The Betrayal of Darfur

Our interview with Mukesh Kapila, head of the United Nations mission in Sudan in 2003-2004, about the ongoing violence in Darfur
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April 29, 2013

In 2003, there were few that fully grasped the extent of the atrocities perpetrated in Darfur as a result of the struggle between rebel movements and the Sudanese government. This was due in large part to the willful blindness of many who might have raised awareness of the scope and intensity of the violence. Mukesh Kapila, head of the United Nations mission in Sudan in 2003-2004, refused to ignore the reality on the ground and revealed the tragedy in Darfur to the world. As Professor of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Manchester, Special Representative of the Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity, Chair of Minority Rights Group International, and author of Against a Tide of Evil, Mukesh Kapila continues his advocacy for human rights. We asked Professor Kapila about his decision to go public with what he knew and what, if anything, the world has learned about atrocity prevention since Darfur.

You were the top United Nations official in the Sudan during the Darfur conflict. What did you expect to be able to accomplish in this post and did this match up with reality once you were on the ground? 

I was persuaded to accept the post of UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in March 2003 in the expectation that I would be presiding over the bringing of peace to Africa's longest-running armed conflict in Africa's biggest country at the time – a conflict that had generated the continent's greatest numbers of refugee and displaced. Instead, I found that the political process, the Naivasha talks, still had a long way to go, that the international community was hopelessly divided, and that the UN mission that I was to head was extremely ill-prepared and "unfit for purpose". It all boiled down to a lack of both committed leadership and a unifying strategic vision at that time.

What was the tipping point for you in deciding to take the crimes against humanity being perpetrated in the Sudan to the public? Was there a particular incident or person that compelled you to make a decision from which you knew there could be no going back?

I tried all conventional diplomatic tracks and "good offices" capabilities at my disposal; first, to draw attention to the crimes against humanity that had started to come to my notice in the second half of 2003.  When all my high-level representations failed, I decided to go public through the media. The tipping point was one particular eye witness to atrocities in North Darfur  – who came and told me her own personal story of public mass rape and humiliation. Her personal experience is recalled in my book. I realised that remaining silent was not a moral option for me.   

You have condemned the UN's failure to act in Darfur, similar to its failure to act in Rwanda, as well in other conflicts. Do you see any indication that positive lessons have been learned from these failures and that they are being applied to new and ongoing conflicts in productive ways? If not, what obstacles are preventing change?

No positive lessons have been learned from Darfur;  after 10 years, the violence there continues with a record 3 million plus still refugees and displaced and continued human rights abuses. In fact, Darfur may be called the world's most successful genocide in that it has gone on for a decade (the Rwanda killings lasted 100 days and even the Holocaust happened over 6 years), with relative impunity for the perpetrators. Even worse, similar ethnically directed cleansing operations are happening in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions, committed by the same actors. There are several reasons for the failure to learn and react differently that I will address in my talks during my Canada tour. This includes, principally, the lack of personal accountability of not just the genocidaires but leaders in the UN and international community who stood by and did nothing.  

You have voiced concerns that the principle of "Responsibility to Protect" or R2P is increasingly derided as a "responsibility to procrastinate." What, if anything, could reinvigorate R2P? What would implementing R2P with respect to the conflict in Syria look like?

The vision of R2P is laudable and it has done a lot to put critical issues on the table for worldwide discussion. But, in practical terms, its successes have been very limited and largely in circumstances that have been relatively benign, and successes  attributable to other factors rather than directly due to R2P. I think that the fundamental premises of R2P need to revisited if this concept is not to die in the doldrums as fiddling at the margins and hoping for a change in hearts and minds will not be enough. I regret that I can't see R2P contributing much to the Syria crisis other than drawing attention to the plight of civilians. This is, of course, worth doing but not enough because what is happened there is a proxy war between rival ideologies fed by outside interests. There is no solution unless that ceases, and Syrians find their own internal accommodations.

The title of your book is Against a Tide of Evil. What similarities and differences do you see between your experience and response to that of Romeo Dallaire, former UN force commander in Rwanda and author of Shake Hands with the Devil?

Dallaire is my hero and I learned a lot from his Rwanda frustrations. I learned, in particular, that it is a duty to disobey orders from above when these are immoral and the higher duty of protection of humanity beckons. I also learned that  our global and national public policy institutions are more or less courageous or cowardly depending on who is in charge and whether they are themselves leaders of courage or cowards. As is often said "for evil to flourish, it is only necessary for good people to do nothing.  Dallaire and I  had the same experience of this a decade apart in two different countries.

What conflicts or at-risk situations do you consider to be the greatest threats to global peace and stability today? Should countries put their trust in the UN and UN processes to address these situations, or do you think NATO should be the institution that steps up?

The greatest threat to global peace ad security is greed and selfishness. This manifests itself in many different ways depending on the context, eg. Water and food insecurity, the consequences of climate changes, terrorism born out of disaffection and social exclusion, and the erosion of tolerance and human rights we see in many places, and violence in many forms.  The UN is still the best place to bring people together  to work for the global public good, protect the global commons, and  resolve differences. Unfortunately, it is often ineffective because it is continuously undermined by narrow institutional interests within the UN system and the manipulative self-interests of the member states. But we must not become cynical – the way to restore trust and confidence in our common UN is to correct the democratic deficit in its governance and accountability. The peoples of the world must get closer to and reclaim their United Nations so as to  rebuild the body they deserve (and are prepared to defend and sacrifice for).     

What are the best ways for Canada's political and civil society leaders to contribute to halting and preventing genocide? Is our ability to play a useful role increasing or decreasing?

When I was growing up as a child in India and when I was growing up in my international career from my British base, we had a warm regard for Canada – as a generous and open nation that stood for the highest values of human solidarity. Regrettably, that universal fondness for the country has receded over the years even though my personal Canadian friends remain as esteemed as ever.  Unfortunately, there has also been a diminution of Canada's ability to play a useful role in the world. As an unredeemable friend of Canada, this saddens me. The best way for Canada's political and civil society leaders to contribute to preventing and stopping mass atrocities elsewhere is to return to their core spirit which is a little tattered now.   Please don't become (more) selfish and harsh – among yourselves within your great nation, or in the way you view your relations with other nations.

Mukesh Kapila will be speaking to the CIC's Montreal Branch on May 7, 2013. Click here for more information.