As many of you know, on Thursday, August 16th, the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal in conjunction with The Suburban and the Dym Family Foundation is staging DARFUR – THE MONTREAL CONFERENCE. It will have a roster of speakers of international renown. One of them, Charles Steele, Jr., President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, will be making the first visit to Montreal – perhaps to Canada - of any SCLC President. In talking with him over the weekend he reminded me of a poignant piece of history. This year is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the SCLC by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. But as importantly, August 28th marks the 44th anniversary of Dr. King’s triumphant March on Washington and his delivery of the “I have a dream” address.
That speech, so well remembered for that heart-wrenching phrase, contained other words that speak to us today from the mists of a time not so long ago as we confront the tragedy of Darfur. On that gloriously sunlit summer day in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial King said, “We can never be satisfied!” “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
As we reflect on the horrors of Darfur we must say today that “We are still not satisfied!” For how can any of us – if any conscience be left in us at all – be satisfied with our ungracious self-absorption and inelegant consumerism when people are still being exterminated because of the color of their skin? How can we be satisfied when millions find rest and shelter only in the misery of refugee camps? How can we be satisfied when some sixty years after the Nuremberg Principles and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights the devastated of Darfur find themselves disenfranchised from humanity and bereft of the dignity owed each and every living soul? To paraphrase King, the authors of these magnificent documents wrote promissory notes to all human beings. And those notes are coming back NSF. Our responsibility, in this age of instant communication and instant destruction, is to make sure those promises are kept. To make sure that the banks of justice do not default.
The United Nations, despite the recent decision authorizing the sending of troops, and most of the western world have reacted with impotence. The UN decision does not provide for allowing the troops to shoot, and the UN itself has not formed an alliance of contributing states. NATO countries, with some 800,000 troops in reserve, have yet to make any commitments. To Canada’s credit Prime Minister Harper has stated his willingness to participate. Aside from American relief supplies, which the Sudanese government refuses to move by motorized vehicle, all we hear are the usual excuses for failed states’ right to be wrong. Some have even argued that this is an internal conflict between Arab-Sudanese and African-Sudanese.
We should cringe at these hyphenated appellations. We should rage against these mindsets praying at the altars of multi-lateralism and moral relativism that allow fascist despots to flourish. We should reject, once and for all, these Gods that failed. For soon human vocabulary itself will be insufficient to describe the terrors that can befall us all.
For almost four years the Arab dominated Government of Sudan has been engaged in a policy of ethnic cleansing of the African-Sudanese population of the western province of Darfur. Over two million have been displaced; some 300,000 people have been slaughtered; 500,000 children are near death from starvation and tens of thousands of women have been raped.
The Sudanese government, and their homicidal Janjaweed cohorts, have emptied hundreds of towns and villages of their inhabitants and forced them to flee as refugees to Chad. In the withering heat of the Chadian desert these people await their fate. Each day brings new devastation whether from the flaming rays of the sun, or from the fiery retort of a government rifle.
Let us make no mistake about what is happening in Darfur. Though few dare say its name this is race war. Genocide. Muslim blacks are being slaughtered by Muslim Arabs simply for the color of their skin. This crisis commands an urgent call on us to act. A call that should stir our passions as did the fight against apartheid and the struggle for the freedom of Soviet dissidents. A call that should have been heeded for the dead in the jungles of Rwanda. We are witnessing the repetition of that tragedy again.
As an industrialized people Canadians benefit from the resources and labour of the underdeveloped world. The least we owe is to come to the relief of its poor and oppressed and help them to live free. We must shed our smug self-centred attitude that social justice stops at our borders. For the sake of the character of this Northern Dominion, we must be involved in mankind’s transcendent struggles for redemptive change.
The litmus test of our civilization is not how we treat those who are many, or agreeable, or privileged, or quiescent; but rather how we treat those who are few, and different, and alienated, and stubborn. We are still failing that test.
Frivolous squabblings that are nothing more than promotions of petty self-interests overwhelm what King called the “fierce urgency of now” — the fierce urgency to bring to an end the spectacular and frequent failures of man. For in the dead of night we will forever be haunted by those failures as the thin, humid rivulets of sweat crawl over us like vermin.
Haunted by the mounds of ashes that once were 1.5 million smiling Jewish children playing in the streets of “civilized” Europe. Haunted by the bloated bodies floating in the Yangtze River of Mao’s China. Haunted by the corpses frozen in the wastes of Stalin’s Gulag. Haunted by the betrayals of the free peoples of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Haunted by the deaths of Freedom Riders in the American South. Haunted by the killing fields of Vietnam and Cambodia. Haunted by the bodies rotting in the jungles of Rwanda and in the fetid marshes of the Balkans.
For all our demonstrations and petitions, we have been ambivalent and apathetic toward the insolence and inaction of authority. We have perpetuated sins of silence with voices too often mute when confronted with the evils that men do. Wrapping ourselves in cloaks of charity will not absolve us of our complicity in impotent acquiescence to the daily torrent of state-sponsored deceptions and institutional betrayals.
We seem to react only when it costs us nothing in terms of our personal bottom lines. We readily accept whatever manipulated images and opinions flood us from television and magazines as reality. We eagerly digest political sound bites as quickly as any fast food. Our surrender has demonstrated nothing less than an abandonment of the possibilities of our own capacities.
We must constantly be on guard and heed King’s warning that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words ‘Too late.’