Anti-Arab Prejudice, Oil Make the Difference
- The contrast in western attitudes to Darfur and Congo shows how
illiberal our concept of intervention really is
Where anti-Arab prejudice and oil make the difference
Wednesday May 16, 2007
In a remote corner of Africa, millions of civilians have been
slaughtered in a conflict fuelled by an almost genocidal ferocity that
has no end in sight. Victims have been targeted because of their
ethnicity and entire ethnic groups destroyed - but the outside world
has turned its back, doing little to save people from the wrath of the
various government and rebel militias. You could be forgiven for
thinking that this is a depiction of the Sudanese province of Darfur,
racked by four years of bitter fighting. But it describes the
Democratic Republic of Congo, which has received a fraction of the
media attention devoted to Darfur.
The UN estimates that 3 million to 4 million Congolese have been
killed, compared with the estimated 200,000 civilian deaths in Darfur.
A peace deal agreed in December 2002 has never been adhered to, and
atrocities have been particularly well documented in the province of
Kivu - carried out by paramilitary organisations with strong
governmental links. In the last month alone, thousands of civilians
have been killed in heavy fighting between rebel and government forces
vying for control of an area north of Goma, and the UN reckons that
another 50,000 have been made refugees.
How curious, then, that so much more attention has been focused on
Darfur than Congo. There are no pressure groups of any note that draw
attention to the Congolese situation. In the media there is barely a
word. The politicians are silent. Yet if ever there were a case for
the outside world to intervene on humanitarian grounds alone -
"liberal interventionism" - then surely this is it.
The key difference between the two situations lies in the racial and
ethnic composition of the perceived victims and perpetrators. In
Congo, black Africans are killing other black Africans in a way that
is difficult for outsiders to identify with. The turmoil there can in
that sense be regarded as a narrowly African affair.
In Darfur the fighting is portrayed as a war between black Africans,
rightly or wrongly regarded as the victims, and "Arabs", widely
regarded as the perpetrators of the killings. In practice these neat
racial categories are highly indistinct, but it is through such a
prism that the conflict is generally viewed.
It is not hard to imagine why some in the west have found this
perception so alluring, for there are numerous people who want to
portray "the Arabs" in these terms. In the United States and elsewhere
those who have spearheaded the case for foreign intervention in Darfur
are largely the people who regard the Arabs as the root cause of the
Israel-Palestine dispute. From this viewpoint, the events in Darfur
form just one part of a much wider picture of Arab malice and cruelty.
Nor is it any coincidence that the moral frenzy about intervention in
Sudan has coincided with the growing military debacle in Iraq - for as
allied casualties in Iraq have mounted, so has indignation about the
situation in Darfur. It is always easier for a losing side to demonise
an enemy than to blame itself for a glaring military defeat, and the
Darfur situation therefore offers some people a certain sense of
Humanitarian concern among policymakers in Washington is ultimately
self-interested. The United States is willing to impose new sanctions
on the Sudan government if the latter refuses to accept a United
Nations peacekeeping force, but it is no coincidence that Sudan,
unlike Congo, has oil - lots of it - and strong links with China, a
country the US regards as a strategic rival in the struggle for
Africa's natural resources; only last week Amnesty International
reported that Beijing has illicitly supplied Khartoum with large
quantities of arms.
Nor has the bloodshed in Congo ever struck the same powerful chord as
recent events in Somalia, where a new round of bitter fighting has
recently erupted. At the end of last year the US backed an Ethiopian
invasion of Somalia to topple an Islamic regime that the White House
perceived as a possible sponsor of anti-American "terrorists".
The contrasting perceptions of events in Congo and Sudan are
ultimately both cause and effect of particular prejudices. Those who
argue for liberal intervention, to impose "rights, freedom and
democracy", ultimately speak only of their own interests. To view
their role in such altruistic terms always leaves them open to
well-founded accusations of double standards that damage the
international standing of the intervening power and play into the
hands of its enemies.
By seeing foreign conflicts through the prism of their own prejudices,
interventionists also convince themselves that others see the world in
the same terms. This allows them to obscure uncomfortable truths, such
as the nationalist resentment that their interference can provoke.
This was the case with the Washington hawks who once assured us that
the Iraqi people would be "dancing on the rooftops" to welcome the US
invasion force that would be bringing everyone "freedom".
Highly seductive though the rhetoric of liberal interventionism may
be, it is always towards hubris and disaster that it leads its willing
· Roger Howard is the author of What's Wrong with Liberal Interventionism
howard1966 @ btinternet.com
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