12/02/2007 06:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Nicholas Kristof on Darfur: The First Genocide of the 21st Century

The final event in the 'Live From The New York Public Library' series featured Nicholas Kristof deliver the Robert B. Silvers Lecture to a packed house. This annual series created to commemorate the work of Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books has been presented in previous years by highly respected writers including Joan Didion, JM Coetze and Daniel Mendelshohn.

Kristof opened up by suggesting the balance often most difficult to strike in journalism is between 'spinach' issues (those that are 'good for us') and the 'candy' issues (the ones we 'want to read' and enjoy) and that Bob Silvers was good at making 'spinach taste like candy.' This was interesting insofar as the idea of the 'balance' in journalism, as it seems increasingly the case that some journalists have taken it upon themselves to be campaigning employing the "journalism of attachment' rather than reporting per se.

Kristof, a two-time Pulitzer prize winner, told the audience that it was 'people like you...young people' that would make the difference in stopping genocide, as historically the U.S. has not intervened, whether it was Woodrow Wilson in 1915 with the Armenians, FDR's refusal to bomb the train lines headed to Auschwitz or Clinton in 1994 with Rwanda. While the current president had written 'not on my watch,' it has been now been four years since the Sudanese government backed the Janjaweed tribes in face of the rebel insurgency and 'still the genocide continues.'

Kristof outlined why he believes this is genocide and provided harrowing accounts of refugees who had fled to the border with Chad and were taking shade under the trees. He recounted four horrific stories by the people under the first four sets of trees he went to -- including a man who had been shot and left for dead with his family and carried by his brother for 49 days, a woman who had her husband and male relatives executed in front of her and then was shot herself, two sisters, five- and one-years-old who had their parents and sisters murdered and the final woman, whose husband and two children were killed and she was gang-raped and mutilated and left naked in the desert to act, so she could tell others what was in store for them.

Harrowing stuff indeed and the tone was sombre and hushed in this great institution. Kristof went on to outline a number of questions and challenges that he often came up against with regard to his classification of Darfur as being an example genocide and the wider issues relating to it. He sited Raphael Lemkin's definition and conceded that perhaps Cambodia was not genocide -- intellectuals were targeted rather than ethnic groups. He disputed the notion that it was simply 'tribalism' as the Sudanese government had clearly backed the Janjaweed and while he recognized there were complexities and sometimes it was not ideological, but rather people were simply paid to attack villages, nevertheless it was a campaign of genocide by the Sudanese administration. He argued there is an economic imperative also, as already $2 billion has been committed to aid and if the conflict is not prevented more would be spent. Also, the likelihood of further destabilization and what that may mean in light of the threat of terrorism was also a possibility. Wow. So, what was to be done?

The 'Not on my watch - Save Darfur' green arm bands by the Save Darfur campaign is something that Kristof argues has an affect on President al-Bashir of Sudan (who employs PR strategies to promote his side of the situation) and public opinion creates leverage. As the recent case of the British teacher and the teddy bear illustrated, he argued, when Darfur is in the news, the Sudanese government is more restrained.

At this point however, it is necessary to interrogate some of the arguments and assumptions that Kristof has been asserting. First, it has become increasingly popular for a host of groups to claim 'genocide' to bring attention to their plight and situation. This includes not only well known cases such as Bosnian Muslims, but Chechens, Falun Gong followers, gay men, HIV/Aid sufferers, Maoris, Native Americans , Palestinians, Tibetans, unborn children (by others of course) and many, many others.

While it is certainly true that many terrible things have happened around the world, the term genocide evokes immediately the horrors of the Holocaust, where a powerful industrial nation systematically went about constructing buildings with the aim of extinguishing a group from existence. It does seem that consistent use of this term can trivialize it .

Indeed, whether discussing the taking down of Australian forests or the toxins we may be breathing in it does appear that everyone wants a piece of the G-word action. Thus, those that experience Katrina can raise the spectre of genocide in a bid to heighten their argument. While Kristof wants us to concentrate on Darfur as being 'the first genocide of the 21st century', people have already put forward the argument that the 'genocide may spread to Chad.'

There are some that argue that the increasing use of human rights as a means to intervene has simply been an effective tool of the post Cold War world to allow the moral authority to rule internationally and enables the powerful nations, primarily the US to dominate. Indeed, others have recently suggested that the banding around of the term genocide is an instrumentalist policy useful to the west, aimed at asserting moral authority where it suits. Some have suggested this is a mechanism to create an entirely new code of morality, as the old certainties have died, where western governments, journalists and campaigners can present themselves as being morally superior to those on the 'Dark Continent' or elsewhere.

I was therefore surprised that Kristof suggested that Europe was 'not doing much' in this discussion as the issue of Darfur and indeed genocide is on the tip of everyone's lips . Further, the amount of people campaigning in the U.S. seems to suggest it is something that has taken off, in our depoliticised times. As the Genocide Intervention Network likes to put it in cool text language, we have a R2P, or Responsibility to Protect. Where once young people -- and the UN -- believed in national autonomy, now we are increasingly predisposed to dispense with that when we decide genocide is occurring. That is all the more reason it seems, why we should be absolutely clear about the use of the term and how and why it has become so popular to claim it. Indeed, as Alan Kuperman set out in The New York Times, playing up to the 'genocide victim card' may well have had the opposite of the intended effect in Darfur. Others have echoed echoed this.

Kristof was clear that he did not believe sending in ground troops was a sensible strategy, in light of the situation in Iraq. He could not explain clearly, however, why this particular situation deserves to be highlighted as genocide against the variety of local disputes and (often remarkably bloody) power struggles over resources, territory and control that are playing out in various parts of the world, except that it was conducted by the Sudanese government -- and as such particularly evil.

Where once we had 'The White Man's Burden' and the idea of the noble savage that needed civilizing, these terms are rightly no longer acceptable today. However, the view that there is still a civilizing mission never seems to be far away, particularly when it comes to Africa. Robert Silvers, when introducing Nicholas Kristof, said that what made him so special is that Kristof 'knew what can and cannot be done...and what should be done.' While all the certainties of the past have disintegrated, it seems as though we are still keen to project the somewhat juvenile idea that 'good' versus 'evil' shall prevail. It is rare that such simplicity exists in life and conflict. It is perhaps in the field of journalism that we should be most wary of it -- and all its consequences.