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We need a summit for Sudan

After the expulsion of aid agencies, the hell of Darfur will only get worse – unless the rest of the

‘‘Little short of hell on earth” is how Kofi Annan once described the situation in Darfur. Ever since the brutal, Sudanese government-led counter-insurgency began there in 2003, it has been the remarkable work of humanitarian aid agencies that has allowed the 2.7 million people displaced by the conflict some measure of hope, dignity and survival.

On 5 March, the government of Sudan expelled 13 of those aid agencies. As a result, the situation in Darfur is no longer “little short of hell on earth”: for the suffering people of Darfur, hell has well and truly arrived.

On 4 March, the International Criminal Court had announced that it was issuing an arrest warrant for President Omar el-Bashir on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur. Bashir reacted in an all-too-familiar way – with criminal disregard for the lives of his own civilians. Thirteen leading international aid agencies were expelled, including Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam. Between them, these agencies provide more than half of all the aid delivered in northern Sudan.

I was last in Darfur in late 2005. I still remember the desperate plea from a woman I met during a visit to a village that had just been bombed by government planes: “Please stay with us, don’t leave us,” she begged. Back then, I could not have imagined that life in Darfur could get any worse. But I fear that the 2.7 million traumatised and terrorised victims are now more isolated than ever.

The government of Sudan has inflicted the most damaging setback for delivery of aid since the conflict in Darfur began in 2003. The potential human impact of all this is unimaginable but not entirely incalculable.

We know, for example, that the expulsion of the aid agencies threatens to leave more than one million people without water, more than 1.1 million without food and 1.5 million without health care. People without water start to die after five days; children die first, and even if they do survive they remain physically and intellectually damaged for the rest of their lives.

This is happening already. At Kalma camp in south Darfur, home to roughly 90,000 people, water stopped being pumped last Wednesday, and there is no other source – clean or otherwise. As I write this and you read it, people will be dying from thirst. At Kass camp, home to 48,000 people, the main water pumps stopped working with immediate effect on 4 March. Disease will surely spread rapidly as a result, and the suffering will be compounded by the severe reduction in access to medical services.

It is no exaggeration to say that we could soon see a replay of the apocalyptic scenes of 1994, when I visited the refugee camps of Goma. Tens of thousands of Hutu refugees from Rwanda died there of cholera and diarrhoea.

The remaining agencies in Sudan simply cannot fill the gap left by the expulsions. The United Nations cannot fill the gap, either – much of the UN’s work is actually delivered on the ground by the agencies that have been expelled.

So what will more than a million desperate people do? It is likely that they will leave the camps in search of food and water. But there is no protection. Because they have no choice, there will be a large influx of refugees into local towns, which is likely to cause resentment and tension. Competition over resources such as clean water will aggravate an already shaky security situation across Darfur, which has seen renewed fighting and 50,000 people displaced in the past month. Many Darfuris may also cross the border into neighbouring Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world and already home to 250,000 refugees from Sudan. Some aid groups are already preparing for 100,000 extra arrivals, putting immense stress on their already limited capacity to help people.

The European Union has expressed grave concern about the situation and called on the Sudanese government urgently to reconsider its decision to expel the agencies. But over the years, the EU has issued countless statements of “concern” on Darfur and it continues to underestimate the intransigence of the government in Khartoum. Not surprisingly, that government draws its own conclusions about how serious the international community is about Darfur and acts accordingly.

It is vital that the EU works together with its international partners to step up diplomatic efforts to convince the Sudanese government to let the aid agencies resume their work. As a major donor to Sudan, the EU should convene an emergency summit to ensure that donors and key regional players work on getting help to those in need. Appointing a high-level humanitarian envoy to travel to Sudan, as President Obama has done, is also essential.

The African Union and the Arab League must consider whether to remain silent about actions in which innocent Darfuri people already living in squalid camps have their lifeline cut. Whatever the mood about the ICC in Africa and the Arab world, that is surely an argument that should be taken elsewhere. Is using human life as a bargaining chip in a battle with the ICC what innocent people deserve? The African Union and the Arab League must surely make it clear to Sudan that its callous actions are not acceptable.

On 16 March, Bashir announced that all foreign aid agencies will be expelled from Sudan by the end of the year. If he is testing the water, we must not dither, but be unequivocal in our condemnation. Unless the international community places urgent, concerted and serious pressure on Sudan, there is a real risk that Darfur will be closed to the world. We will not even know the extent of the humanitarian catastrophe until it is just too late.

Glenys Kinnock MEP (Wales) is Labour spokeswoman for international development in the European Parliament

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power