Monday, May 12, 2008

Don't coddle Beijing – it must account for its role in Darfur


Special to Globe and Mail Update

Many consider it taboo to speak of the genocide in Darfur and the upcoming Beijing Olympics in the same breath. I disagree entirely. I believe the two should be firmly linked in the public's mind, and I said so in blunt terms during a recent CBC interview.

I was quickly and severely criticized in print for my comments by journalist Lysiane Gagnon and academic Christian Constantin. They seemed to think I needed a history lesson on Chinese political progress and a reminder of the West's sins, including our willingness to trade with countries whose human-rights records are shaky or even dismal.

There's no doubt Western countries have demonstrated abysmal judgment in various crises over the past couple of centuries, and their failures and misdeeds need retelling and analysis lest they be repeated. Western insouciance and intransigence over the past few decades alone have been staggering in terms of human suffering – think of Sierra Leone, Rwanda, the Congo, Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, to name a few.

For the moment, however, the crisis screaming out to the West and the rest of the international community is the genocide taking place in Darfur. China has been obstructionist in the UN Security Council while blithely supplying Khartoum with modern arms in exchange for oil. This has enabled Sudan to systematically kill an estimated 300,000 Darfurians since 2003, and to harass, torture, rape and starve the 21/2 million it has displaced.

The Chinese government wants us to ignore its central role in all this, and to laud it as the gracious host of the 2008 Olympic Games. Beijing's painstaking efforts to paint itself in a positive image attests to its obsession with being unconditionally accepted as an open, modern, honourable and progressive player by the international community.

Based on its behaviour in the Sudan, however – I liken it to that of a colonial power – the Chinese government cannot possibly be afforded the accolades it so eagerly craves. Led by liberal democracies and middle powers, including Canada, the international community must protest against Beijing's role in fuelling Darfur's genocide. It must use the leverage of the very international disapprobation China fears to make it stop supporting Khartoum and obstructing the deployment of the desperately needed 26,000-strong United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur.

Ms. Gagnon and Mr. Constantin assert that Beijing is too proud to give in to Western pressure. Moreover, they say, public pressure by the West would only push China to withdraw behind its Communist dictatorship. We need to challenge these assumptions. In any event, remaining silent while China continues to help Khartoum hammer away at helpless civilians with gun ships and co-ordinated ground attacks with the brutal janjaweed militia would be repugnant and morally indefensible.

Fortunately, international criticism is not the only force at work. Despite the government's repression, Chinese student, labour and intellectual movements have been fighting for democratic and political reforms for a long time. Recall the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, which emerged from the disaffection of ordinary Chinese citizens. The country's growing middle class, numbering about 300 million, who seek a better standard of living and greater freedoms, will also push their government to become a respected and reliable international economic power.

According to Ms. Gagnon and Mr. Constantin, China has made significant strides in justice and tolerance. They remind us of some of the great economic, cultural, political and social progress the country has made. But let us not forget that it still routinely engages in torture and arbitrary imprisonment. We must also acknowledge that, with its 2.2 million soldiers, the Chinese government has ample ability to contribute to peace efforts in Darfur, not just to send in advisers to teach the Sudanese forces how to use the weapons it provides against defenceless civilians.

In addition to the existing political, economic and diplomatic channels, we must use the Olympics to pressure China and enlighten its people about what is happening in Darfur, and why the international community is outraged. For now, China keeps its Chinese citizens hyped on Olympic glory, insulated from outside media and ignorant of its dirty work in Darfur. It's a despicable scenario that we cannot allow to persist.

Senator Roméo Dallaire is a retired lieutenant-general and former commander of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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