After a decade of Darfur it’s time to stop appeasing Sudan’s criminal cabal

The number of victims continues to rise.

The UK has appeased some extremely dubious leaders of oppressive regimes over the years. Today, as we mark the tenth anniversary of the start of systematic ethnic cleansing, killing, rape and torture of Darfur’s population, it’s fair to say we have the measure of President Bashir. After all, he remains the only sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide. This is a man – and a criminal regime – we should not do business with.

Yet Her Majesty’s Government continues to do so – from providing taxpayers money to train Sudanese military, police and security personnel to hosting trade delegations to boost UK economic links with the country. Just this month the UK participated in the Doha aid conference which aims to reconstruct war-torn Darfur – committing to continue the £25m the UK has provided yearly. Few would deny that Darfuri’s urgently need reconstruction funds and aid. But the Doha process works directly with the Khartoum regime – the same criminal cabal which continues to bomb Darfuri villages, ethnically cleanse civilians with the wrong religion and skin colour, and deny access to international humanitarian agencies.

This is not only an absurd waste of taxpayers’ money – it’s also insulting and totally disrespectful to Bashir’s victims. No one knows the true figure – the UN stopped counting in 2008 – but estimates suggest at least 200,000 people have so far been killed, with more than 2 million displaced. Just this week, renewed government air strikes and fighting between rebel forces and killed dozens and displaced many more. Working with the regime, on reconstruction, business, or human rights, gives it the international legitimacy it desperately craves, re-focusing attention away from the very reason why Darfur – and the rest of the country – needs our help. Bashir and his cronies have systematically destroyed the potential of an entire nation. Under his iron rule, Sudan has become a ruthless police state, extreme Sharia law is violently imposed, and the ruling party has worked consistently towards a unified pure Arab Islamist state. Millions of citizens have been killed, thousands are still in refugee camps across Sudan’s border with its neighbours, and the stability of the entire region continues to be shaken by his warmongering.

In 2006 William Hague, now Foreign Secretary, lamented that: ‘International attempts to stop the government in Khartoum from killing its own people have been thwarted by other countries more interested in pursuing their economic or political advantage than in promoting human rights.’ We aren’t the worst offender – but the UK insists on continuing to engage with the regime despite the fact they have not kept their word on any of the numerous – worthless – peace agreements they have signed.

The Darfur10 campaign – led by charities and NGO’s like Waging Peace – is a stark reminder to the UK and international community, that the conflict is far from over. Until we see real progress towards peace the UK must take a much more robust stance. This means pressuring the UN to finally implement its many resolutions – starting with freezing the finances of those who orchestrated – and profited – from the genocide and imposing travel bans for high-ranking officials. More importantly, no-fly zones would finally put a stop to government's gunships which continue to bomb Darfuri citizens, and an increased, more active peacekeeping force in the region could start to offer civilians protection from government sponsored violence.

Today should be an opportunity to remember the thousands of Darfuri civilians who have suffered because of this conflict. Yet the fact that the number of victims continues to rise ten years after it began is a sad indictment of the entire international community’s continuing appeasement of this abhorrent regime.

 

Two girls in Darfur, who lost their homes to the conflict. Photograph: Getty Images
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times