James Traub is a writer for The New York Times Magazine and author of The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the U.N. in the Era of American World Power. Here, he discusses the roots of the conflict in Darfur, the role of China and the U.S. in trying to resolve the crisis, and why the U.N. has failed over the last four years to take decisive action. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Sept. 13, 2007.
[Can you explain the distinction between the war in the South of Sudan and the conflict in Darfur?]
... Sudan, like a lot of African countries, has a continual problem between the center and the periphery because the central government's writ often doesn't run very far. It's seen as being in the control of one particular portion -- whether demographically, racially, tribally, whatever -- of a much larger country.
So Sudan has had a series of insurrections for a long time which have divided the ruling party from much of the country. The longest running, the most bloody of them, was one which divided the largely Muslim North from the largely Christian South, so it really kind of divided the country neatly in half.
This went on for 20 years, and it was one of the bloodiest conflicts in the world. Quiet though it was -- nobody paid any attention to it -- it may be that, I think, as many as 2 million people died in the course of this.
One of the reasons why the world reacted so slowly to this new problem in Darfur was twofold. One, part of the reaction was: "Well, this is what happens in Sudan all the time. It's yet another insurrection. It's not out of the ordinary; it's inevitable." Two, after many years, a solution to the North-South problem was finally in sight by ... late 2003, early 2004, when people first started hearing about this new violence in Darfur.
The almost universal reaction in the West was: "Don't tell us about this new thing, which is going to force us to antagonize the government in Khartoum. We are so close to having a North-South agreement that we don't want to do anything to jeopardize that."
Do you think that was a reasonable position to take?
I think it was reasonable but wrong. That is, when I spoke afterward with British and other European diplomats, as well as American diplomats, they all made this point to me. And indeed, since then I've gotten to know some of the U.N. officials who were negotiating that North-South agreement, and they felt that very strongly.
The British House of Commons later commissioned a report on just this question, and the study concluded that Khartoum had very consciously used the fears that the North-South agreement would be disrupted in order to continue prosecuting their war against Darfur without any interference. So, in fact, I think what happened is that Khartoum really played the world for a fool on this one. ...
... When [the former U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Sudan] Mukesh Kapila then starts writing back alarming memos to the U.N., what's happening at the U.N.?
Well, he starts doing this ... really in November of 2003. There is at first just an awareness that there is a humanitarian problem, and so a number of high-ranking U.N. officials, including Kieran Prendergast, then the head of the Department of [Political] Affairs, and others go through Khartoum. They have words with officials in Khartoum, but only to the effect of "You must give humanitarian access to our people." There's no sense at all that there is something unspeakable that's brewing.
So Mukesh's notes back to the U.N. become more and more alarming, and he talks about an unprecedented, or at least let's say the worst humanitarian disaster in the world right now. He talks about the way in which he's being systematically prevented from gaining access to places where he feels terrible things are happening.
Slowly there is an increasing consciousness back in New York that this is not just another one of the endless civil conflicts in Sudan but something much worse. You then start seeing a separating out of point of view on what to do.
The person who is the chief humanitarian coordinator in the U.N. -- his name is Jan Egeland, a Norwegian, a diplomat -- becomes increasingly alarmed and feels that large-scale ethnic cleansing is going on and that the world has to be made aware of this and has to act.
At the same time, political officials in the U.N. -- above all, the Department of Political Affairs, run by Kieran Prendergast, takes a very different view. Their view is we have to be able to negotiate this with the government. They see this as, in fact, part of this much larger phenomenon of the battle between the center and the periphery, compounded by demographic changes, climatic changes and so on, but not something which is out of the ordinary, not something which should be viewed in moral terms, but something which can be handled through ordinary diplomacy. ...
And was it something out of the ordinary, in your view? ...
Yeah. Clearly it was something much, much greater. At some merely typological level you could say this was what had happened in the past. That is, it was not unusual for Khartoum to use a proxy force in order to carry out its battles in a region. Because Darfur had traditionally supplied a fair number of the ... military officers in the army, they were afraid to use their own army, so this proxy army of the Janjaweed presented itself as a great solution. Now, we don't know, even today, what the actual expectations were when the government equipped and unleashed this Janjaweed force.
So one reason why perhaps it's wrong to use the word "genocide" is genocide requires an intention. We don't know if the intention was to wipe out this population. But it certainly seems as if the intention was to ethnically cleanse them, to move them away from where they were. Even if that wasn't the original intention, that's what began happening right away, and the government made no effort to stop it. Indeed, they continued to abet it. So in that sense, it was far worse as a matter of degree from what had happened before.
Whole areas were torched. Villages were obliterated. People were chased across the desert, hundreds of thousands of people set to flight. Is the mortality figure 200,000, 300,000, 400,000? We don't know, but it's enormous. So yes, it was different, and it should have been treated differently, and there was, in fact, two dilatory responses from the U.N. in those initial months. ...
... We talked to Kieran Prendergast, and he denied really ever knowing about how difficult and how politically alarming the situation was in Darfur in 2003, 2004. And he said: "Mukesh Kapila and Jan Egeland may have thought that, but they never brought it to my attention. I never saw those memos."
Right. He said the same thing to me, and I was flabbergasted to hear that. Now, I can't prove that he read something, of course, but what I do know is first, that all of these documents that Mukesh sent were sent to Kieran Prendergast at the Department of Political Affairs. They were sent to the Humanitarian Office. They were sent to the secretary-general's office, so that means that the secretary-general and his chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, knew about them. It means that humanitarian coordinator Jan Egeland knew about them. And it means that Prendergast's own officials, from the level of desk officer on up, knew about them.
I think the critical evidence here [is] where Haile Menkerios, who is the head of the Africa Division in the Department of Political Affairs, said to me: "Yes, of course I read those documents. They were given to me; I read them, but I thought their interpretation was wrong. I understood how horrible the events were, but I thought that [they] could be solved through diplomacy. I thought this was part of an ongoing set of problems in Sudan, so I had a different reaction from the one they had."
Now, it would be remarkable if Menkerios and other officials up and down the Department of Political Affairs were aware of all this and Kieran Prendergast, who is a very talented, deeply engaged and hardworking diplomat, didn't know anything about it. ...
What was the impact of Mukesh Kapila going public in 2004, do you think, at the U.N.?
... The moment Mukesh Kapila said that this has the makings of a possible genocide, that changed the discussion. So several weeks later, when Kofi Annan spoke in Geneva at the meeting of the Human Rights Commission, there was a huge debate inside the U.N. as to what he should say. There was literally back-and-forth between his speechwriters, who wanted to have him say something strong, and Kieran Prendergast in his office, who wanted to soft-pedal it. But he did finally say in the end of the speech -- I think he wound up moving it from the front to the back -- that this might be a situation where a humanitarian intervention was justified. ...
Now, he says in that speech, he makes a threat to Sudan if they won't allow humanitarian access, there will have to be "swift and appropriate action". ... Was there swift and appropriate action?
No. It was all too obvious to the Sudanese that they would be protected in the Security Council of the U.N. It really is a shameful episode. This was exactly 10 years after Rwanda; Rwanda happened in April of 1994. Certainly Kofi Annan was aware of that dread anniversary. Mukesh Kapila was aware of that dread anniversary.
It almost felt as if this terrible event came along to allow the U.N. to show that it understood its role in these humanitarian catastrophes and would act. Rwanda had happened with astonishing speed, so you could almost say that by the time the U.N. had become fully cognizant of the magnitude of the horror, it was too late for them to act. I think that's too easy a justification. But the speed is true.
Darfur was different. It was a slowly unrolling catastrophe. By April of 2004, a lot of the violence had already occurred, but there was more to come. It continued, and so it gave the world a chance to act. In that sense, it was a kind of perfect opportunity to act, and the U.N. failed. And I think the question one has to think about is, where exactly does the culpability for that failure lie?
So let's go there. Why did the U.N. fail, in your estimation?
Here we have to think about what we mean by the words "the U.N." Kofi Annan himself has gotten a lot of criticism for this. He did then; he will in retrospect, I am sure. I don't really think he deserves the criticism. I think he did fail to act in Rwanda. I don't know how much he could have done, but he failed to do what he could have done.
In this case, I don't think it's fair. Could he have spoken up earlier than he did? Perhaps, though he actually began speaking up at the very beginning of 2004, and he found no response. So I think the problem here lies not with the U.N. as an institution but with the member states.
What happened was Jan Egeland, Mukesh Kapila and others were trying to put pressure on the Security Council to raise this issue, and there was no interest in doing so. In March of 2004 Pakistan became the president of the council; that changes every month. The Pakistanis were then, and would remain -- do remain to this day -- staunch in their unwillingness to have any kind of robust action taken against the government in Khartoum. In April, Germany became the new president, and the Germans in fact were willing to act. It was still very difficult even to get it on the agenda of the Security Council, and it was put on the agenda as a kind of last-minute, backhanded item in which Egeland came and briefed the council.
But after he did so, one normally has, if there's not going to be any kind of a resolution, you'll have what's called a "president's statement," which will summarize the feeling of the council. The president's statement was incredibly lukewarm, because Pakistan, Algeria, China, Russia and others were unwilling to criticize the government.
It simply called on all sides to seesaw to these, and that set a tone that would remain for the ensuing years, which was a terribly grudging unwillingness to recognize the magnitude of the action and to act in a way that would be effective.
... Yes. That was June 30. ...
Even getting the council's -- not permission -- let's say their willingness to have him go was an issue. They didn't want to have him go. He felt that by going he would have a chance to dramatize this. He would have the world press there with him. That's one thing a secretary-general does. He goes to places to draw attention to those places because the press will come with him and cover it. ...
That's what he felt he could do, and so he went to Darfur. He went to refugee camps near El Fasher. He then went to Chad and then went to the camps for people who had fled across the border to Zam Zam, this big camp in Chad. And he did indeed help bring attention to it.
He also signed a kind of memorandum of understanding with [Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-]Bashir, which wasn't worth the paper it was written on and is kind of part of the long series of agreements that the government in Khartoum has made which it has then promptly violated.
And you were with him on that trip, and you write about it in your book. Give me your impression of the secretary-general of the U.N. going to these places. He gets dressed down by some tribal leader --
Yeah, you know, it takes a lot of forbearance to be in the position that a secretary-general is in, because, for all of the romance and grandeur and so forth that attaches to this position, he has no real authority. So here he is -- he goes to these camps, and he has to endure these formal meetings with all of the local officials. In this case, he came wanting to say: "Why are you guys doing this? Why are you sending the Janjaweed to do this?"
But no, the local officials came to deliver a long list of grievances, the meaning of which was: "We're not doing anything wrong. It's these rebels who are doing terrible things, and in fact, Mr. Secretary-General, I have prepared for you a big dossier listing all of the terrible atrocities that the rebel forces have committed against these villagers. We haven't; the Janjaweed haven't -- they have."
It was painful for me to watch in that setting, because it is not his nature to get up on his hind legs and roar. It is his nature to try to find common ground. Now, these are not people who cared about common ground. They didn't have any interest in having their better angels summoned.
Annan listened to them with great care, dignity, quietly, patient and so on, and then very gently said, "Well, could I say something?" The guy said, "No, I'm not finished yet," and he kept going. And then Annan finally said, "But isn't it true that the government is acting in concert with the Janjaweed?" "No, it's not true." They basically shouted him down. Annan then found some kind of pleasant way to end the whole thing.
As I say, it was dismaying. Now, it would have been more satisfying if he had barked at them. Would it have been more helpful? I don't know, but that's not his way.
So characterize for me, James, the Sudanese government and their response to the U.N. over the last four years.
Contemptuous. But contemptuous because they know that they have the support they need. That is, why is it that they feel comfortable signing an agreement -- this was again, goes back to July of 2004, so this is early on in this long process -- signing an agreement saying that we will no longer use government planes to bomb villages, and then, on the day Annan is flying out of the country, they use government planes to bomb villages?
Now, Sudan is not such a powerful actor. If they didn't have friends, they wouldn't be able to afford to do that. But they do have friends. So what has enabled Sudan to be as truculent as it has been is knowing that they have either the support, or at least the willingness not to act against them, of neighboring African countries, of Islamic countries generally, and of Russia and China, and above all, of China. That support is critical for them.
Well, China is not a friend only of Sudan. It is a friend of Sudan and of other African countries with whom it has a special relationship. So first, there's a very important mercantile aspect to it. China recognizes that [it] has a bottomless need for resources, and that it's going around the world securing resources. The Chinese apparently are not comfortable just knowing they can buy oil and other precious commodities on the open market; they reach agreements to have guaranteed access to those things.
So China has been developing strong relations with all the oil-producing countries in Africa, of which Sudan is one. It still has quite a small -- it only produces a few hundred thousand barrels a year, but there's certainly scope for growth. China actually has quite a large population in Sudan. It has security officials at oil installations everywhere; it has oil industry officials; it has private companies and so on. It's a big Chinese presence there. It supplies weapons to Sudan as well. So China is Sudan's key supplier. Sudan, for China, is one of a growing network of resource suppliers, so they're not going to do anything to jeopardize that relationship.
In addition to that, China has a deep-seated view, which is rooted in the history of a country which felt vulnerable to outside invasion for centuries, that sovereignty should be inviolable. Now, this puts it on a regular collision course with other member states in the U.N. and with the U.N. as an institution, because one of the fundamental changes in the U.N. over the last I would say decade or so, and certainly in Kofi Annan's time there, has been that the U.N. sees itself not merely as a club of countries advancing the self-interest of those countries, but as an institution designed to protect the interests of the people in those countries sometimes against the government of those countries, the high point of which is the idea that there is a Responsibility to Protect, a responsibility to protect your own citizens, and a responsibility on the part of neighbors in the case of gross violations to actually intervene to protect those citizens.
China actually signed a document in September of 2005 at the U.N. General Assembly saying that yes, it accepted this. But it doesn't really. It accepted it in theory. The fact is that the Chinese think that almost any form of infringement of sovereignty is unacceptable. So I would say in this case, history, ideology and commercial self-interest all converged to give China all the arguments it felt it needed to protect Sudan. ...
You describe in your book at one point, or in one of your writings, the two bêtes noires of the U.N. were China and the U.S. What did you mean by that?
Well, not, of course, on the Sudan, but in general, ... China and the United States are the two great continental powers which both feel, for somewhat different reasons, they don't really need the U.N., can afford to act without the U.N. and can afford a certain amount of causing agita for the rest of the world.
So when people in the U.N. scratch their head and think, how can we solve "blank"?, very often, whatever the problem is, they're thinking, how can we get the United States to go along, or how can we get China to go along? ...
... Is the U.S. trying to put some pressure on China to try and get it to come along with some of these resolutions? ...
Well, you know, the question is always, how much does it matter to you? When foreign ministers meet, they've got a list of things they're going to talk about to each other. Well, where is it on that list? Is it number one? Is it number six? Is it after "Let's have dinner"?
So this really mattered to the United States. And I think most of the NGOs and other outside actors who are involved with this issue will tell you that the United States pushed harder than any of the other countries in order to get action. They deserve some credit for that. President Bush deserves some credit for speaking out on the issue.
But the United States [has] a lot of business with China. So how important is Darfur? It's a misbegotten province on the other side of the world of no strategic importance to us. How much are we willing to jeopardize our relations with China? How much is China willing to jeopardize its relations with us over Darfur?
I think one reason why action has been so slow is that it just isn't important enough to anybody. It's similar to the argument over humanitarian intervention. There are plenty of good arguments why Sudan would not, in fact, be a good place for such an intervention.
But in any case, it was never going to happen, because no head of state was willing to say to citizens of that country, "Your sons and daughters may have to lose their life in order to prevent a calamity in some obscure part of the world of which we know nothing."
Right. Why do you think the U.S. has been as active as it has on Darfur?
Well, it began, actually, with this whole North-South issue. For the Christian community, this civil war has been a big concern for a long time because these are Christians being persecuted by non-Christians. This actually was an issue from the time President Bush came into office. ...
And what role do you think the substantial protest movement has had in the States? ... What impact has that had, do you think, on the U.S. and others?
... While it may have had some impact on the Bush administration, it's pretty marginal. I think much more the question is, how do you have an effect on China? China is the key actor, and public demonstrations of dislike for Chinese policy don't have much impact on China. They don't really care what the American public or British or Canadian or any other public thinks. Doesn't mean they're unreachable; it's just that that's not an instrument that's particularly powerful with them.
Now, we've seen the rise of this campaign, the "Genocide Olympics." Do you think that's had an impact?
Yeah, actually I do. I do. It's hard to know for sure, but the fact is I think it was not long after Steven Spielberg said that he would not work on the Olympic festivities because of Darfur that the Chinese sent a high-level diplomatic delegation to Khartoum. ... They wanted to make it clear that they were putting pressure on the regime, something they had never really done before. So that was quite a remarkable display of Chinese sensitivity.
So they seem vulnerable on the Olympics.
One doesn't know how much. I think there's a real danger with trying to push the Chinese too hard. There's a fierce backbone of nationalism in China. ... If they feel that their vital interests are being threatened by this kind of moral movement, it is as likely to have a bad effect as a good one. ...
Update: On Feb. 12, 2008, filmmaker Steven Spielberg withdrew as artistic advisor to the Beijing Olympics. Activists had pressured him to resign over China's economic and diplomatic support of the Sudanese government. "At this point, my time and energy must be spent not on Olympic ceremonies, but on doing all I can to help bring an end to the unspeakable crimes against humanity that continue to be committed in Darfur," Spielberg said in a statement.
Well, China was never the problem there. ... For the United States, it's a very neuralgic issue.
The problem was, in March of 2005 -- March and April and May ..., the U.S. Congress had called it genocide; the Bush administration had said that was the correct term, and yet they had done nothing. Then there was the opportunity to do something because the Security Council was going to pass a resolution which said that there would be a group of names that would be forwarded to a tribunal, and those people would be liable to be dragged before the tribunal for the commission of war crimes.
The United States suddenly was the obstacle to doing that because it wouldn't accept the International Criminal Court. So then there was a great deal of artful lawyering and negotiating, I think, above all with the French, in such a way that the United States could agree to doing so in the case of Darfur in a way that did not set a precedent for other such cases.
It was grotesque to see the United States try to maneuver around this; that is, that the principle of their opposition to the court was more important for a long time than bringing these guys to book. Finally that became so ludicrous that they had to find a way, I think of, of accepting it.
So do we see this as an important development?
Theoretically I think that it is something how the potential objects of these tribunals violently fight against their jurisdiction. The Sudanese were outraged by this, and I take it their outrage was proportional to their fear. ...
Well, what it amounts to in the end so far is nothing. This idea that there is this responsibility to protect ... -- it was a product originally of the war in Kosovo, where the Security Council was trying to pass a resolution that would justify, that would mandate military force, preventing the loss of it from continuing savage brutalities in Kosovo. [It] failed because the Russians balked at it, and ultimately NATO acted without them.
So this raised the question: Under what circumstances, under what aegis, can international law justify this gross violation of sovereignty? Kofi Annan began talking about this in 1999 and made this kind of the centerpiece of that year and of his speech before the General Assembly in which he said this is something we must do.
[It] caused tremendous outcry. Most of the developing world was against it. He was sharply criticized for doing it. At that same time, in fact, a Canadian group began and paneled a team to think about this, and ultimately produced a report with the title "Responsibility to Protect," which laid out the justification for this.
So this is an idea that was cooking in the world, and when Kofi Annan decided to try for a very ambitious reform of the U.N. in 2004 and 2005, this is always one of the elements that the U.N. must declare itself in favor of this; that this is, in fact, a moral imperative which trumps the right of sovereignty. It did, and it is now part of international laws and something that the U.N. has committed itself to, and all the countries have committed themselves to.
Now, what does it mean? Doesn't mean anything unless there is the political willingness to act. In Darfur there was no such willingness. If there was another Darfur tomorrow, there would still be no such willingness, because unless individual countries are willing in the end to say, "Yes, we believe this is such a profound imperative that we are willing to send troops there, and therefore endanger the lives of young men and women," it won't happen.
Does that mean all these words are meaningless? No, I don't think so. Maybe I'm being naïve. I think you have to first establish these norms in order to hold people to the norms. The norm is not self-executing -- quite the contrary. But you have to be able to hold people to the promise that they've made, and so now the world has made that promise. It is now a long way from this to causing that promise to be made good. That is the work of future years. ...
And how then does the "Responsibility to Protect" get passed in 2005? ...
Because I think few of the countries that passed it actually thought that it would lead to action. Therefore many of the countries that don't really accept it decided it wasn't worth being seen as a bad guy. ...
... I think we've come to now 21 resolutions of the U.N. Security Council on Darfur. ... [The ordinary person is thinking], OK, well, the Security Council has passed a resolution; that's going to be resolved. What happens? Explain to me why it didn't get resolved.
Because the penalties for Sudan are not great enough. That is, a Security Council resolution is not a self-executing document. It may have the force of international law, but it doesn't mean that it's going to gain obedience in the part of its object. ...
So the question with a country like Sudan is either what are the carrots that will persuade them to change their mind, or what are the sticks that will persuade them to change their mind? Now, carrots seem rarely to work with refractory countries. They always seem to be sufficiently bent on the bad things they're doing that there's really not too many benefits you can offer them to change their ways. ... [W]hat Kofi Annan offered to them were the kind of enhanced trade relations that would come from them no longer making themselves an international pariah. It wasn't important enough.
Then the question is, well, OK, what are the threats you can make against them? What are the sanctions you can impose on [them] that will actually make them act? So slowly there has been a tightening of the vise through, for example, travel bans on leading officials, the freezing of the assets of leading officials, the threat of being dragged in front of a war crimes tribunal.
People actually take that quite seriously. The Sudanese fought tooth and nail against that. But as long as China was on their side, I think the Sudanese felt a real sense of impunity. It's only recently that the Chinese have begun, I think, to make some inroads on that sense of impunity that the Khartoum government has. ...
What do you think we should have done? What would have made a difference earlier, do you think?
If we had threatened them earlier, if we had said way back in early 2004: "Here is the sequence of things we are going to do if you don't stop. First we're going to threaten with sanctions, and we're going to give you a chance to comply, and then we're going to impose some kind of sanctions, and then we're going to impose tougher sanctions. And then maybe we'll impose a no-fly zone."
There are many, many things you can do short of actually having military intervention. Should we have been willing to threaten military intervention at that time? Yeah, I think it would have gotten their attention. If you tried to do it now, it would be impossible. The Sudanese have done a very good job of giving the impression that this would be a new version of an American attack against Islam.
And the war has gotten so fragmentary. It used to be there was a real front. There was the government, the Janjaweed against Darfur and the Darfurian rebels. The rebels are fragmented. The government and the Janjaweed are fragmented. It's gone across borders. It's now in Chad, in the Central African Republic. You wouldn't know what to do with an intervention now. ...
How would you describe the Janjaweed?
Janjaweed are, in effect, camel-borne Cossacks. That is to say, they are members of nomadic tribes who get about by camel, who normally are herders, but these are young men who are very happy to be used as warriors. Many of them are bandits in any case, so what they are doing now is becoming government-sanctioned and -controlled bandits. But they are essentially Arab tribesmen.
And as we sit now there are some reports that perhaps they're out of control themselves now. ...
They are actually fighting each other now. This is one of the problems with using this kind of instrument, which is, you can't control them. They are like Cossacks that way. So once you have said to someone, "The rules are gone; go ahead and rape and sack and pillage," well, that's a dynamic that you can't control, and certainly a government as weak as that of Khartoum can't control it. So I think at this point, even if the Sudanese wanted to rein in the Janjaweed, I don't know if they can. ...
So what are these 26,000 troops going to do?
... What any peacekeeping force can do is simply make it militarily possible to have a political solution.
So if those 26,000 troops can sufficiently pacify the countryside, then it becomes more possible for the rebels and the government to sit down and figure out the political solution, the power-sharing solution, which is ultimately a question of the relationship of this province to the central government. Then it will have been very much worthwhile. ...
What have we put in place that can possibly help us next time around, in light of Darfur?
If the critical thing is the ability to credibly threaten the use of military force in the case of genocide, the answer is, we have failed. We have failed because the countries that are the key countries are not willing to act. So then you have to ask whether any of the subsidiary things matter -- for example, the threat of a war crimes tribunal -- and I think that does.
But until you are willing to threaten, credibly threaten, a series of sanctions up to and ultimately including the use of force in the form of humanitarian intervention, you will not be able to get the attention of these profoundly malevolent regimes that are perpetrating these crimes in the first place. ...