25 June 2004

Better late than never.

The Secretary General's decision to visit therefore averted a brewing storm of criticism with shades of Rwanda, which still haunts Annan, despite a media savvy team that mishandled its aftermath. Therefore, in Southern Sudan, things seem to be going in the same direction as other African catastrophes. Particularly with an announced estimate by a U.S. official that over one million displaced refugees were facing death, public criticism was mainly at a lack of action of the Secretary General, who happens to be an African.

World attention is directed elsewhere as innocent African civilians are being killed regularly in the Congo and Southern Sudan with only token verbal responses by the U.N. leadership and embarrassing impotence by U.N. peacekeepers. Most recently the Congolese mining town of Bukavu was overrun first by dissident troops, then by government soldiers while U.N. "peacekeeping" troops withdrew haphazardly as their Under Secretary General was briefly briefing the Security Council about "difficulties." As Belgian Le Soir pointed out, the first victim in Bukavu was obviously the U.N. reputation. Its observers "could not detect the many premonitory signs" and proved to be "impotent" to stop the take of Bukavu. "It is only to ensure their own protection that the soldiers opened fire and not to protect the civilians." The unexplained withdrawal of MUNUC stunned even its own officers who reportedly received instructions (from whom?!) not to take preventive or protective action towards civilians. The prevailing popular feeling as expressed by a Belgian professor was that "once again the population was abandoned by the U.N. forces, the government, and the international community." According to U.N. Chief Coordinator Jan Egeland, 3.3 million people are out of reach of aid agencies. Similarly, in the Southern Sudan verbal noise through casual media moments were not matched by urgent serious action to deal with a clear humanitarian tragedy of ethnic cleansing proportions. That attitude led the Reverend Gloria Wright-Hammond and Francis Bok to write an op-ed in the Boston Globe saying: "Kofi Annan's action in the face of genocide in Sudan is less than honourable. The U.N. under Annan's leadership has engaged in silence, pitiful hand-wringing and functional complicity." It was sadly noted that recent proposed action by the Security Council to send a mission to Sudan was proposed by the British and reflected the influence of the designated U.S. Representative to the U.N., the Reverend John Danforth who, as his country's envoy, oversaw the arrangement between the government and rebels. When it was announced that Annan may visit Sudan soon "to see for himself" the humanitarian and security situation in Darfur, a former Swedish Deputy Prime Minister Per Ahlmark wrote in Stockholm's leading daily: "Kofi Annan doesn't seem to realize that his fiasco in Rwanda ten years ago makes it all the more important to intervene in Darfur. When will the Secretary General understand that he has to show that he takes the U.N. Convention against genocide seriously?"

This is rough stuff. Maybe too rough given the recent effort by Annan. Why was it timed to coincide with a visit by U.S. Secretary Powell could be debated. It could have been the only way to get the Sudanese government to listen. Yet in African perception, the U.S. Secretary of State seemed to be the one indicating U.N. future action, with the Secretary General as a live witness. Brewing criticism shows how sensitive the issue is, particularly in light of other African catastrophes. More attention to handling them will be valuable to the U.N., its Secretary General, and, of course, to victimized Africans.