Painted White

Perhaps the most disturbing detail to come out of this new UN report on Darfur are revelations that the Sudanese government has painted military planes and attack helicopters white, thereby disguising them as humanitarian aircraft. Some planes have even had “U.N.” stenciled on their wings.

This is deeply problematic for two reasons. One, the types of airplanes used by the Sudanese military are not your typical bombers. Rather, they are Russian-made Antanovs, which are designed principally as transport planes. The Sudanese military, however, has refitted Anatanovs to function as bombers. So from a distance it is hard to make out whether a white transport plane belongs, say, to the World Food Program, or whether it is a refitted Antanov, armed to drop payloads filled with thousands of tiny shards of metal.

What makes this new development more troubling is that air transport is the main way that humanitarian organizations access Darfur. By disguising military aircraft, the Sudanese government may forestall efforts to enforce a ban on offensive military over-flights in Darfur. When governments or policy makers call for no-fly-zones over Darfur, humanitarian organizations can now rightly worry that their planes may be mistaken for military aircraft.