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Recent weeks have brought a great deal of hand-wringing over the world's failure to do anything about the genocide in Darfur.
Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, for instance, gave an address last month in which he bemoaned the fact that "60 years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, and 30 years after the Cambodian killing fields, the promise of 'never again' is ringing hollow. The tragedy of Darfur has raged for over three years now, and still reports pour in of villages being destroyed by the hundreds and of the brutal treatment of civilians spreading into neighboring countries. How can an international community that claims to uphold human rights allow this horror to continue?"
Similarly, The New York Times ran an editorial last week blasting the international inaction on Darfur. Noting that "the killings and atrocities have spilled across Sudan's borders" into Chad and the Central African Republic, it wrote: "If Darfur's grim tally - several hundred thousand dead, two million driven from their homes - can't persuade the world to act, then perhaps the threat of a regional conflagration will."
What is remarkable about all this hand-wringing, however, is that it is coming from two of the institutions most responsible for the world's inaction - namely, the UN and the media.
That might seem counterintuitive, since neither the UN nor the media themselves have the power to take any effective action: that can only be done by national governments, either within or outside the UN framework. But in reality, no government will engage in difficult, unpleasant action that serves no clear national interest unless forced to do so by an overwhelming pressure of public opinion. And that pressure can only be generated by those who control the world's bully pulpits - first and foremost, the media and the UN secretary general.
Instead, however, both institutions have consistently treated Darfur as much less important than other, far less deadly conflicts. Western publics, and therefore their governments, have consequently followed suit.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance, has claimed some 5,400 lives - 4,300 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis - over the past six years. That compares to an estimated 400,000 people (no precise statistics exist) killed in Darfur over the last three.
Yet an archives search reveals that The New York Times published only 418 articles on Darfur last year, compared to 2,528 on Israel and 1,146 on the Palestinians (the discrepancy between the latter two stems from Israel's war with Lebanon - which, using the highest estimates, killed some 1,100 Lebanese and 160 Israelis). That makes Darfur's 400,000 dead, by NYT standards, about one-third as important as 4,300 dead Palestinians.
OTHER LEADING newspapers worldwide acted similarly. The Times of London, for instance, published 142 articles on Darfur last year, compared to 579 on Israel and 248 on the Palestinians. For Le Monde, the figures were 253, 500 and 500; in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, they were 239, 1,898 and 638. The Spanish El Pais was particularly egregious: A mere 120 articles on Darfur, compared to 2,730 on Israel and 2,013 on the Palestinians, giving an Israel:Darfur ratio of 23 to 1.
But even these figures understate the skew, because they ignore the equally important issue of prominence. Take, for instance, a pair of articles that appeared two days apart in the NYT's wholly-owned European subsidiary, the International Herald Tribune. One described Israel's accidental shelling of a house in Gaza, killing 18 Palestinians. That merited a four-column headline in large type and 30 column-inches of text. The other reported that over the past week, 220 Chadians had been killed by the same Sudanese militiamen responsible for the Darfur genocide. That merited a mere brief: two inches of text under a small-print, one-column head. If the media considers 18 Palestinian lives to be worth 15 times as much space as 220 slain Chadians, is it surprising that Western governments and publics view the slaughter in Africa as low-priority?
THE UN'S behavior has been similarly warped. The UN Human Rights Council, for instance, finally held its first session on Darfur last month, but declined to condemn the Sudanese government for the slaughter. Yet the council found time to adopt no less than three resolutions condemning Israel this year (even Annan termed this "disproportionate").
Similarly, the General Assembly devoted three full days in November, as it does every year, to debating and condemning the Israeli "occupation." If you cannot recall an equivalent session on Darfur, the problem is not your memory. Altogether, the GA's fall session passed no fewer than 25 resolutions condemning alleged Israeli human rights violations. But it could not be bothered to pass a single resolution condemning the genocide in Darfur.
The UN also has numerous bodies, such as a permanent Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, which are devoted exclusively to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and therefore naturally strive to focus attention on it. Palestinian refugees even have an entire agency, UNRWA, all to themselves, while all other refugees worldwide must compete for attention from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. It is thus hardly surprising that Darfur's two million refugees are lost in the Palestinians' shadow.
Finally, there is Annan himself - who declared last November that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most important in the world, because "no other conflict carries such a powerful symbolic and emotional charge among people far removed from the battlefield."
If the UN secretary-general considers the "symbolic charge" generated by 4,300 dead Palestinians more important than the actual deaths of some 400,000 Darfur residents, is it surprising that many governments deem the slaughter in Darfur equally trivial?
Like all human beings, those who run governments can only focus on so many issues at one time - and in democratic countries, they usually choose the ones that dominate the public square.
Thus as long as the UN and the media continue to accord the Darfur genocide such low priority, one can confidently predict that global inaction in the face of this genocide will continue.