Carnage at a click

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2007, 12:00am

Dictionaries are clear: Genocide is the mass killing or attempt to kill an ethnic, national or religious group. Yet the world is fumbling with its words when it comes to the Darfur region of western Sudan, where at least 200,000 people have been murdered over the past four years and up to 21/2 million forced from their homes.

The US and some human rights groups are certain that the Arab Sudanese government and its Janjaweed militia are committing genocide against African tribal groups, and they are not afraid to say so. The United Nations, Britain and other concerned nations refer instead to a situation approaching genocide, although unequivocally agree that there is a humanitarian catastrophe that is worsening and has spread to neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic.

Sudan's leaders deny they are behind the killings. Yet evidence to the contrary is strong, ranging from government aircraft being observed carrying out bombing raids on Darfur villages, to troops seen with militias.

The joint project launched last week between the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Internet mapping service Google Earth is in no doubt, though; click on, zoom in and there, before your eyes, are satellite images of 1,600 destroyed or badly charred villages. Click again on one of the black circles where once there was life and up pops photographs, witness accounts and other information about the atrocities committed there.

Genocide, coined after Nazi Germany's Holocaust to exterminate the world's Jewish population, is an after-the-fact condition. There is generally agreement on whether it took place only when the mass burial pits containing the bodies of victims are found - as happened in Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. A prosecutor for the UN's International Criminal Court investigating cases from Darfur has found that crimes against humanity have taken place, but has not as yet determined any are genocide.

Checking such matters out is not easy given Sudan's cat-and-mouse game with the UN and non-government groups. It has let some visit, but denied access to others. A 7,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force has been allowed in, although it is under funded.

The UN Security Council last August passed a resolution ordering in 17,300 international peacekeepers, but Sudan has denied them access, declaring it would view such a deployment as an invasion. China, France and Russia - permanent council members with substantial oil interests in Sudan - have been reluctant to push the issue, leaving it to the US and Britain.

Last week, the Google Earth and holocaust museum tie-up was announced and some of the 200 million subscribers to the service have been checking out for themselves what the genocide claims are all about. Whether by coincidence or the force of satellite reality, Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Monday agreed to an interim package of 3,000 international peacekeepers - although is ignoring calls by the US and Britain for another 10,000.

Satellites do not as yet provide pin-point accurate information of what is happening hundreds of thousands of kilometres below them. US spy satellites are still uncertain as to whether North Korea has started shutting down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

Ethnic cleansing through the bombing and burning of villages and towns is quite another matter, though. Join Google Earth and see for yourself what has been happening in Iraq. Take a look at the pollution cloud over southern China. And more importantly, for the sake of making a lie of the Sudanese government and a fool of its buddies in Beijing, Paris and Moscow, hover to Sudan, look to the west and zoom in on the carnage for an eye-witness account. Then, email, text, write or phone the appropriate embassies or consuls-general and express indignation.

China, France and Russia are presently taking stock of the situation at the Security Council as the US again tries to pressure for sanctions on Khartoum. These are nations which have signed all manner of UN conventions protecting the rights of humanity.

Now that satellite and Internet technology have opened eyes beyond the rhetoric of leaders such as Mr Bashir, there is the possibility that genocide can be finally banished from Planet Earth.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's Foreign Editor