Mia Farrow: We owe them protection

From Monday's Globe and Mail

At 6 a.m. on Aug. 25, Kalma camp, home to 90,000 displaced Darfuris, was surrounded by Sudanese government forces. By 7 a.m., 60 heavily armed military vehicles had entered the camp, shooting and setting straw huts ablaze. Terrified civilians - who had previously fled their burning villages after being attacked by this same government and its proxy killers the janjaweed - hastily armed themselves with sticks, spears and knives. Of course, these were no match for machine guns and automatic weapons. By 9 a.m., the worst of the brutal assault was over. The vehicles rolled out leaving scores dead and more than 100 wounded. Most were women and children. The early-morning time of the attack ensured no aid workers were present as witnesses. Doctors Without Borders did, however, manage to negotiate the transportation of 49 of the most severely wounded to a hospital in the nearby town of Nyala.

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How can such brazen cruelty be inflicted upon our fellow human beings? How is it that a military assault on displaced civilians in a refugee camp creates barely a ripple in the news cycle? How does such outrageous human destruction prompt so little outrage? How is it that those who have been tasked with protecting the world's most vulnerable population have failed - and failed, and then failed yet again - in their central responsibility? What does this say about the United Nations and the powerful member states? How have we come to such a moment?

Such questions can be answered by looking at our response to Darfur's agony over the past six years. Any honest assessment would be as shocking and dispiriting as the assault on Kalma itself. The international response to massive crimes by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his cabal has been simply this: We accommodate and acquiesce, with the contrived hope that these tyrants might grow weary of their task, or that paper agreements can somehow have meaning without a sustained and powerful international commitment backing them.

The Kalma massacre is a part of Khartoum's larger genocidal campaign. Since 2003, 80 to 90 per cent of Darfur's African villages have been destroyed, and more than 2.5 million survivors have fled to squalid camps across Darfur, eastern Chad and the Central African Republic. Hundreds of thousands have died. Khartoum's next goal may well be to shut down camps in Darfur and force people out into the desert where they cannot survive. The homes and fields that once sustained so many of Darfur's people are ashes now, or they have new occupants - Arab tribes from Darfur and as far away as Chad, Niger and Mali.

The message of the Kalma massacre is chillingly clear for Darfuris. But this assault on civilians in full view of the international community raises the question of what the massacre says about the rest of us. The only message we have sent to the Sudanese government is that they can now attack refugee camps and the world will watch and do nothing.

Smoothly, many in the international community lament Darfur's genocide but say that its solutions are beyond the boundaries of national interests and they invoke the concept of "national sovereignty." I contest that statement. The United Nations has, in 2006, clearly stated that the international community, through the United Nations, has the responsibility to "protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

"Responsibility to protect" means the international community must "react" when states are unable or unwilling to protect those living within their borders. The international action can be political, diplomatic, economic or military. The latter should be at the ready in "extreme and exceptional cases," which it defines as "cases of violence which ... shock the conscience of mankind."

The responsibility to protect has redefined the concept of sovereignty by clearly stating that it involves not only the rights of nation states, but the responsibilities of civilian protection they bear. The responsibility to protect marks the end of centuries of inviolate borders and impunity within them. In principle.

The reality is something else. Over my 10 trips to the Darfur region since 2004, I have seen men, women and children fleeing for their lives. In terror they fled their burning homes, in terror they endured the rapes and unthinkable atrocities. In terror and dread they await the next attacks. In terror they have waited for more than five unthinkable years for protection that has not come.

Mia Farrow is an actor, activist and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and a participant in the Dec. 1 Munk Debate on humanitarian intervention (www.munkdebates.com).

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