Darfur who?

John Howard has an extensive archive of transcripts of interviews, press releases and other statements on his Prime Ministerial website, www.pm.gov.au. Considering his keen interest in international affairs, as evidenced with Iraq, I decided I would do a search of his website to see how often he has discussed the tragic situation in the Sudanese province of Darfur.

My search for "Darfur" on the PM's website came up with no matches. Searching Hansard on the Parlinfo website also drew a blank.

It's the world's biggest humanitarian crisis of the present day. More than a million people homeless as the result of civil war and ethnic cleansing (which may well have been government-sponsored), tens of thousands dead. Our Prime Minister has apparently had nothing to say about the tragedy of Darfur.

Just as disturbingly, no one in the media appears to have asked him.

Visiting the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer's website provides the barest amount of joy in discovering that Australia is taking some action. On 17 May 2004 Mr Downer's office announced that the Government would provide $5 million in aid to help meet the immediate needs of the displaced persons of Darfur. That contribution was made in response to a revised United Nations Consolidated Appeal.

Another $3 million was allocated by the Government on 18 June 2004 for emergency humaritarian assistance for Sudanese in refugee camps in eastern Chad. (source: AusAID, the Australian Agency for International Development).

Eight million dollars. That's 40 cents per head of Australia's population. And compare that to the approximately $105 million that the Government is spending on advertising its "initiatives" prior to the coming election.

The extent of the cluelessness of the Federal Government over the Darfur situation can be seen by this exchange in the Senate on 17 June 2004 between Senator Bob Brown of the Greens and Defence Minister Senator Robert Hill (source: Hansard):

Senator BROWN (2.44 p.m.) --My question is to Senator Hill, representing the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I ask about the ethnic cleansing taking place in Darfur in Sudan. What action has the Australian government taken-- either unilaterally or through global agencies such as the UN--for immediate intervention to stop the slaughter that is occurring in Darfur? Will the government consider the advice of a former US Assistant Secretary of State, Susan Rice, that there should be immediate international pressure through the United Nations, including an oil embargo on Khartoum, until this potential genocide is brought to a halt?

Senator Lightfoot --We would like to parachute you in there, Senator Brown.

Senator BROWN --I object to that interjection on this matter.

The PRESIDENT --I am sorry, I did not hear that interjection.

Senator BROWN --I ask you to consider that interjection and to deal with it.

The PRESIDENT --I cannot consider what I did not hear, but I will review the Hansard.

Senator HILL --Obviously, I want to refer the question to the foreign minister in relation to any specific action he might have taken, but I can say in general terms that there have been good stories and bad stories coming out of Sudan in the last few months. The good story is that it looks as if there may be a conclusion to the horrible civil war that has lasted for so long and that has resulted in literally millions of deaths--and there has been the contribution of the international community in bringing that to an end. The efforts that have been made and the efforts that are being made by the United Nations to consolidate that peace are to be applauded. On the other hand, there have been the bad stories of the abuses in Darfur that have also been in the press in recent times. You obviously must feel great sympathy for the Sudanese as they go from one crisis to another. Exactly how the international community as a whole is responding, I am not sure. Obviously there is not a response that Australia can take as an individual party that is going to make a significant difference, but I would hope that, as part of an international community, every influence is being brought to bear to bring that brutality to an end. I will seek the details of that from the foreign minister.

Senator BROWN -- Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I am surprised at the minister's lack of information on Australian initiatives on what is described by the United Nations as the world's greatest humanitarian catastrophe. Given the gravity of the situation, I ask the minister to check that Australia cannot act on this by, for example, moving urgently in the United Nations for a United Nations response which involves potentially an oil embargo and an air flight embargo on US military planes bombing villages before the people are slaughtered by the Arab Janjaweed militia which is being funded and supported from Khartoum. I ask the minister whether the government will go into action on what is the world's greatest humanitarian crisis at the moment and see what unilateral action it can take by stimulating the United Nations into action. (Time expired)

Senator HILL --I think it is fair to say that the UN is able to play a peacekeeping, rebuilding role, but it has not been particularly effective in intervening in such circumstances and bringing the violence to an end. The international community has looked to coalitions of the willing to do that, and in nearly every case it has expected that coalition to be led by the United States. Most of the international community does expect the US to do the heavy lifting. When the US does that, what appreciation does it get? It continually gets pounded by such as Senator Brown because it will never meet his standards.

Senator Brown --Mr President, I raise a point of order on relevance. The one-minute answer here should be addressing the question of what the Australian government is doing on this matter.

The PRESIDENT --I cannot direct a minister how to answer a question. He has 17 seconds remaining; if he wishes to avail himself of that time, he can.

Senator HILL --If Senator Brown is calling for some form of pre-emptive strike based on humanitarian grounds, I would be interested to hear him actually say that. That would be very interesting. There is this debate in the international community on the right to intervene militarily on humanitarian grounds. Simply cutting off fuel to Khartoum is going to hurt the poor as much as-- (Time expired)

The additional three million dollars was forthcoming from the Government the day after this hapless performance from Senator Hill.

In fairness, it is worth adding that the Australian Labor Party's website (www.alp.org.au) also draws a blank on Darfur, as does shadow foreign minister Kevin Rudd's (www.kevinrudd.com).

Senator Brown of the Greens issued two statements on the matter, the first on June 17 after his questioning of Senator Hill in Parliament, and the second on June 23.

See also Alexander Downer's interview by Jon Snow of Channel 4 in the UK on 5 July 2004.

(Postscript: The ALP issued a press release by Kevin Rudd later in the day on July 21, after I wrote this article, calling on the Government to take action in the Sudan, and calling the existing $8 million committment "inadequate".