By Rosalind Robson
At the end of last month the UN passed a resolution demanding that the Sudanese government disarm a militia behind a brutal ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region of western Sudan.
They make this demand of the same military-Islamist government which armed, backed and aided the militia in the first place!
The UN resolution promises further action - it does not specify what - if the disarming is not in train by the end of August. The Sudanese government has said it may not be able to comply with the motion. A huge government-backed demonstration against the UN, held in Khartoum on 4 August, implies that the government is not willing to comply. The demonstration may also be a face-saving exercise. But perhaps, in truth, the government may also not be able to disarm the militia.
The roots of the Darfur conflict are in Sudan's colonial past - when the British power favoured a particular elite, and so on - but there are other factors at play.
The Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa communities of Darfur - all non-Arabic speaking - have been targeted by an Arabic-speaking militia. Now more than a million people have fled their homes, up to 50,000 have been killed, and 300,000 are thought to be facing starvation.
Military and militia action in Darfur escalated at the beginning of this year when the government vowed to annihilate the armed opposition in Darfur (the Sudan Liberation Army and Justice and Equality Movement). They stepped up indiscriminate aerial bombardment of the area and set loose the so-called 'janjaweed' 'Arab' militia to raid villages - murdering, pillaging, raping, destroying homes and crops.
Darfur's peoples are very diverse ethnically, linguistically and culturally and there has been much mixing and intermarriage between groups and tribes. Although this conflict has become, and is perceived to be, between 'Arabs' and 'Africans' such distinctions in Darfur have only become important as the conflict has escalated. The conflict was in the first place between nomadic and pastoral groups in the area.
Northern Darfur is home to camel-breeding nomads and the main Arab tribes. In the central and southern areas pastoral tribes live alongside peasants and these groups have regularly clashed, especially when rain is scarce. The clashes have grown more serious as the population has grown and the struggle for water and space has become more intense. Much of the land became desert after a catastrophic drought and famine in 1984-5. But these clashes are nothing compared to government-sponsored ethnic cleansing.
The current Sudanese government came to power through a coup in 1989. The regime is a military-Islamist partnership, headed by Umar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir and the National Islamic Front/National Congress, an organisation in which the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood remains dominant although its one-time ideologue Hassan Abdallah al Turabi was ousted in 1999 and subsequently jailed.
The government has suppressed all opposition. In the mid-90s the government exacerbated conflict over land in Darfur by giving power over land distribution to local chiefs.
In 2001 the government began to encourage 'Arab' militias in Darfur. Some of these men had been involved in a separate 20-year-old conflict between the government/Islamic elite and southern groups, many of whom are Christian or animists.
In 2002 the African tribes of Darfur launched the Darfur Liberation Front (becoming the Sudan Liberation Army in March 2003).
In February 2003 there was a SLA-led uprising in the Jebel Marra mountains in the central-west of Darfur, and this started the latest bloodiest phase of the conflict. Another rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), has many supporters of Hassan al-Turabi.
After a short ceasefire in December 2003 the government escalated its offensive. This most recent offensive has led to the huge refugee crisis. Despite a declaration of victory by the government, and the massive international attention, the militias' filthy work continues.
The countries of the African Union had pledged to send 2,000 'peace-keeping' troops to Sudan, but that initiative has now been postponed. Only 300 have been posted to protect international ceasefire monitors. Press reports say that the African countries to not want to be seen to be "colonial". They may also be hesitant about being drawn into a bloody ethnic conflict with no end in sight. The janjaweed are not going to be disarmed easily. The current Sudanese regime is not disposed to disarm them.
Will the big powers make a military intervention? France has already deployed 200 troops to police Sudan's border with Chad. What other forms of action may be forthcoming - economic sanctions? - against the Sudanese government if it misses the UN deadline? And, after all, this Islamist regime could be described as a potential terrorist threat by anyone's standards, but certainly by those of the 'war on terror'.
Two things stymie immediate intervention. First, until now the US and Sudan have been friendly negotiating partners in efforts to end the war in the south and give stability to that part of Sudan that has oil wealth. Second, no major intervention can happen before the US election is over.
Will a big-power political-military intervention make things worse? Some on the left say categorically that it will. Well, it might well do. We should not forget the disastrous 'peace keeping' actions of the French in Rwanda where the French forces effectively helped the political leaders of the genocide.
On the other hand, would a 'peace keeping force' that backed up a genuine democratic political process or boosted the aid effort, be something to oppose outright, rather than just to refuse political confidence to? Negotiations between Darfur's rebel groups and Bashir's government are scheduled and what that means remains to be seen. They will not discuss democracy for Sudan, or autonomy for the Darfur region. Only one thing is sure - the peoples of Darfur need a huge increase in international aid. And right now. Whatever the big powers do, the labour movement must make its voice heard.