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Forgotten people

By Alf McCreary

Published 09/12/2006

Around noon tomorrow, a group of people will gather on the steps of St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast to draw attention to the human rights crisis which is unfolding in Darfur in the western region of the Sudan.

Around noon tomorrow, a group of people will gather on the steps of St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast to draw attention to the human rights crisis which is unfolding in Darfur in the western region of the Sudan.

There will be a number of short speeches and prayers for the impoverished and traumatised people of Darfur, and a minute's silence. The event will be led by the Dean of Belfast, Dr Houston McKelvey, and clergy from the Catholic St Peter's Cathedral in west Belfast.

It is symbolic and proper that in this Christmas season, we should be reminded of the millions of poor around the globe, and only this week I read in The Times that the richest 10th of the people on the globe own 85% of the world's assets. Britain has the third average highest income in the world.

Tomorrow's event outside St Anne's is part of a global event, when people in every continent will mark the 2006 UN Human Rights Day. We hear a great deal about civil and human rights in our own country, but somehow the human rights of oppressed people in Africa seems to belong to a different world. Yet they are living only a day's plane journey from us.

The organisers of the St Anne's protest, including Amnesty International, Christian Aid, Save the Children, Trocaire and War on Want NI, are right to remind us of the suffering and the needs of others at this time of relative plenty - indeed, in many cases affluence - at home. Sadly, however, the people of Darfur don't seem to matter much to anyone, despite their desperate plight.

Since 2003, between 200,000 and 300,000 people are believed to have lost their lives, and more than two million have been forced to leave their homes. Rape and other sexual crimes are daily occurrences. However, when I was in Boston last week, I read in the Christian Science Monitor that it is increasingly difficult for journalists and aid workers to report on militia movements like those of the Janjaweed and of their alleged massacres.

This is because of a crack- down by the Sudanese government.

One aid worker was quoted as saying: "If we speak out, we get thrown out. Then who will help these people?" Certainly not the UN to date, or the British Government, apart from staging a couple of photo opportunities for leading government ministers on their way across Africa.

One of the reasons why Darfur has been so ignored by Western governments is that it is strategically unimportant. There is no oil, as in the Middle East, and it is not even an alleged threat to Western security despite the worries about the Islamic government's ability to deal with terrorists, and the continued harassment of Christians in the south, which I witnessed some years ago. Therefore Darfur can be safely ignored by the rest of us as we worry about Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is, however, a strong moral and humanitarian argument for keeping Darfur in the headlines, and for applying pressure on Western governments, including our own, to deploy a proper UN peace-keeping force to stop the killing and extensive violation of human rights. This is precisely what the UN failed to do in Rwanda, with horrifying consequences.

So what can we do about it personally?

This is where it is tempting to leave it to others. However, people are being encouraged to write to the Prime Minister and their MP asking the Government to maintain pressure on the Sudanese to protect the people of Darfur.

Despite its many mistakes, the Blair Government does care about public opinion, and if enough people make enough fuss about Darfur, something might just be done to help these poor people.

Or would you prefer to think about the England cricket team's disastrous performance in Australia ?

Belfast Telegraph

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