Last week, Jimmy Carter toured Sudan as part of a group of international celebrities who are calling themselves “the Elders.” Founded by Nelson Mandela, the Elders aim–in the modest words of one member, British billionaire Richard Branson–to address “problems in the world that need a group of people who are maybe…beyond politics, beyond ego, and who have got great wisdom.”
Great wisdom? Let’s just say the group is off to a rocky start. That’s because Carter took the opportunity of his visit to Sudan to criticize the United States for labeling the killing and destruction in Darfur genocide. “There is a legal definition of genocide and Darfur does not meet that legal standard,” Carter lectured. “The atrocities were horrible but I don’t think it qualifies to be called genocide.” He also said, “If you read the law textbooks…you’ll see very clearly that it’s not genocide and to call it genocide falsely just to exaggerate a horrible situation–I don’t think it helps.”
Carter got one thing right–that there is a legal definition of genocide, embodied in the 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide–but that’s it. The “atrocities” Carter refers to have included, over the past four and a half years, the deliberate, ethnically targeted destruction of not only African tribal populations, but their villages, homes, food- and seed-stocks, agricultural implements, and water sources. People die now in Darfur primarily because of this antecedent violence, directed against not only lives but livelihoods. Here, the Genocide Convention is explicit: You can commit genocide not only by “[k]illing members of [a] group” but also by “[d]eliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” The destruction in Darfur clearly meets that test.
Then there is the use of rape as a weapon of war by Arab militias in Darfur. The racial component of rape in Darfur has been well-documented at this point. In a typical example, here is what three Fur women–the Fur are the largest African tribal group in Darfur–told Doctors Without Borders: “We saw five Arab men who came to us and asked where our husbands were. Then they told us that we should have sex with them. We said no. So they beat and raped us. After they abused us, they told us that now we would have Arab babies; and if they would find any Fur, they would rape them again to change the color of their children.” Racist epithets are typically hurled at women and girls, who are often gang-raped and then scarred to mark them as rape victims–a terrible burden in Darfur’s conservative Muslim ethos. Can there be any denying that such ethnically targeted rapes fall under the Genocide Convention’s admonition that “[c]ausing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group” constitutes genocide? Moreover, because of the stigma that attaches to raped women, marriage and thus child-bearing becomes impossible for many. And, for some victims, especially younger girls, ensuing medical complications make child-bearing physically impossible. Which means that these rapes clearly meet yet another definition of genocide contained in the U.N. convention: “[i]mposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”
In addition, children, as well as women, are continually abducted by the Janjaweed. This, too, is a genocidal act under the convention, which prohibits “[f]orcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
None of this should be controversial at this late date. Numerous human rights organizations have, over the past four years, collected unambiguous evidence of genocide. The examples could fill books. A young African man who had lost many family members in an attack heard the gunmen say, “You blacks, we’re going to exterminate you.” Speaking of Khartoum’s relentless aggression, an African tribal leader told a U.N. news service, “I believe this is an elimination of the black race.” A refugee reported these words as coming from his attackers: “You are opponents to the regime, we must crush you. As you are black, you are like slaves. Then the entire Darfur region will be in the hands of the Arabs.” Another African tribal chief declared, “The Arabs and the government forces…said they wanted to conquer the whole territory and that the blacks did not have a right to remain in the region.” And Musa Hilal, the most powerful Janjaweed leader, declared his objective in simple terms back in 2004: “Change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes.”
As for the complicity of the Sudanese government officials whom Carter clearly imagines he can charm with his criticism of the genocide label: The air attacks mounted by Khartoum, often in conjunction with Arab Janjaweed ground forces, have been directed exclusively at African villages, primarily those of the Fur, Massalit, and Zaghawa–the perceived civilian base of support for Darfur’s rebels. The hand-in-glove operations of Khartoum’s regular military forces and the Janjaweed have been authoritatively documented by Human Rights Watch.
In short, it seems doubtful that Carter has read the textbooks he claims to have read, or the vast body of human rights literature on Darfur–or even the Genocide Convention itself. If he had done any of these things, he would not speak so ignorantly.
But Carter isn’t just wrong on the facts. His prescriptive point–that it is unhelpful to label Darfur a genocide–is foolish as well. No doubt Carter’s statement was the quid in some ghastly quid pro quo he hopes to arrange with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. But Sudan’s leaders are realists, and our only hope of changing their behavior is to credibly threaten them. The calculus is simple: If they believe the west–the United States, Europe, human-rights activists–now see the Darfur conflict as a chaotic civil war, not a genocide, they will feel less threatened. Which means they are more likely to dig in their heels on the diplomatic front–refusing to negotiate a political solution to the crisis–while waiting for the final cleansing of Darfur to run its course. The upshot is that Carter, a man who is so fond of lecturing others about the need for diplomacy, has managed to make a diplomatic solution to Darfur’s bloodletting less likely. Great wisdom, indeed.
Eric Reeves is a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan.