Victims of genocide, 2005

Victims of genocide, 2005

ZNet, MA
Feb 11 2005

The UN’s decision, announced Monday, not to follow the US and
categorise what is going on in Darfur as ‘genocide’ reflects the
world’s established caution in applying the term, at least as long as
recognition of genocide implies the right – even the duty – to
intervene militarily to stop it. For if the events in Darfur are
genocide, then we must accept that there are many more genocides than
we normally care to admit. Alex de Waal, one of the world’s leading
experts on the crisis in Sudan, considers the debate over the hardest
word in world politics.

Is the US government’s determination that the atrocities in Darfur
qualify as ‘genocide’ an accurate depiction of the horrors of that
war and famine? Or is it the cynical addition of ‘genocide’ to
America’s armoury of hegemonic interventionism – typically at the
expense of the Arabs? The answer is both. The genocide finding is
accurate according to the letter of the law.

But it is no help to understanding what is happening in Darfur, or to
finding a solution. And this description neatly serves the purposes
of a philanthropic alibi to the US projection of power.

The war in Darfur is thoroughly confusing. Many of those in command
on both sides are themselves unclear why they are fighting – the
conflict has become locked into its own cycle of escalation.

When a band of farmers-turned-guerrillas swept out of their mountain
hideout and stormed the police station at Golo in central Darfur,
their immediate aim was to take weapons. Over the preceding months
and years, the local Popular Defence Forces had been selectively
confiscating guns from the civil populace, leaving other groups well
armed. A young lawyer called Abdel Wahid Nur had been gaoled in the
town of Zalingei for protesting about this. The village elders
selected Abdel Wahid as their political spokesmen.

With some other educated sons of the villages, they announced the
creation of the Sudan Liberation Army. Darfur had already been
flickering with the sparks of conflict, fostered by 20 years of no
government, and endemic banditry. The SLA manifesto blamed the
government in Khartoum for neglect, discrimination and
divide-and-rule tactics. In just a few weeks, SLA fighters were
running rings around demoralised and under-supplied army garrisons;
they even raided the regional capital, El Fasher, destroying six
military aircraft and kidnapping a general.

The PDF in Darfur were local militia set up in the wake of an
incursion by the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army in
1991. For some time they were broadly representative of the
population, but after the ruling National Congress Party split in
1999, the security cabal that controls the government began to
replace the leadership. They brought in loyalists, mostly Darfurian
Arabs from the same groups as an air force general on the
Presidential Council, Abdalla Safi el Nur.

Mostly young men from poor backgrounds, from camel-herding families
who had lost their livestock in the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s,
they were tough and bitter. The next step in the escalation of the
war was when the government franchised these PDF units to take the
lead in counter-insurgency. Using a label formerly applied to Chadian
Arab militias – janjawiid – these paramilitaries have become
notorious for their cruelty.

They have killed, burned, raped and starved their way across the
central belt of Darfur. In doing so, they have killed thousands of
people and deliberately starved thousands more. They have also
managed to stop a runaway insurgency that was rapidly seizing control
of the entire region.

Immediately thereafter, some of Darfur’s Islamists, purged from
government after 1999, formed their own resistance front, the Justice
and Equality Movement. Smaller but better funded, the JEM has raised
the spectre in government that their erstwhile colleagues are aiming
to use Darfur as a springboard to take power.

The Darfur war has ratcheted up through a series of miscalculations,
each time unleashing human suffering and political crisis beyond the
original problems. The peace talks hardly deal with the initial
causes of the war at all, and instead focus on the horrors unleashed
by the PDF massacres, the humanitarian crisis and the government’s
string of broken promises.

On 9 September 2004, US Secretary of State Colin Powell announced
that ‘Genocide has been committed in Darfur and the government of
Sudan and the janjawiid bear responsibility – and genocide may still
be occurring.’ This is historic: it is the first time the US
government has declared ‘genocide’ while events are still in train.

Powell is correct in law. According to the facts as known and the law
as laid down in the 1948 Genocide Convention, the killings,
displacement and rape in Darfur are rightly characterised as
‘genocide’. But his finding has significant political implications.
The genocide determination is a substantial expansion on the use of
the term in contemporary international political discourse – and
arguably, therefore, in customary international law. It is also a
politically significant act in the shadow of the US occupation of
Iraq and the (mis-)characterisation of the war in Darfur as between
‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’.

According to the letter of the law, it is genocide in Darfur. The
terms of the 1948 Convention, as interpreted by the International
Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, provide us with enough of a case. Let
us examine the objections.

Is it bad enough? Do the nature and scale of the crime qualify for
genocide? After all, critics will argue that among the well over 3
million Darfurian non-Arabs, best estimates are for a death toll of
70,000, mostly due to hunger and disease, not violence. There are
many other contemporary or recent events – including several episodes
in Sudan’s civil war – with higher death tolls, and clear evidence
for ethnic targeting.

However, for an event to count as genocide it does not need to
involve the absolute liquidation of groups. It is enough for them to
be deliberately harmed – physically attacked, driven off their land
or collectively damaged in some way. There is enough evidence for
ethnically-targeted violence across a wide area to meet the
criterion. And in Sudan, the verb ‘to starve’ is transitive – people
are dying of hunger, it’s because someone has deliberately inflicted
this state on them. Today’s Darfur famine is a crime.

Can we identify intent by the perpetrators? Unlike the Holocaust or
Rwanda, there was no blueprint for a transformed, post-genocidal
society, no titanic ideological ambition. Definitely, the murderous
campaign was informed, in part, by dreams of an Arab homeland across
Sahelian Africa. Former members of Colonel Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion,
disbanded for more than a decade, may have continued to nurture those
dreams. But they do not in themselves amount to a grand plan.

The ongoing and extremely violent process of identity change in
Sudan, which long precedes the current government, may also include a
misty vision of a homogenous Arab-Islamic homeland. At some point in
the 1990s, the government did entertain such ambitions – and they
contributed directly to the attempted genocide of the Nuba – but that
was in the heyday of its visions of re-engineering all of Sudanese
society in an Islamist mould.

Many of the ideologues who promoted that dream (notably Hassan al
Turabi) are now in opposition, and some are even aligned with one of
the Darfurian resistance movements, the Justice and Equality
Movement. Those who remain in government are now concerned solely
with staying in power.

However, while the absence of an ideological schema and
transformational blueprint is important for diplomats and genocide
scholars, it does not entail lack of guilt in law. The bar is lower.
This can be inferred from the successful ICTR prosecution of a
Rwandese genocidaire, Jean-Paul Akayesu, in which it was found that
intent could be inferred from a number of presumptions of fact,
including the general context in which deliberate harm was
systematically being inflicted on the target group.

In the Darfur case, the fact that the state did not plan genocide is
immaterial. It planned a counterinsurgency and gave its officers
complete impunity to commit atrocities, which they have routinely
done on a gross scale and an ethnic basis. This was ethics-free
counterinsurgency, escalated to a genocidal extreme.

An interesting and sophisticated objection is that the target group
cannot be adequately defined. In Darfur, the term ‘African’ is
historically, racially and anthropologically bogus. It’s a recent
ideological construct, of which more later. But one can identify
groups subjectively, including by native language. The case of
distinguishing the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda was tougher, but the
ICTR overcame that problem. It emphasised what was subjectively
believed in the minds of those perpetrating the acts in question.

The popular racialised or essentialised viewpoint may have been
discredited by scholars, but this scholarly argument cannot be
adduced to explain away the specific labels used and the intent to
kill selectively, based on those labels. The ICTR used the definition
‘a stable and permanent group, whose membership is defined largely by
birth’. That fits Darfur’s complex ethnicities.

Concealed within the ‘arbitrary ethnicity’ objection is another
argument: that declaring genocide itself causes the polarisation and
solidification of ethnic and racial categories. This is significant:
once a conflict is construed in these terms, complex over-lapping or
shifting identities are stamped into a simple bipolar mould. Usually,
the simplified labelling of ethnic groups long precedes outsiders’
designations of genocide. But in Darfur, this may not be the case:
there was an Arab-non-Arab divide, but it was a moot question whether
it would prevail over other identity markers including ‘Darfurian’
and ‘Muslim’.

Ethnicity in Darfur is fabulously complex; to understand, one must
discard all the presuppositions inherited from analysing the rest of
Africa, including the rest of Sudan. Historically, Darfur was an
independent sultanate. It had a structure similar to that of a string
of states across Sudanic Africa. At its core was a ruling ethnic
group (the Keira clan of the Fur), which had adopted Islam and used
Arabic as the language of jurisprudence. This core expanded, drawing
in neighbouring groups.

Indeed, the larger part of the Fur are known as ‘Kunjara’, which
means ‘gathered together’. Beyond this were tributary groups,
including Arabic-speaking Bedouins (closely integrated into the
state, because they ran the trans-Saharan camel caravans on which the
Sultanate depended for its revenue), and a range of others –
non-Arabic speakers and Arabic-speaking cattle herders. To the far
south were the people of the hinterland, forest dwellers who were
raided for slaves. In the Fur language, the collective term for these
people was ‘Fertit’, and there is an amalgam of groups in the western
part of Southern Sudan who still bear this label.

The Darfur Arabs are just as black, indigenous, Muslim and African as
their non-Arab neighbours. To speak of an African-Arab dichotomy is
historical and anthropological nonsense. But Sudan as a whole has
inherited such a distinction between the Arabised ruling elites from
the far north and the Southerners, mostly non-Muslim, who have been
fighting for separation or equal status since Sudan achieved
independence in 1956.

The country has often been regarded as a ‘bridge’ between the African
and Arab worlds, or an amalgam of the two traditions. Within that,
it’s clear that the Southerners belong to an ‘African’ pole and the
ruling elite to an ‘Arab’ pole. (No matter that one of the three
tribes of the ruling elite is in fact Nubian-these are complexities
familiar to the political ethnographer.) The comparable historic
distinction for Darfur would have been ‘Fur’ at one pole and ‘Fertit’
at the other. But, absorbed into a Sudanese state, and compelled to
accept the discourses of the wider nation, Darfur has been shoehorned
into an alien mould.

First to embrace an externally-constructed ethnic label were some of
Darfur’s Arab Bedouins, who lived in Libya and served in Gaddafi’s
‘Islamic brigade’. They found that the label ‘Arab’ was a useful
political tool, buying them identity and solidarity in Libya and also
in Khartoum. In response, educated young men from Darfur’s non-Arab
groups – principally Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa -found the label
‘African’ in use by the Southerners and especially the SPLA leader,
John Garang, who sought to build a non-Arab majority coalition across
Sudan. Political Arabism is therefore fairly recent in Darfur, and
political Africanism an elite construction of just a few years’
vintage. But the war, the atrocities and above all the international
engagement around it may yet set these labels in stone. Already,
community leaders in Darfur are using these labels in their
interactions with aid agencies and diplomats.


If the events in Darfur are genocide, then we must accept that there
are many more genocides than we normally care to admit. At least
three earlier episodes in the Sudanese civil war must count as
genocide – the militia raids into Bahr el Ghazal in the 1980s, the
jihad in the Nuba Mountains in the early 1990s, and the clearances of
the oilfields in the late 1990s. Add to that the mass ethnic killings
in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the persecution of minorities in
Myanmar, and a host of others. Gone will be the doubts over Bosnia,
Cambodia and the Armenian massacres.

In lay usage, and in international relations, ‘genocide’ has always
been reserved for the most extreme cases in which there is a plan,
with realistic expectation of success, for the complete physical
annihilation of a target group. In recent history there are just two
instances of this, the Holocaust and Rwanda. We may call these
‘absolute genocides’ to distinguish them from the much longer list of
cases of ‘convention genocide’. Activists and scholars have long
resisted grading or categorizing genocides: the U.S. determination on
Darfur obliges them to do just that.

One of the reasons why international practice – which we can take to
be customary international law – has been so conservative in using
the label genocide has been the fear of the repercussions. It implies
the right, and perhaps the duty, to intervene militarily. Although
Colin Powell insisted that U.S. policy towards Sudan would remain
unchanged – thereby seeming to defeat the purpose of making the
determination in the first place – there is no doubt that declaring
genocide creates legal and political space for intervention.

The 9 September determination is thus the first time the Genocide
Convention has been used to diagnose genocide (rather than prosecute
it), and it has the effect of radically innovating what counts as
genocide in customary international law.

What does the US determination signify? At one level, it is the
outcome of a very specific set of political processes in Washington
D.C., in which interest groups were contending for control over U.S.
policy towards Sudan. In this context, the call to set up a State
Department inquiry into whether there was genocide in Darfur was a
tactical manoeuvre designed to placate the anti-Khartoum lobbies
circling around Congress (an unlikely alliance of liberal journalists
and human rights advocates, and the religious right), while buying
time for those in the State Department committed to pushing a
negotiated settlement.

It was, in Washington terms, a minor turf war and a policy
cul-de-sac: as Colin Powell remarked after announcing the
determination, US policy will not change. Overstretched in Iraq, the
Pentagon has only reluctantly provided transport planes to help the
African Union observer mission deploy in Sudan. The department of
defense would veto any US military presence.

But at another level, the genocide determination reveals much about
the US role in the world today, and the unstated principles on which
US power is exercised. Those principles are shared by both the
advocates of US global domination and their liberal critics, and are
revealed in the commonest narrative around genocide, which takes the
form of a salvation fairy tale, with the US playing the role of the

The term ‘genocide’ consigns its architects to the realm of pure
evil, beyond humanity and politics. They are Nazis. As their sinister
plot unfolds, good people implore America to use its might to
intervene. But, caught up in their own concerns, and ensnared by the
United Nations, America’s leaders are indifferent, and fail to act
until it is too late. The paradigm of this tragic melodrama is
presented at the opening display of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum,
where the visitor is invited to step into the role of the victorious
US soldiers liberating Nazi concentration camps.

For six decades, Americans have been dreaming of redeeming that
historic fatal tardiness, and dispatching troops in time to save the
day. Their failure to do so in Rwanda and Bosnia ten years ago
sparked another round of soul searching and led directly to the
Kosovo bombing campaign and the Darfur genocide determination.

This intervention narrative is a travesty of what actually happens,
especially when we broaden the canon of genocides to include cases
such as Stalin’s persecuted minorities, the Indonesian massacres of
1965, Tibet, Bangladesh, the Guatemalan counter-insurgency, Bosnia,
Chechnya, the Myanmar minorities, Biafra, the Luwero Triangle in
Uganda, Burundi, Congo and at least three previous episodes in
Sudan’s civil war prior to Darfur.

How did these genocides end? With the sole exception of Kosovo, not
with the US cavalry. Usually because the perpetrators decided they
had had enough – they had achieved their goals or changed those goals
– or because the victims were strong enough to resist. Sometimes a
regional power intervened (usually when the worst was over) – India
in Bangladesh, Vietnam in Cambodia. In a couple of cases, of which
Southern Sudan is one, there has been a negotiated settlement.

However, the study of genocide remains dazzled by the reality of the
Holocaust and the redemptive tale of liberating intervention. It’s
easy to understand why such a narrative is so compelling: any story
that puts us at the centre of events is intrinsically more engaging
than one that claims that the events in question proceed regardless
of what we do.

The truth is that the political agendas of the genocidaires in Rwanda
and Sudan have precious little to do with the US, and it is likely
that if solutions are found, the US role will be marginal and will
not involve intervention.

There’s a deeper logic at work. What the melodrama reflects is a
potent mix of untrammelled power and humanitarian sensibility. This
mix persuades us to see the world in a certain way. Increasingly,
it’s a Manichean worldview, in which we – meaning the US and its
close ally Britain – are the upholders of good in a world of evil. Of
course, our actual use of power is far from perfect, and it is this
gap between aspiration and reality that provides the leverage for a
moral critique of power.

We have the power and occasionally the will to intervene militarily
almost wherever we like. And we like to portray these interventions
as humanitarian, and make a humanitarian logic for other
interventions. Furthermore, we are frustrated by the shackles placed
on these actions by international law and its cumbersome procedures.

In the specific case of Darfur, it was the US left that railed
against these shackles and beat the drum for a declaration of
‘genocide’ and a policy of intervention, though it is the right that
will inherit this weapon and, at some future date, perhaps use it.

And the fact that the group labelled as genocidaires in this conflict
are ‘Arab’ is no accident. There’s no covert masterplan in Washington
to brand Arabs genocidal criminals, but rather an aggregation of
circumstance that has led to the genocide determination. It has
special saliency in the shadow of the US ‘global war on terror’,
misdirected into the occupation of Iraq and seen across the Arab and
Muslim worlds as a reborn political Orientalism.

After 11 September 2001, the US sees Muslim Arabs as actual or
potential terrorists targeting the homeland. After 9 September 2004
(and the Darfur atrocities are indeed a crime), Arabs (and perhaps
all Muslims too) are actual or potential genocidaires and their
targets are Africans. It’s sad but predictable that too many Africans
will fall for this trap and that the brave efforts of the African
Union to build a continental architecture for peace and security will
be impaled on an externally constructed divide.

The outcome of the Darfur genocide determination is to lower the bar
on US interventions. It adds another tool to the armoury of an
interventionist hegemonic power. At the appropriate moment – which
isn’t Darfur – a ‘genocide’ finding may be a philanthropic alibi for
an imperial venture.

The genocide determination is correct in law. There are atrocities
that need to be stopped and their perpetrators punished. There’s a
war that needs a negotiated settlement.

The US decision to use the label ‘genocide’ – the outcome of
intra-beltway political calculus as much as anything else – drags
Darfur into a wider global scheme, a polarity in which Arabs are
collectively labelled and stigmatised, and divisive identities
imposed upon poor and strife-ridden parts of the world. In this case,
let us hope that a remedy is snatched for the people of Darfur. But
the people of Africa as a whole are the loser.

Alex de Waal is a writer and activist on African issues. He is a
fellow of the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University and a
director of Justice Africa. This article appears in a forthcoming
issue of Index on Censorship.