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Whirlybirds for Darfur

Countries that pay lip service to the humanitarian crisis aren't sending helicopters to help. Do they care?

December 13, 2007

Is there a world helicopter shortage that nobody told us about? United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has spent the past few months asking governments in every potential helicopter contributing country to lend aircraft for a prospective peacekeeping mission in Sudan's Darfur region, but it seems that not one can be spared to help resolve the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Diplomats are often frustrated by the intransigence of the Sudanese regime, which for years has been blocking attempts to put foreign troops into Darfur to stop the slaughter and displacement of millions of villagers by an assortment of militias, rebel groups and Sudanese government soldiers. Yet the nations that pretend to care deeply about Darfur continually prove to Sudan's leaders in Khartoum that their resolve is paper-thin. The helicopter fiasco is a case in point.

In July, the U.N. Security Council finally agreed to send 26,000 peacekeepers to Darfur, a force that is slated to start deploying in January. Khartoum, however, is insisting that no non-African troops will be allowed and demanding absurd restrictions such as advance notice on all troop movements and the ability to shut off the blue helmets' communication systems. That's only to be expected from Khartoum; far more disheartening is the international community's response to Ban's appeal. The mission will be severely hampered, if not crippled, without the two dozen helicopters needed to patrol the vast countryside.

The United States has a ready excuse -- its whirlybirds are tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan (though it has plenty sitting at bases here at home). Nations with no excuse at all include Britain, France and Germany, whose leaders have expressed grave concern about the situation in Darfur and which together possess thousands of helicopters; Britain can't argue that it's overextended, given that it's pulling out of Iraq.

The stinginess over helicopters, of course, is only part of the problem. European countries refuse to impose targeted sanctions against Sudan like those approved by the United States. The international community has successfully pressured China to use its considerable influence on Khartoum, but that pressure is sporadic and easy for Beijing to shrug off. Efforts by the International Criminal Court to try Sudanese officials for war crimes have been rebuffed by Khartoum with no response from the United Nations. It's no wonder Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir doesn't take international demands seriously; there are no consequences to his stonewalling.

If world leaders truly don't care about the ongoing genocide in Darfur, they should stop claiming that they do. So to the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown: Put your choppers where your mouth is.

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