Victims of genocide, 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 saviour.
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.