25 August 2004

Sudan: U.S.: Protests, Arrests Grow Over Sudan's Darfur

Washington — A number of prominent activists were arrested here Wednesday on the steps of the Sudanese embassy protesting the ongoing slaughter in the country's Darfur region and the Bush administration's lack of action in the matter.

At a rally that also highlighted the Aug. 30 United Nations deadline for Sudan's government to rein in murderous militias or face unspecified consequences, the activists join a growing list of protesters arrested in acts of civil disobedience at the embassy in recent days.

Charged Wednesday were Salih Booker, executive director of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Africa Action, Bill Fletcher Jr, president of the group TransAfrica Forum, Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, Rev William G Sinkford, president of the United Universalist Association of Congregations, and actor and activist Danny Glover.

Activist groups and humanitarian organisations have accused the Sudanese government of responsibility for the attacks by militias known as "janjaweed" (men on horseback) and are calling on the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and the African Union to seriously consider deploying peacekeeping forces to the region.

Khartoum has denied it controls the janjaweed, ethnic Arabs who have targeted the region's ethnic Africans in response to a rebel uprising against the government.

"The Government of Sudan is in itself a minority regime that doesn't reflect the majority of Sudanese," said Booker in an interview with IPS. "It's carrying out massive scale war-crimes."

Africa Action is accusing Khartoum of failing to disarm the militias and of neglecting to improve security in Darfur, two requirements of the U.N. Security Council resolution.

Before being arrested, Booker argued that the Security Council could not improve the situation in the region if its demands were not backed by real consequences. "You can't (just) call on the criminal to stop the crime," he said.

Booker demanded that the administration of U.S. President George W Bush commit to a peacekeeping effort in Darfur and put an end to what the United States Congress has labelled "genocide."

Although the groups at the protest demanded a tougher response from the global community against Sudan's actions, Glover was quick to point out that any action Washington takes should be in the context of a multilateral peacekeeping mission or sanctions.

"The U.S. must play a constructive role, but not as a lone ranger," he said.

Earlier this month the 22-member Arab League, which includes Sudan, refused to back the Security Council's deadline and argued for an extension of up to 120 days.

"Sanctions would only result in negative effects for the whole Sudanese people and complicate the crisis in Darfur," said a statement from the League.

"We are here today to say 'don't extend the deadline'," Woods told Wednesday's rally.

Khartoum has said it is sending more police to Darfur and to refugee camps, in compliance with the Security Council resolution.

Visitors to the camps have reported widespread malnourishment, dismal living conditions and rumours from refugees that former janjaweed are now members of the Sudanese guards, assigned to protect the camps.

Estimates of the number of people killed by janjaweed range from 30,000 to over 50,000, while the number of rapes is probably significantly higher, since the Sudanese military and militias cracked down on non-Arab minorities who took up arms against the government in 2003.

The United Nations estimates that more than one million people have fled their homes in Darfur, with as many as 200,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring Chad.

Representatives of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), an organisation dedicated to preventing violent conflict, reported Monday stories of mass graves, mass abductions and countless rapes after visiting refugee camps in Darfur.

The ICG has demanded a tougher international response from African, European and American countries as it becomes clear that Khartoum has failed to make significant changes ahead of the Aug. 30 deadline.

A recent study by the U.S. Department of State concluded that the violence in Darfur was largely based on ethnicity, with Arab soldiers and militias attacking non-Arab villagers.

The clear ethnic basis and magnitude of the violence has led many to label the conflict "genocide," but the Bush administration -- along with the European Union and the United Nations -- has so far refused to refer to it as such. Such a declaration could trigger obligations for nations under international law.

Despite growing support from across the political spectrum, activists believe the administration is unlikely to confront Sudan so close to the November presidential election. "(There is) no political will to call it what it is," said Booker, referring to the administration's refusal to acknowledge the conflict as genocide.

Several speakers were quick to remind the crowd of the world's inadequate response to the genocide in Rwanda one decade ago, where up to one million people were slaughtered.

"We cannot afford more things we need to repent for," said Rev Sinkford before climbing on to the embassy's front steps in an act of civil disobedience.

Demonstrations and arrests at the Sudanese embassy here are becoming an increasingly common event.

To date, three members of the U.S. Congress, a delegation of grandmothers, the two founders of the Ben & Jerry's ice cream company and numerous other activists have been arrested.

The embassy issued a statement on its website Monday announcing it will be closed until further notice.

Those arrested Wednesday were charged with trespassing and unlawful assembly and released later in the afternoon.

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