Thursday, August 9, 2007

Weekly Commentary - A No-Fly Zone for Darfur

The chattering classes of liberal politics have spoken. From all the front-runner candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, to the Save Darfur Coalition, important political figures and organizations are publicly advocating a "no-fly zone" as a means to alleviate suffering in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Yet before more ink (and money) is spent on urging the U.S. government to implement such a measure, activists must consider the potential consequences of a no-fly zone in Darfur - beyond the feeling it may give us that we are "doing something" - and the distinct possibility that it could make the situation on the ground even worse.

First, it is important to understand what is being called for in regards to a no-fly zone. By declaring one, the responsible party or parties (likely the U.S. and/or France, due to their nearby air bases) are obliging themselves to "shoot down their [Khartoum's] planes" if they enter into the restricted airspace. Aside from the concern that planes being used for humanitarian purposes could be mistakenly targeted in the no-fly zone, as they are "indistinguishable" from the planes used by Khartoum, the actual shooting down of one of Khartoum's planes could lead the Sudanese government to unleash their fury on the AU presence in Darfur, or the supposed AU/UN contingent that may be deployed in the future.

Yet what will a no-fly zone accomplish for Darfurians, to whose plight the West claims such steadfast commitment?
  • In the immediate short-term, Sudan could very well respond to the implementation of a no-fly zone by turning Darfur's long-running tragedy into an outright catastrophe. As noted by the International Crisis Group, "Khartoum might respond by escalating its actions on the ground against civilians, not unlike what happened in the initial days of NATO's actions in Kosovo in 1999."

  • Though Khartoum does still drop bombs on Darfur, "the vast majority of attacks are executed by forces on the ground." Accordingly, a no-fly zone "would only weaken a very small piece of Khartoum's killing machine."

  • A no-fly zone may very well pull the plug on Darfur's massive relief operations. As the Sudan specialist Julie Flint argues,
    In the last three and a half years, humanitarian aid has stabilized conditions for the more than 4 million people who currently depend on relief. Mortality and malnutrition have fallen, significantly. If a no-fly zone were imposed, Khartoum would not go belly up. It would in all likelihood retaliate by grounding humanitarian flights. Its proxies in the Janjaweed militias would show their displeasure in the only way they know. Relief workers might be expelled or forced to evacuate the region. People who are now being kept alive would die.

    The current emphasis on coercive measures conceals the fact that the US and its friends have no clear plan of political action, no sensible project for peace to go hand in hand with pressure on the Khartoum regime.

Moreover, there is a clear double standard involved in the question of funding a no-fly zone vis-à-vis other measures. As the Sudan analyst Eric Reeves notes, enforcing a no-fly zone would be "extremely resource-consumptive." On the other hand, tellingly, the African Union (AU) mission in Darfur has been severely underfunded, its troops enduring months without pay.

Where are the calls from the crème de la crème of the Democratic Party and the Save Darfur Coalition for ramping up funding the AU - with 7000 troops actually on the ground in Darfur - instead of a financially costly no-fly zone that knowledgeable commentators predict would have even costlier effects in terms of human lives?

Indeed, while it may make activists feel better to think that their advocacy for a no-fly zone is "doing something" for Darfur, the most likely outcome of their activism may be a severe deterioration in the conditions on the ground in Darfur.