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Swift action in Libya vs. years of delay in Darfur: What gives?

If we are to make sense of why the world moved so quickly to protect civilians in Libya and not in Darfur, then we would do well to look beyond the easy answers.

By Rebecca Hamilton / May 3, 2011

New York

“Why does the world care about Libyans and not about us?” I was asked during a phone interview with a Darfuri leader recently. He told me that the displaced people in the camp he was speaking to me from had been listening to radio reports about how swiftly the world had moved to protect civilians from Muammar Qaddafi.

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The quick and easy answer to why Libya and not Darfur – the western province of Sudan where people continue to suffer after years of atrocities that have left an estimated 300,000 dead – boils down to two factors. First, oil. Libya has it, Darfur does not – Sudan’s oil lies in the south of the country. Second, proximity to continental Europe. Libya is close enough to make the Europeans jittery about the consequences of instability. But neither of these factors would have been enough to get France stepping up to lead the enforcement of a no-fly zone without prior authorization from the UN Security Council. And this is where the story gets interesting.

Pushing against the BRICS

On Libya, the Arab League’s request that the UN Security Council enforce a no-fly zone provided political cover to enable Western powers to push for action, helping them fend off analogies to Iraq. But the Arab League’s greatest impact was on the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, now known as the BRICS bloc.

BRICS nations, who are all currently on the 15-member UN Security Council, comprise almost three billion of the world’s nearly seven billion people. And their combined economies are set to surpass the US in terms of GDP by 2014. In short, they are the group that is on track to hold the center of gravity in terms of global decision-making in the decade to come.

As a bloc, the BRICS tend to eschew calls to universalist human rights claims, and oppose forceful intervention. However, they also show deference to regional players, which is why the Arab League’s request made it very difficult for them to stand in the way of action.

Of all the BRICS nations, China is generally the most opposed to intervention of any kind. But in addition to China’s general deference to regional players, defying the wishes of the Arab League would have been particularly risky given that China depends on key members of that body to fuel its growth.


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