail. He finally decided to go public, at the cost, he says, of his career in the mainstream of the United Nations. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted June 11, 2007.

Tell me how you first learned of these terrible things that were beginning to happen in Sudan.

When I first arrived in Sudan, ... we knew there was insecurity taking place in Darfur. We heard reports, but then the whole vast country was in conflict, particularly in relation to the South. We had no international observers of our own in Darfur, so it took us a little bit of time to understand that what was going on in Darfur was not just yet the latest skirmish of instability in this vast country, but that this was something very special. ...

Stories started trickling out of Darfur from about the middle of 2003. ... We had the first tricklings of displaced people coming to Khartoum, at that time not so much going to Chad but more toward the east. And we had our own local staff giving us reports.

Then one day I was sitting in my office in Khartoum, and a noise outside came, and my assistant said that someone was wanting to see me. So I asked them to come in, and this was a young woman, in her late 20s perhaps, who had trekked all the way from Darfur. And she sat in my office, and she told me her personal story of how not only had she herself been multiply raped but also that her sisters and her family had also been maltreated in that way, and that this had actually been done by soldiers and people dressed in military and paramilitary uniforms.

She went on to then also describe how ... the small village that she was living in, small community, had been completed razed to the ground. So it made me realize not only that there was a campaign going on, but it was actually being orchestrated by the Sudanese authorities -- or at least with their consent at that particular time -- and that the nature of the violence being inflicted on civilian population was often extreme, including vast rape. ...

So this was the first indication that this was something other than just a war going on here?

Yeah. ... Immediately after that, we started getting more stories. Populations were displaced. Then visitors ... gave us repeated stories of flying over Darfur, as I did myself, and seeing villages completely burnt, smoke rising. Not necessarily all villages -- you would have two or three villages that were smoldering, and next there would be a village that was completely normal. So it made one realize that this was a targeted attempt at particular segments of the community. ...

And then as ... we were able to analyze who was being displaced and where the reports were coming out [of], it was quite clear that it was an orchestrated attempt against the people of African origin, and this was being perpetrated by people who were of Arab origin. That's why I was forced to the conclusion that this was ethnic cleansing. ...

Subsequently, [the] genocidal proportions became clear, but that was really toward late 2003 that we began to realize this is more than just ethnic cleansing; it was actually genocide that was being committed.

... Give me some sense of what happened personally to you when you began to realize what you're dealing with.

Well, a range of mixed feelings really. Firstly, for me, this was my very first big job in the international community. I was the head of the biggest United Nations country program in the world. ... I wanted to do a job that would bring real results. I was very excited about that job because one of the reasons I had agreed to take it on when the secretary-general [Kofi Annan] had asked me to was because there was this prospect of the peace between the North and South. ...

In parallel to that, ... developing an understanding of what was going on in Darfur, I could not help but remember what I had witnessed in the former Yugoslavia around Srebrenica. ... I had been to Bosnia and had seen some of the aftereffects of Srebrenica but also been in Rwanda within hours of the liberation of Kigali and been in Goma on the day that the actual mass exodus took place. ... I could smell the dead bodies in Rwanda, which was still fresh when I had got to them.

I had also been to Cambodia as part of my work as special adviser to the late Sergio Vieira de Mello, the high commissioner for human rights, and been to other places as well. And I had resolved at those times that if ever I was in a position of responsibility, this would not happen on my patch, and yet it was beginning to happen on my patch. ...

And so what happened?

... My first track was to go down the route of systematically making the international community, through the proper channels, aware of what was going on, starting off, of course, by making representations to the Sudan government itself. ... I was listened to very, very politely, but we did not, of course, get anywhere at all.

Then I embarked on track two of my approach, which was to actually speak to the international community, starting with the ambassadors in Khartoum. They, of course, knew more than me because they had access to intelligence and other information that we in the United Nations didn't have. And they confirmed that my fears were not only justified, but things far worse than I'd realized were actually happening that they were aware of. So I realized that the powerful governments of the world were actually quite aware of what was happening in Darfur.

And of course the diplomatic community in Sudan, in Khartoum, were very sympathetic, ... but clearly the situation in Darfur continued to deteriorate. The trickle of displaced became a modest flood, and the flood became a torrent. Then the numbers started going into Chad. So ... we realized that this was no longer just a domestic Sudan matter. ...

So then I embarked on my third stage of attempts, which was to make personal visits to the powerful capitals. I came to my own government in London. I came to Washington, D.C; I had meetings at the National Security Council in the White House and various places. I actually went to Oslo, because Oslo, Norway, along with the U.K. and the U.S., was part of the troika for the North-South peace agreement. I went to Brussels; I went to Rome; I went to many places.

Who personally did you meet with at the State Department?

Senior officials. In some of the countries I visited, I met at the ministerial level ... and other places at the very senior official level. Everywhere I went in Europe and North America, what I was told was that yes, we are aware of what is going on these places. Indeed, in some places I was even shown photographic evidence. ...

But apart from in Washington, D.C., everywhere else I was told that ... now was not the time to make a noise because the North-South peace process was at a very critical stage, and the expectation was that as soon as the North-South peace agreement was signed, we would have a framework for bringing peace to the other part of the country, and then the problem of Darfur would be taken care of.

And I said to everyone, because of course I had met John Garang, the [late Sudan People's Liberation Army] leader, several times, and John Garang had said to me personally that he was delaying signing the North-South peace agreement because he was concerned that the situation in Darfur would then become his responsibility when he became part of the government of unity in Khartoum. ...

When I spoke to my friendly contacts in the Sudan government in Khartoum, they told me that yes, they were also delaying the North-South peace agreement because they wanted to -- and I quote -- "have a lasting solution in Darfur" before they signed the North-South peace agreement and the international community forced them to stop."

And when I heard a phrase like "lasting solution," it of course reminded me of the Holocaust and the "Final Solution" and all those things. And then, allied with the stories that were going on, it was clear that there was genocidal intent being perpetrated by the government in Khartoum. ...

... Give me an example of a conversation you might have had at this time. ...

Well, one conversation in a particular European foreign ministry ran something like this: "Don't be impatient, Mukesh. This is something that will be sorted out in time. We have to look for sustainable solutions, not just knee-jerk reactions. We have to make sure we don't make the situation worse. And we have to ensure that the North-South peace agreement is not imperiled in the process," to which my reaction is: "People are dying in the tens of thousands. People have been murdered and raped. ... And you are not going to have your sustainable long-term solution for the Sudan if what is going on in Darfur is not stopped."

Excuses were ranging from "Why does it have to be us?" through to "It's not as bad as this" through to "We will discuss this matter in this council, that parliament and get back" through to "We have to do much more on providing humanitarian aid"; in other words, turning the whole thing into a humanitarian problem or seeking humanitarian solutions to what were essentially political problems.

In some other cases I think it was simply the fear that if it was escalated into an international, Security Council-driven response, it would impose obligations on countries that they would then have to contribute to that, were they sanctions or troops or whatever.

So virtually everywhere, they were sort of from cynicism to skepticism through to disbelief through to actually the opposite -- "We know exactly what's going on, but actually, what do you expect? This is a country where nasty things happen, and there's wars going on everywhere" -- through to, indeed, even I was accused in one place of attention seeking, that this was actually a publicity stunt.

For you?

Yeah, for me, and I was trying to get money for our aid programs. Or it was trying to whip up emotion. In fact, senior people in the Department of Political Affairs in the United Nations Secretariat accused me of being unstable and hysterical; I was losing my judgment. ...

We're now in 2004, when you first informed your bosses at the U.N. What sort of response are you getting from the U.N.?

Basically the response was, the United Nations has a humanitarian role in Sudan; I was resident humanitarian coordinator; ... I was told to get on with my job. And clearly I wasn't getting enough humanitarian aid to the refugees and displaced; therefore I was actually not being very good at my job, ... conveniently ignoring all the political and other obstructions that the Sudan government was playing. ...

The second thing in relation to that was that basically the United Nations had contracted out the peace process in the North-South to the troika countries, ... and the Department of Political Affairs in the United Nations Secretariat in New York simply did not want to know and simply did not want to get engaged in this particular process. ...

... So ultimately what were you feeling at this point?

At the end of February, beginning of March, I was summoned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Khartoum, and they said that we could resume aid operations in Darfur, because what had happened between December 2003 and around February 2004 was that the international presence had been withdrawn. There had been threats against the security of our staff, and I had been obliged to issue instructions to withdraw our staff, including local staff. ... And of course we had made repeated representations to Sudan government to allow resumption of operations at the beginning of 2004. But they said, "Not yet, not yet, not yet." ...

We went back in again toward the end of February, beginning of March, I believe. And there, of course, we then had a firsthand account of what had happened between December 2003 and February 2004, which [was] basically devastation on a massive scale. By then the number of displaced and refugees had grown into the hundreds of thousands -- in fact, into millions if you take the total displacement into account. ...

So then I felt I had enough smoking-gun evidence to allow me to do the only thing that I could possibly do, having failed miserably in my political and diplomatic efforts against all the powers of the world: ... I spoke to the world media.

And what response did you then get from your bosses at the U.N.?

... The reaction from my bosses was silence; no one said anything at all. ... But the reaction was, in terms of the media, electrifying. Within six to 12 hours this was all over the world, and by the time New York woke up -- because this was done from Nairobi -- basically there was no going back, really.

What was gratifying was that within a few weeks, ... we had the first presidential statement from the Security Council. Within three months we had the first Security Council resolution. And this was when I had been told, literally only a month or so before, that there would be no Security Council decision. ...

So actually ... it is the fastest ever compared to Rwanda or Yugoslavia or anywhere else. Ironic. But I consider that a failure because of course the job had been done. ... A mass murder was more or less over, and people who had been displaced were displaced. And it was just too late.

And it's gone on for four years.

Yes. I think the root causes, if you like, have still to be addressed, which is the basic grievances of people. And of course I think also that it cannot be resolved unless there is accountability.

That is why -- and I argued for this very strongly, and people laughed at me at that time in 2004 -- I said, "If we can set up tribunals for Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, ... and we could do this in Rwanda and all the rest of it, why could not we have some judicial accountability for what was going on in Sudan, in Darfur?" And people laughed at that particular time. ...

Here one should give credit to the United States eternally that they did not obstruct -- despite the U.S. government's position on the International Criminal Court [ICC], because it's been opposed to that -- it did not obstruct the setting up of an International Criminal Court mandate for investigating what was going on in Darfur.

And I don't think we will have resolution of this conflict in Darfur until at least there is some justice done. ...

And I want to come to the justice, but the truth is we haven't even had a reasonable response to it from the U.N. and their powers, who are still arguing about whether a hybrid force can go in, what the numbers would be, what it would do. The very latest is sometime next year.

[The] peace enforcement approach would have been difficult under any circumstances. The lesson from peace operations around the world is that, apart from having the right mandate, you need sufficient resources, and there wasn't a willingness to deploy those sufficient resources. And of course without the consent of the Sudan government, it makes the job even harder.

But then, other measures could have been taken. For example, I think if financial and economic sanctions had been taken against individuals who we know are behind this ... several months or years ago, then I think maybe we might have seen greater pressure being applied. ...

But even that is not the answer. Wars are caused by individuals, and those individuals profit from them. And striking and hurting those individuals who are the cause of perpetrating these things is where pressure and leverage has to be applied.

Now, you argue that had that sort of pressure been applied earlier, it might have stopped this. Explain your argument there for me.

I have absolutely no doubt -- and this is going to be my lasting regret to my dying day -- that if we had intervened in late 2003 and early 2004, ... even though many bad things would have continued to happen, the worst might have been reduced a bit. ... That to me is a failure of the United Nations leadership. It is a failure of the permanent members of the Security Council who must bear prime responsibility, along with the United Nations, for the failure in Sudan. If you have a Security Council and ... if they cannot deal with these particular issues, then we have to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this Security Council? ...

And who should we hold to account? ...

Well, let me start with myself. ... I left after a year when I would have been expected to have been there for longer, and I would have liked to have done much more. In not being able to prevent the worst of what happened in Darfur, I consider I failed. ... Then going on from that, I consider that those people who were in the seniormost positions in governments and in the United Nations political secretariat have to take personal accountability for their failure to act. ...

The extraordinary thing about the Darfur crisis is that it is the first genocide in history, I think, ... that not only did we fail miserably, despite all the resources and technologies and policies at our disposal, but that we had the satisfaction of documenting every single step of the way. In other words, not only did we fail, but we beautifully recorded our failure, and we beautifully recorded the act of failing. Extraordinary. Extraordinary failure.

The other extraordinary thing about all this is that not a single person of importance anywhere -- in any foreign ministry of powerful countries or in the echelons of the United Nations system -- lost their jobs as a consequence of this. Where is the personal accountability? ...

So what are we to do then? I mean, what are the citizens of the world to expect? What can be done to stop this?

... Two or three things need to happen. Firstly, this doctrine of personal accountability has to be brought forward. ... Unless we can track those people who make decisions and hold them accountable for the personal advice and personal decisions they make, we're not going to have personal accountability, and we will see no particular change. ...

The second thing that I think needs to happen is that we need some kind of system where there is an automaticity of response. The problem is we have too much discretion given to making judgments: Is this ethnic cleansing? Is this genocide? Is the situation bad enough to intervene? How bad does it have to get before you intervene?

The history of genocide prevention is actually a history of failure, because ... by the time you actually declare something genocide, it has already happened. Therefore, in order to actually have a preventive impact on these things, then one has to have a system of graded responses which is almost automatic in terms of what the international community does. ...

... When the U.N. Commission of Inquiry goes to Darfur, it seems to go out of its way to avoid the word "genocide." ... What is your interpretation of why that would be, or why they didn't call it genocide?

... From my own conversations, ... my understanding was that a significant proportion of the members of the inquiry wanted to call it by its proper name; i.e., a genocide. But I think also that there was a lot of political pressure to not make that final resolution. The political pressure came from governments who might possibly then have to act, because a determination of genocide has with it a responsibility to act; that is in the Genocide Convention and all the things that follow. And also it came from within the high levels of the U.N. Secretariat, probably.

So yes, it was very disappointing. But having said that, the determination of genocidal acts being committed has moved us forward, even though it didn't say genocide had been committed. It's a moot point, really.

Because it did at least explain what was going on?

Yeah, yeah. Certainly the inquiry was quite clear that acts of a genocidal nature had been committed. ...

Now, what did happen to you in Sudan? Why did you leave?

A combination of circumstances. I made myself quite unpopular in the United Nations system because what we were trying to do were reforms of the way the different organizations of the U.N. system worked: different programs, departments, funds and so on. This is all part of the global U.N. reform agenda, and Sudan was a bit of a pilot case. ... This was certainly not very popular among many agencies. Ironically, many of those reforms have now been carried through, both in Sudan and elsewhere, but at that time it was maybe a bit premature. ...

I think the second area was that there was a strong dirty-tricks campaign. Certainly my strong pressure on the Sudan government, including some very corrupt parts of the Sudan government, ... certainly didn't win me any friends from my host government. ...

Then I had very strong security threats against me, which was not surprising, I guess, and [the] combination of those factors made my stay in Sudan quite unviable. I was spent.

How do you feel going public and campaigning on Darfur affected your career?

It basically came to an end in terms of the projected rise at that time when I would have gone on to other senior positions in the U.N. or even more senior positions in the U.N. ... In fact, I was extremely grateful to the World Health Organization, who then took me on as a public health expert and director of one of the units there dealing with emergencies and crises around the world. ... But effectively my international career in the mainstream of the United Nations came to an end.

And how was that made clear to you by the U.N.?

Oh, no, it was never made clear to me. I mean, even to this day it's not made clear to me. I was never sacked, and I was never declared persona non grata by the Sudan government. ... I was withdrawn by the U.N., and I think that was right, considering the circumstances. ...

Privately, I had a lot of positive communications. Senior people in the U.N., colleagues ... sent me warm letters of appreciation. Many of them said, "Thank God, at least someone in the U.N. spoke up." And I have to be grateful, by the way, to Jan Egeland, who was emergency relief coordinator, and his backing all the way through. ... Without him I think I would have been out even earlier.

But I had thousands of e-mails of support. One e-mail -- and this was from a Sudanese who had opened a Hotmail account to send me a quick e-mail and then closed it down, because I could never reply -- and it simply said: "God bless you. We had no voice, and you gave us a voice." And that's all it said. ...

You certainly weren't promoted, Mukesh, for standing up against the first genocide of the 21st century.

No, certainly not. ... I managed to maintain some level of employment and status, and I'm content in that. The most important thing is I sleep well at night, other than my sense of failure.

Having witnessed the last few genocides of the 20th century ... and having presided over the first genocide of the 21st century, it doesn't make you feel good about yourself. So I have to be quite honest about that, and sometimes it's difficult to sleep. But by and large I have no doubt that I did my best, and I would do the same thing again. ...

You said earlier you were less impressed by the "Responsibility to Protect" resolution, which passed in 2005. Why are you so critical of that?

I think the "Responsibility to Protect" is a very good doctrine. I think it is a very convenient and it's a very lucid framework for international action to prevent crimes against humanity and promote peace along the lines that we're talking about.

However, it has no executive element to it. It is still at a level of principles and frameworks. We live in a complex, cruel and nasty world, or at least there are many nasty people that are out there. ... Genocides are not committed by people who manage to just have tipped over from just ordinary murder into mass murder. These are evil deeds perpetrated by evil people. These are very special crimes, and they're not amenable entirely to rational approaches from a Western, liberal point of view.

So my disappointment with the "Responsibility to Protect" so far is, basically, I would like to know how much protection it has brought about. And certainly, even though the "Responsibility to Protect" ideas were prevalent at the time of Darfur, certainly they would not have prevented what went on in Darfur.

It is because we don't have a sharp enough system that has got enough elements built in that allow action to be taking place and sanctions to be put in place. ...

Currently the International Criminal Court is holding two people accountable. ... What's your response to that?

I think that it is good that the International Criminal Court, against all the odds, has managed to get this investigation to a stage where it can launch prosecutions against named individuals, if those individuals can be produced, which of course is a big issue. The International Criminal Court deserves and needs all the support it can get to bring this to a successful conclusion so that justice can be done.

... We seem to be stymied by the idea that sovereignty is a trump card you can play at any time, ... that [President Omar al-]Bashir would have to invite us in to stop the genocide in Darfur. How do you feel about that? How do we get around that?

We get around that by firstly recognizing that these deeds are done by evil people who are not amenable to normal approaches. The only way to deal with evil people is through coercive means, whether it's military or financial or economic to hurt those evil people directly. ... I think the more we simply pursue single tracks of reasonable negotiation and diplomacy, ... the more we give alibis and time for these evil deeds to go to the even greater logical conclusions.

So that's why the determination of genocide or the determination of extreme crimes against humanity are so important at an early enough stage, because it would unleash a whole set of thinking different from the incremental approaches that we normally take when we confront international crises. ...

What is the ultimate lesson you take from your experience?

I have realized, I think, that the issue of personal accountability starts with one's own self. In other words, before one can blame others, try to reform institutions and so on, one has to analyze and understand one's own conduct and learn whatever lessons there are for that.

Allied to that, I've also realized that it is not enough to rely on traditional mechanisms. ... Those of us who come from democratic countries, we have this idea that ultimately the right thing will happen. But I have learned that ultimately the right thing will happen, but only after all the other things have been tried and the cost has been paid in a way.

So I have learned that it is important for citizens, regardless of their official position or whatever, to not be afraid to play their role to create this different world where we are not entirely reliant on cowardly institutions to protect the most important things -- our lives and liberties -- and that countries that have got themselves in that position where they have blind faith in our institutions, they are making a very bad mistake. And some people have paid for that mistake with their lives and liberties.

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posted november 20, 2007

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