Global Politics

Why Libya is different from Darfur

by Jeb Sharp

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The pace of the Libya intervention has stunned the people of Darfur and the activists who worked so hard to protect them. Back in 2004, the assumption was that if you raised a loud enough outcry, governments would act to stop mass atrocities. In Libya the outcry had barely begun when governments intervened. The difference has not gone unnoticed by Rebecca Hamilton the author of 'Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide'.

"What Libya has that Darfur never had, still does not have to the present day, and desperately needs, is a unified international commitment to do civilian protection," said Hamilton.

Hamilton says Libya underscores for her how the battle to protect civilians takes place in the realm of global geo-politics. In this case it was the Arab League's request to the UN Security Council to enforce a no fly zone and protect civilians that made the difference.

"Without that then you would have had China in particular doing what it did in Darfur—and which is its typical position—which is to threaten to veto anything that looks interventionist," said Hamilton.

"But with the Arab League specifically requesting to the UN Security Council that they do this, I think that led to China agreeing to abstain and let such a strong civilian protection resolution go through."

The Arab League was willing to forsake Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in a way it was never ready to forsake Sudanese President Omar al Bashir. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says a key motivating factor in the Libya intervention was the widespread desire to see Gaddafi fall.

"The Arab League generally has no love for Gaddafi," said Knights. "Many of the key players have a strong desire to see Gaddafi fall because of prior disagreements and bitter conflicts that they've had with him. Likewise the West has long-lasting grudges against Gaddafi whether they be the U.S., the British, the French."

Even so, it wasn't a given that the Arab League would sideline Gaddafi, notes Rebecca Hamilton. At the height of the outcry over Darfur, the Arab League stood by Sudanese President Omar al Bashir.

"I think what made the difference is the high-level defections of some of Gaddafi's closest inner circle," said Hamilton.

"And that again is something that you have not had in Sudan. Bashir's inner circle have stayed tight and in support of him. But I think that when Gaddafi's inner circle started to split it was easier for regional bodies like the Arab League to say, well we can stand beside Libya, whilst isolating Gaddafi."

But Hamilton says there's another striking reason things have played out differently in Libya and Darfur.

"If I had to put it in one word, I'd say Iraq," said Hamilton.

"The problem during the early days in Darfur was that it was really only the U.S. government that was leading the charge for civilian protection, and it was in many ways the worst-placed actor to do so in the context of the recent invasion in Iraq. It just looked like hypocrisy and double standards for the Bush Administration to be talking about human rights in Darfur whilst you had Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and all of the other consequences of Iraq."

It also made it easy for President Bashir of Sudan to paint any discussion of an international peacekeeping force for Darfur as an American-led attempt to invade yet another Muslim country. But things are different today. Time has passed. There's a different administration in the White House, and the rest of the world is less cynical about US motives. There is surprising support for the Libya intervention in the Arab World.

But even if there had been similar agreement on Darfur there's another glaring difference between the two cases, according to Robert Pape of the University of Chicago.

"The main difference between Darfur and Libya is actually the geography," said Pape.

Pape points out that Libya is close to Europe and right on the coast. That means Gaddafi's forces are vulnerable to NATO's sea-based air power. Darfur, by contrast, is in western Sudan, hundreds of miles from the sea, with mountainous terrain and lots of small arms fire. Protecting civilians there is a different proposition.

"As a result, nearly every plan that was serious included significant numbers of ground troops," said Pape. "The African Union put together the smallest plan for 2000 ground forces, the UN began to look at this and very quickly the number got up to 30,000 ground troops. And once you're talking about tens of thousands of ground troops going into a very hostile environment, now we begin to balance out the humanitarian goal with the serious risk of life to ourselves."

The UN Security Council did eventually deploy a peacekeeping force to Darfur, but not before hundreds of thousands of people had died and millions had been displaced. Even now, says Rebecca Hamilton, there's an urgent need for international pressure for a peace settlement and the enforcement of a ceasefire in Darfur.