April 4, 2004
On the very eve of the Rwandan genocide the international community seems finally to have found its voice in condemning the Khartoum regime’s brutal, systematic displacement and destruction of the African tribal groups of Darfur, primarily the Masseleit, the Zaghawa, and the Fur. The actions that stand condemned, considered collectively, and given the clear racial/ethnic animus defining them, amount to genocide—the deliberate destruction of these people because of who they are, “as such.”
But even so, it is far from clear that the searing clarity of this genocidal destruction will produce an international response more adequate to the catastrophe than the shameful acquiesce of April 1994, when the world watched in dismay from a distance as 800,000 people in Rwanda were slaughtered in frenzied mayhem.
Though the comparison to Rwanda has recently been made explicitly by Mukesh Kapila, now former UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, the description of war in Darfur that is most often offered by UN officials and others is “ethnic cleansing.” This is evidently meant to convey a lesser degree of “criminality” and urgency. Jan Egeland, UN Under-secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs—and notably one of the first officials to call attention to the scale of the catastrophe in Darfur—is entirely representative:
“‘What we see is…the systematic depopulation of areas. People are not necessarily killed then. They are moved away,’ Egeland said at a [April 2, 2004] news conference. ‘I would say it is ethnic cleansing, but not genocide.'” (Reuters, April 4, 2004)
But what is happening in Darfur is not simply “ethnic cleansing,” any more than the destruction of the Jews in Eastern Europe was simply a “Suberung,” the Nazi euphemism for genocide (the German word means “cleansing” or “clearing”). For given the immensely destructive consequences of “systematic depopulation” in rural Darfur, there is too little difference in too many cases between the deliberate killing of members of a “racial or ethnical group” and the inescapable, fully known consequences of the “systematic depopulation” of the members of this group.
Here we must remember that the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide specifies not only “killing members of a group” among the acts which may be “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The Convention also declares that genocide consists in actions “deliberately calculated to bring about conditions making life impossible [for a group].”
The vast, murderous savagery of Khartoum’s military campaign, and its terrible efficacy in “bringing about conditions making life impossible” for the African peoples of Darfur, is simply beyond dispute: widespread and systematic killings, brutal gang-rapes, destruction of seeds and agricultural implements, the burning and pillaging of villages, the looting of foodstuffs and cattle, the abducting of children, the destruction of water wells and irrigation systems. All of these, especially in aggregate, are in the context of Darfur genocidal.
We should also recall that the Genocide Convention specifies that acts “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group” are genocide. What can we surmise of both the “bodily and mental harm” caused by such actions as were reported in this all too characteristic dispatch from the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks? —
“In an attack on 27 February  in the Tawilah area of northern Darfur, 30 villages were burned to the ground, over 200 people killed and over 200 girls and women raped—some by up to 14 assailants and in front of their fathers who were later killed. A further 150 women and 200 children were abducted.” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, March 22, 2004)
This terrifying vignette of unimaginable suffering and destruction is but one among scores and scores of reports that have emerged, despite Khartoum’s effort to deny all news and humanitarian access to rural Darfur.
The Genocide Convention also specifies that genocide consists in “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” We can’t know the number of abductions, but in addition to the 350 women and children reported abducted in the single instance above, Human Rights Watch has noted that “refugees’ testimonies have also noted an alarming number of abductions of young girls and boys” (“Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan,” page 30).
All of these actions have been reported on authoritatively, on an extremely wide scale, and over many months now. Those reporting include Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres, the International Crisis Group, various senior UN officials, the US Agency for International Development, and increasingly numerous journalists. On April 2, 2004 Human Rights Watch issued what is perhaps the most comprehensive indictment to date: “Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan” (available at: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2004/04/02/sudan8389.htm).
Human Rights Watch begins its report by declaring unambiguously that, “militias backed by the government of Sudan are committing crimes against humanity in Darfur” (page 1). The opening statement continues by declaring that:
“Using indiscriminate aerial bombardment, militia and army raiding, and denial of humanitarian assistance, the government of Sudan and allied Arab militia, called janjaweed, are implementing a strategy of ethnic-based murder, rape and forcible displacement of civilians in Darfur.” (page 1)
The International Crisis Group has spoken of “ethnic warfare,” and the “systematic nature of attacks on civilians on the basis of their ethnicity (“Darfur Rising: Sudan’s New Crisis” [Brussels/Nairobi], March 25, 2004, pages 15, 25).
The United Nations, which has been outspoken on Darfur for months, made wire service and even newspaper headlines with Jan Egeland’s declaration from UN headquarters that “Sudan Is Tolerating Ethnic Cleansing” (New York Times [United Nations], April 3, 2004). Egeland declared that Khartoum’s militia allies were, “using ‘scorched earth tactics,’ deliberately destroying food and humanitarian supplies and attacking refugee centers in a program of ‘systematic depopulation.’ ‘I consider this ethnic cleansing,’ [Egeland said]” (New York Times, April 3, 2004).
But in all of this there is a hesitancy to declare that these realities constitute genocide. There is in the use of the phrase “ethnic cleansing,” or “ethnic warfare,” or “ethnic-based murder” an apparent unwillingness to declare the whole of what we know, or what we can with moral certainty surmise of Darfur’s terrible realities. What accounts for this? The answer is not entirely clear. Presumably on the part of the UN and Western governments there is a concern that to declare that these realities are genocidal would be to make continued inaction by the international community politically untenable. But here we should remember that in one of the earliest uses of the term “ethnic cleaning,” the UN General Assembly declared in Resolution 47/121 of December 18, 1992 that, “the abhorrent policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’ is a form of genocide” (Paragraph 9 of the Preamble to the Resolution).
Certainly any inclination to continue with the phrase “ethnic cleansing,” as a way of asserting that a lesser crime than genocide is being committed, must come to terms with a very recent, authoritative, and shocking assessment offered by the US Agency for International Development. This assessment was to have been rendered publicly by USAID Assistant Administrator Roger Winter in remarks at last week’s opening session of peace talks in N’Djamena (Chad) between Khartoum and the two major Darfur insurgency groups. Predictably, Khartoum boycotted the opening session because of “unacceptable” international presence (the US and the European Union), and the regime has subsequently instructed the Chadian government to deny entry visas to political representatives of one of the insurgency groups, thus making highly unlikely any progress on the most urgent agenda item, a humanitarian cease-fire.
But Khartoum’s diplomatic recalcitrance also does nothing to change the realities of Darfur; indeed, it reveals only a determination not to allow the international community to assess those realities from within Darfur. Khartoum’s determination to obscure by all means possible the reality of genocide in Darfur makes Mr. Winter’s USAID assessment all the more important. In this assessment he stressed one terrifying statistic: even with an immediate humanitarian cease-fire, the US Agency for International Development now estimates that 100,000 more people will still die from the conflict in Darfur–this in addition to the tens of thousands who have already perished. Because of Khartoum’s deliberate destruction of food assets, water wells and irrigation systems; because a terrified population will not be able to plant crops or reap a significant harvest following the upcoming rainy season; and because the rains will prevent ground transport to many outlying areas, 100,000 people will die.
They will not die of machete wounds, gunshots, or be clubbed to death as in Rwanda; but they will have been killed no less deliberately by a military strategy that Khartoum has relentlessly followed, both in using its own official military assets (including frequent aerial bombardment of civilian targets), but in the purposeful directing of its Arab militia allies (the “janjaweed”) in the countless attacks that have produced the present catastrophe.
In short, knowing full well the consequences of such a strategy, Khartoum has engaged in a military campaign that has “deliberately inflicted on the African tribal groups of Darfur conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction in whole or in part.”
This is genocide.
Neither the euphemizing obligations of diplomats, nor the constraints imposed by various institutional mandates—governmental and non-governmental—can change this reality.
It was precisely such diffidence, coupled with indecision and moral failure, that ten years ago produced international acquiescence in the slaughter, by Hutu extremists, of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. Unable to say the word—genocide—it was easier not to act, easier not to accept the obligations that are stipulated in the Genocide Convention for “contracting parties:
“The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” (Article 1, UN Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948)
But of course until genocide has been declared, the “contracting parties” (including the US) are not obligated to “undertake to prevent and to punish” the genocidaires operating in Darfur. This is the context in which we must seek to understand why no organization or government has, to date, proposed a single course of action that will not be fully undermined should Khartoum intransigently assert the “rights” of national sovereignty. There are abundant calls for “informing,” “condemning,” “requesting,” “calling upon,” “insisting,” “recommending,”—even “ensuring.” But inevitably even such “ensuring” is simply part of a “recommendation” that has no provision for enforcement or implementation or even means of pressuring for compliance.
Most conspicuously, there is no voice calling for humanitarian intervention–the cross-border provision of urgently needed humanitarian assistance, civilian protection, and the creation of critically important safe havens for the almost 1 million displaced, both in Chad and in Darfur. And it is here that the distinction between “ethnic cleansing” and genocide cuts deeply in implication, given the explicit provisions for “prevention” in the Genocide Convention.
To be sure, Norway and the US seemed to be approaching an articulation of the need for humanitarian intervention in early February 2004:
“The United States reaffirms its commitment to addressing the immediate protection and assistance needs of those in Darfur, as well as throughout Sudan, including humanitarian cross border operations if assistance cannot be provided through Sudan.” (Statement of US AID Administrator Andrew Natsios, from the Press Office of USAID, February 3, 2004)
Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Petersen spoke in similarly urgent terms at the time:
“Norway is extremely concerned about the further deterioration of the already dramatic humanitarian situation in Darfur province in western Sudan in the last few days. Norway deplores the recent bombing of the town of Tine, which continues the pattern of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the serious breaches of human rights that are constantly being reported. [ ] Norway will together with other donors *do what is necessary to provide humanitarian relief* and protection for the population of Darfur [emphasis added].”
(Press release: Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 4, 2004)
But these commitments have not been reiterated, and no planning is evident that would make good on these commitments. Voice of America has recently reported that, “US defense officials are closely monitoring developments in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region, but say there are no plans at present for any military response to the humanitarian crisis there” (Voice of America, April 1, 2004).
Here we must bear in mind that any planning for humanitarian intervention will need to take account of the immense difficulties created by the seasonal rains that are due in about a month; these rains will make ground transport in many places virtually impossible. Indeed, logistics in general will be nightmarishly difficult. Moreover, Chad’s permission must be secured for such an operation. Given the weak Chad government’s close relationship with Khartoum, this would require robust diplomatic pressure on President Idris Deby from France—but there has been no sign of such a commitment from Paris, even in the wake of French Foreign Minister Dominique de
Villepin’s recent trip (late February 2004) to the region.
In short, it seems unlikely that humanitarian intervention will occur without a finding of genocide. But then we urgently need a much more compelling explanation of why, given the overwhelming body of evidence before the international community, what is occurring in Darfur is not genocide. And such explanation cannot be a glib distinction between displacement and “depopulation,” on the one hand, and human destruction on the other—not when the former so clearly and consequentially implies the latter.
All the current anguish over the Rwandan genocide, all the reflections on what could and should have been done, all the genuflection on lessons learned or not learned—all this is incinerated in the agony of the ongoing, ethnically/racially animated destruction of tens of thousands of human beings in Darfur.
Who will explain to the people of Darfur why it was possible for the US and the Europeans, without UN authorization, to intervene in Kosovo (where perhaps altogether 10,000 people died) but not in Darfur, where many times this number will certainly die? Who will explain why this has nothing to do with the fact that the victims of the genocide are Africans? Who will explain why this devaluation of human lives is not ultimately a terrible racism?
Who will explain why an assertion of Sudanese national sovereignty by the viciously tyrannical National Islamic Front regime—which came to power by military coup, deposing an elected government—trumps the moral significance of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives in Darfur? Who will explain why a regime that has not observed a signed cease-fire, refuses to begin substantive peace talks, and refuses to commit to a humanitarian cease-fire is being given more diplomatic breathing space in which to pursue genocidal destruction?
Who will explain to the people of Darfur how long the catastrophe will be permitted to accelerate without more than hortatory language from the international community? Who will tell the people of Darfur whether or not there is a threshold of human destruction at which the international community will respond with humanitarian intervention? And if so, what is that threshold? Having long surpassed the total for Kosovo, and with a further 100,000 lives to be lost because of Khartoum’s present destruction of the agricultural economy and medical resources, Darfur and its people will wonder: is the number 150,000—a figure that seems virtually certain to be exceeded? Perhaps it is 200,000? Perhaps the half-way point in the figure for Rwanda, 400,000?
Are these numbers anything but a reflection of moral madness on the part of the international community? And yet as Human Rights Watch has just asserted, “almost 1 million Darfurian civilians have been forced to flee their homes in the past fourteen months.” (“Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan,” page 1). And the UN puts the figure of those described as “war-affected” at 3 million. Who can say that the final total, in the absence of forceful international action and with Khartoum’s continued intransigence, will not ultimately bear comparison with the numbers of Rwanda?
These many questions all reduce to one:
Is the international community prepared to allow Khartoum’s assertion of national sovereignty to outweigh the significance of hundreds of thousands of lives in Darfur?
Given all that we know about Darfur, and all that can be inferred with moral certainty, and given the present refusal by any government or international organization to call for humanitarian intervention, we have a default answer: the world indeed again stands prepared merely to witness vast, racially/ethnically driven human destruction. And until there is a clear, decisive call for urgent humanitarian intervention, this answer will stand.
The issue of the day is not remembering Rwanda, but understanding why we are still prepared to accept genocide in Africa.
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