China and Darfur: the Spielberg factor
Five years ago today, the crisis in Darfur was ignited by a rebel attack. The government responded, backed by janjaweed militia – and now, five years on, an estimated 200,000 people have been killed, and two and a half million have lost their homes. Call it genocide, as the US does, or “the greatest humanitarian disaster the world is facing” as the UN does – whatever you call it, it is a tragedy of immense proportions.
So far, so familiar. But suppose there was a hint of some good news out of Darfur on this grim anniversary. Suppose that even as thousands more people are fleeing from their homes to escape renewed aerial bombardments by Sudanese government warplanes and more ground attacks by the feared janjaweed – suppose that there is now a real prospect of deploying the full 26,000-strong multi-national peace-keeping force that the UN and African Union are meant to be putting in place.
And suppose the Sudanese government’s belated acquiescence in that deployment was the result of increased – and increasingly public – pressure from Beijing. Might the film director Steven Spielberg, and the other “genocide Olympics” campaigners like actress Mia Farrow, actually have made a difference?
According to the British Foreign Office minister Mark Malloch Brown, there is now a “tactical meeting of minds” between Beijing, Washington and London. (You can hear my interview with him here, and there's a transcript here.) He is now cautiously optimistic that the joint UN/AU force will be in place over the coming months. Khartoum, apparently, has now pretty much agreed to the composition of the force – although you won’t need reminding that previous Khartoum agreements have sometimes not lasted very long.
The New York Times reported at the weekend: “China has begun shifting its position on Darfur, stepping outside its diplomatic comfort zone to quietly push Sudan to accept the world’s largest peacekeeping force …”
The British government agrees. It doesn’t mean that peace is around the corner, but it might mean that pressuring China to pressure Khartoum – with the Beijing Olympics now only months away – is having an effect. (For more background, read the Darfur analyst Alex de Waal’s blog, and some interesting comments on it here.)