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 borders.

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 is sickening.

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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