Betwa Sharma Headshot

Is Darfur Genocide?

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What happened in Darfur? The "G" word has been tossed around. As the dust settles, more voices are challenging the mainstream verdict of genocide.

In 2004, the United States called Darfur a "genocide" and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. issued its first "genocide emergency." Next year, a United Nations panel found no genocide but that "crimes against humanity" had been committed in a "counterinsurgency" operation. Even Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have stopped short of calling it genocide.

This year, the International Criminal Court charged Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with crimes against humanity and war crimes but set aside the charge of genocide. The chief prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, insists that there is "ongoing genocide" and has appealed the decision of the court.

Darfur is lost in the wilderness of the law behind genocide. Why is it so hard to figure out and how does it matter? Is there a problem with the definition in the Genocide Convention? Or should this "crime of crimes" business be cast off?

Applying the definition of genocide ("acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group") to a real life situation is exhausting. "Intent" is a hard thing to figure out.

Did Khartoum have the intention to "destroy, in whole or in part," the African tribes? Was this the intention in 2003-04 when the conflict started and is it still the intention?
There is a multiple choice here: a) yes to both, or b) yes to 2003-04, or c) the intention was counterinsurgency all along.

Many people close to the ground have painted a non-genocide scenario -- two million Darfuris are living in displacement camps that are supervised by the government and one million Darfuris live peacefully in Khartoum.

As Rony Brauman, the former director of Doctors Without Borders points out, "Can one seriously imagine Tutsis seeking refuge in areas controlled by the Rwandan army in 1994 or Jews seeking refuge with the Wehrmacht in 1943?"

One rebuttal is that even if the government did not have the "intention" to commit genocide, the political leaders had knowledge of the genocidal acts being committed by the notorious Janjaweed. Is "knowledge" enough to make the government guilty?

This opens up another can of worms. Did the Janjaweed have the "intention" to destroy?
Can individuals in the Arab militia commit genocide or does it have to be carried out by the state machinery? All of this remains unresolved as a fierce academic and policy debate rages among lawyers, sociologists and criminologists.

So, why the need to call it "genocide"? In theory, the label compels response. Parties to the Genocide Convention are obligated to prevent and stop genocide. The reality check is that the United States called it genocide but nothing happened. Scores of mass killings in the previous century went untended, G or no G.

However, the "in theory" too has changed. Governments, under the newer Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, have committed to prevent and stop killings not only from genocide but also ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. For all theoretical purposes, the genocide label elicits no special response.

So, if there is "ongoing genocide," then the solution, in theory, should be intervention. But, if the crisis now is "low intensity fighting" then experts recommend an internal political solution. Plus, the genocide talk, at this stage, can hamper political negotiations. Who has peace talks with a genocidal regime?

Darfur expert Alex de Waal is critical of Moreno-Ocampo's brand of "judicial activism." "It seemed to me that Moreno-Ocampo was demanding that the world reverse the policy of negotiating with the Sudan government and instead adopts a strategy of regime change," he writes.

All said, the symbolic value of the G word continues to capture's people's imagination. A headline that screams genocide will get more clicks than an article that leads with crimes against humanity, war crimes or low intensity conflict.

Again, why is it so difficult to confirm whether genocide happened? The word is lost in a political and factual maze. To date, many groups debate whether the killing of one and half millions in Armenia was genocide. Even Barack Obama recoiled from his promise of using the G word to describe the carnage of 1915.

That happened almost 100 years ago but Darfur has unfolded over the past six years in front of a world audience. An arsenal of advanced technology and multiple sources of information have failed to pierce the heavy cloud over facts and figures.

The death toll's startling range from 10,000 to 300,000 is one of the most disputed elements of the conflict. It is also unclear how many died because of the fighting and the numbers that perished from the parallel "ecological conflict" of drought and desertification.

Everyone seems to be playing a different tune to the same crisis and this hotchpotch has taken on a life of its own. The chaos became clear at a debate at Columbia University featuring Africa Specialist Mahmood Mamdani and John Prendergast of the Enough Project to prevent genocide.

A great deal of time was spent going back and forth over the figures of the death toll.
Finally, Prendergast summed it up as "we really don't know." And, we might never know. "The evidence of all these crimes will be washed away in the sand of the Sahara," he said.

Mamdani also bashed the Save Darfur coalition for depicting the crisis as a "pornography of violence" and having a "contempt for facts". He described high school students that shared the Save Darfur point of view as the "Save Darfur version of child soldiers."

A few Sudanese in the crowd accused Mamdani for being an apologist for the government. "He was defending the Sudanese government more than the government itself," said one spectator whose family is in a displacement camp in North Darfur.

Prendergast, in turn, pooh-poohed Mamdani's image of mixed motives and double agendas. The speakers, however, did not offer a clear or even a sketchy path to fixing the problem. "They seemed to be talking about different conflicts," said one humanitarian worker in the audience.

Or perhaps, this is how history is weaved. Whoever emerges the strongest in Darfur will dictate, for the books, what happened in the region. Living through it, at the very least, is a glimpse at the different shades of reality. For now, as one student summed up the discussion, "No one seems to know anything."

2009-05-16-OttashcampinSouthDarfur.jpg

Ottash -- A displacement camp in South Darfur.