The west's dubious saviour complex
SCMP August 9
The west seems to have an almost endless appetite for what it sees as global
do-goodery but others see as at best irrelevant and at worst arrogant neo-imperialism.
Its saviour complex is usually dressed up as the views of "the international
community", but it reeks of hypocrisy and usually betrays a lack of understanding
of complex issues.
The latest people the west wants to "save" are those in Darfur, the
westernmost province in Africa's largest country, Sudan. Editorials spew out
demands that the said international community "must do something" to
stop the killing there. The media spurs the hue and cry by presenting a black
and white version of events. The goods guys are "innocent black Africans";
the villains are the Sudanese government and the Arab militias that it supports.
The words "ethnic cleansing" are again in the air as reason for intervention.
There is talk of Britain and Australia sending troops, as though they
had not learned enough in Afghanistan and Iraq of the problems of
trying to impose a foreign order on ethnically complex countries.
Thankfully, US President George W. Bush sees the lack of wisdom,
in an election year, of another foreign imbroglio, however much it
is dressed up in humanitarian clothes.
For sure, nasty things are happening in Sudan, which have led to an
exodus of refugees into neighbouring Chad. But the brutal fact is that
Sudan has been afflicted by internal ethnic strife for 40 years.
Who is to blame? Sudan's borders are a chance consequence of the interaction
of British, French and Turkish empires in 1898 - although Darfur was
not formally added until 1916, when the British invaded it and killed
its sultan. Perhaps all these African borders should be remade to fit
tribal and religious divides. But that is a proposition put forward
by no one, least of all by the western nations which created those
Anyway, changing Sudan's western border is not going to solve anything
because the issues of Darfur are so much more complex than the saviours
would have us believe. For starters, the Arabs there are as black as
the "Africans". Unlike in the partly Christianised south,
all are Muslims. Second, there has long been tension over land between
the cattle herders, who are mostly but not entirely Arab, and the settled
peoples, who are mostly but not entirely non-Arab tribes. This rivalry
has been exacerbated by the southwards push of the Sahara desert.
Third, the "innocents" being killed are in many cases from
villages aligned with armed rebel groups. Fourth, there are two separate
rebel groups, divided mainly along tribal lines, and one is backed
by militant Arab Islamists in Khartoum. As if that were not enough,
political factions in Chad, where the government is kept in power by
French troops, are parties to the Sudan turmoil.
No one seems to be asking: who armed the rebels? As for retaliatory
bombing and burning of villages, this is very similar to what has been
done in Fallujah, eastern Afghanistan and Gaza. That is not nice, but
given how many Iraqi and Afghan civilians have been killed by British
and American bombing, to hear the sanctimonious prattle of US Secretary
of State Colin Powell and British Prime Minister Tony Blair about Sudan
As for ethnic cleansing, the champions of this process in the past
100 years were the victorious 1945 allies who cleansed Poland and Czechoslovakia,
for example, of their German populations.
The west's selective application of "international justice",
needless to say, does not extend to French activities in Algeria circa
1960, or US actions in Nicaragua - in which several members of the
current Bush administration played a role.
It would be nice to see international organisations such as the UN
and World Court being strengthened. But international bodies can only
work effectively if they are believed to be even-handed, not dispensers
of "victors' justice".
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