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.

“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.

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.

Oil dependency

China currently imports 4.7 million barrels of oil per day, and the International Energy Agency predicts that by 2025, China will have overtaken the US to become the world’s largest importer of oil. Arab League member, Saudi Arabia, is the largest source of that oil, accounting for more than 20 percent of China’s imports. And other Arab League members in attendance at the no-fly zone meeting (Libya was excluded) account for almost a further 20 percent. So while none of the Arab League’s 22 member states have a veto on the UN Security Council, China’s oil dependency makes the Arab League a potential game-changer in UN voting patterns.

On Darfur, the Arab League never played that game-changing role. A significant part of the reason was that the Bush administration, pushed by US activists, got ahead of the rest of the world in condemning the atrocities. Against the backdrop of Iraq, this was spun in the Arab media as evidence of an American intent to invade another Muslim country. As a consequence, the Arab League stood firmly by the side of Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir. This in turn meant that Beijing faced no cost in pursuing its default position of non-interference, and it did this by repeatedly threatening to use its veto on the UN Security Council to protect Khartoum from pressure.

The result was that every resolution proposed by the US was watered down, the Council rarely spoke with one voice, and al-Bashir read this (correctly) to mean he could get away with defying the UN. Had the Arab League condemned al-Bashir, then there’s every chance China would have allowed stronger resolutions to pass, since the oil China gets from Sudan is less than one-fifth of what it gets from the rest of the Arab League.

On Libya, Obama’s early reticence created space for the Arab League to take the lead. And high-level defections from Qaddafi’s inner circle sealed the deal.

This then allowed the discussion at the UN Security Council to shape up very differently from the way it had done on Darfur.

If we are to make sense of how it is 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 and place a decision taken, not in Washington or Paris, but at an Arab League meeting in Cairo, at the forefront of our thinking.

Rebecca Hamilton is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and The Struggle to Stop Genocide.”

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