Blacking up in Darfur

African Union troops are being enlisted to give a respectable face to Western intervention.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

How has the fallout from the US-led invasion of Iraq affected Western military intervention in Darfur?

Earlier this year, former UK Foreign Office special adviser David Clark argued in the Guardian that the invasion of Iraq has undermined the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention, which will now increasingly be seen as providing a ‘cover for the militarily powerful to advance their interests without obligation’, a ‘form of international vigilantism and the return, in liberal guise, of the principle that might is right’ (1).

Yet since Clark wrote these words, a Franco-American intervention in Haiti overthrew the constitutionally elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide. And the African Union (AU) recently approved plans to expand its peacekeeping force in the Darfur region of Sudan from 400 to 3000 troops. While Euro-American cooperation over Haiti was positively harmonious, the intervention in Darfur has been more problematic.

The fact that Sudan is a majority Muslim country has probably given Western leaders pause, for fear of the hostility that another Western military adventure against a Muslim state may provoke among Muslim populations both at home and abroad. Judging by Haiti and Darfur, it seems that Iraq has not thrown the fundamental legitimacy of intervention itself into doubt. Instead, the post-Iraq question mark is over who is doing the intervening. It is striking that, across the political spectrum and throughout the world, it is African Union (AU) peacekeepers who are seen as key to launching a legitimate intervention in Sudan.

Writing in the Guardian under the headline ‘Enough imperial crusades’, leftist thinker Peter Hallward casts a sceptical eye over the claims of defending the Darfuris’ human rights, noting that Sudan was colonised in the nineteenth century under the moral banner of the ‘war against slavery’. Faced with this legacy of Western intervention however, Hallward’s solution to Sudan’s ills is ‘certainly not passive resignation’. Instead, Hallward advocates ‘fund[ing] the immediate and forceful deployment of [AU] peacekeepers’, and ensuring that the AU becomes an ‘independent political actor, capable of brokering equitable political solutions to the long-standing conflicts that Western intervention, almost always, has only helped provoke’ (2).

The UK Conservative Party’s shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram insinuates in the Daily Telegraph that it is decolonisation rather than colonialism that is the source of Sudan’s problems. But Ancram is equally unambiguous on the solution in the present: ‘an effective international peacekeeping military force…preferably…controlled by the African Union, should be prepared…. [Britain] and other G8 countries should provide funding, communications and logistical support’ (3). Similar sentiments were echoed in newspapers throughout the world (4).

Taking the issue up on Peter Hallward’s terms, what is it then that distinguishes a legitimate military intervention from the crude exercise of imperial power? Is it only the skin colour of the intervening troops that distinguishes a ‘forceful’ intervention – with Western diplomatic, financial, and military support – from an Anglo-American ‘imperial crusade’?

The fact is, from start to finish both the intervention and the crisis itself have been Western-dominated affairs. The proliferating rebel militias in Darfur (5), themselves accused of numerous atrocities (6), have sabotaged peace talks and broken ceasefires, probably in the hope that the longer they can stall, the greater the international pressure on Khartoum, and the greater the concessions they will be able to wring from the government (7). One report noted that the US ‘has seemed determined to keep the crisis in…Darfur…high on the international agenda’, and that ‘in the midst of controversy over Iraq, Darfur is an issue on which the US can safely assume the moral high ground, with little international opposition’ (8).

Western diplomacy has been instrumental in politically transforming the Darfur crisis. Despite having suffered 50 years of civil war between north and south that led to two million deaths, a top Sudanese official confided to The Economist that ‘the few months of crisis in Darfur have tarnished [Sudan’s] image more than all the years of war in the south’ (9). Resentful over how the USA has managed to seize the moral initiative over Sudan, the European Union (EU) has responded by trying to soft-pedal the crisis, with European diplomats suggesting that the US government was deliberately exaggerating the scale of the conflict (10).

But with AU peacekeepers conducting the intervention, both the USA and Europe can curb their differences sufficiently so that each can get a piece of the action. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana recently announced that the EU would pay half the costs of the AU deployment, while US transport planes are waiting to airlift Rwandan troops to Sudan (11). In circumstances such as these, the AU troops are little more than a stage army cobbled together by Western states, to dance to the tune of Western moral grandstanding, with little regard for the potential ramifications for Sudanese and regional security. It would perhaps only have been a marginally more crass display of Western power had the EU and USA sent white troops to Darfur ‘blacked up’ with boot polish.

While Sudan may have escaped cruise missiles and cluster bombs for now, the Sudanese state has been gravely destabilised by the international pressure. The Economist notes that because of Darfur, ‘hardliners in the south now think the government is weakened by Darfur, and are tempted to go back to war’ (12). According to the BBC, the Sudanese government is now contemplating decentralising the already fractious country into a federation (13) – a political solution that was not considered necessary to secure a negotiated end to the much bloodier and longer civil war between north and south. The federal solution to Sudan’s turmoil is likely to only encourage further secessionist claims around the country. Predictably, rebel groups have already dismissed the government’s conciliatory proposals for devolving power to Darfur as ’empty statements’, calling for even more political representation in the Sudanese government (14).

Ultimately, it is neither the skin colour nor the religion of the intervening troops that is the solution, but rather ending the destabilising practices of intervention itself.

Philip Cunliffe is a research student at King’s College, University of London (

(1) Blair’s vision of a new world order is critically tainted, Guardian, 8 March 2004

(2) Enough imperial crusades, Guardian, 18 August 2004

(3) While Darfur suffered, Blair’s government went on holiday, Daily Telegraph, 30 August 2004

(4) See How much longer can Darfur wait?, Guardian, 20 October 2004

(5) Darfur peace talks open up in Abuja, BBC News, 25 October 2004

(6) No Angles, Economist, 26 August 2004

(7) Even neighbouring Chad, whose forces have clashed with pro-government Sudanese militia, has accused the rebel militias of sabotaging the peace process. See Who are Sudan’s Darfur rebels?, BBC News, 30 September 2004

(8) Why is the US focused on Sudan?, BBC News, 15 July 2004

(9) Decision time in Sudan, Economist, 26 August 2004

(10) US “hyping” Darfur genocide fears, Observer, 3 October 2004

(11) Darfur peace talks open up in Abuja, 25 October 2004

(12) Waiting for the Killers to be Curbed, Economist, 7 October 2004

(13) Sudan hints at Darfur power-share, BBC News, 18 October 2004

(14) Sudan rebels ‘may quit talks’, BBC News, 1 November 2004

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Topics Politics


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