The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was supposed to be the last. With humanitarian atrocities easily reported by journalists, NGOs and other international actors, the belief was that it was to never happen again. The collective mantra was, "Never again." Then there was Darfur.
In 2001, as a brokered peace deal between North and South Sudan was moving closer to being finalized, the government in Sudan's capital city Khartoum began to support and carry out systematic attacks against the Fur people living in the western border region Darfur. With so much focus on achieving a North-South peace deal, reports of a possible genocide were largely ignored. Darfuri responded by organizing a force to fend off the attacks, and it was not until the peak of fighting, in early 2004, that the first article about a conflict-that-might-be-genocide appeared in a U.S. newspaper.
Coinciding with the 10-year anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the coverage of Darfur picked up immediately with articles from the likes of Samantha Power and Nick Kristof. Reporting from the Chad-Sudan border, Kristof wrote in March 2004, "[T]he government of Sudan is engaging in genocide against three large African tribes in its Darfur region here"
As more people learned about the genocide taking place in Darfur, the need to spring into action after having watched genocide unfold in Rwanda 10 years ago was palpable. From this sprung a series of advocacy groups aimed at mobilizing American citizens to stand up and pressure the American government to end genocide.
Unfortunately, the lessons learned in 1994 did not apply to 2004. The genocide of 2004 did not resemble the one of 1994. Multiple groups in a large nation with a long and complicated history meant that the story was not so simple. The weight and meaning of genocide meant that there was a reluctance by international actors to utter the word.
One advocate during this period, Rebecca Hamilton, has pieced together what ensued in her recently released book Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide. In the book, Hamilton unveils the efforts by the advocacy groups to coordinate their efforts while using an outdated and imperfect model.
In the 10 years since 1994, the international clout of the United States dwindled, while other countries, like China, grew to become significant global players. Unilateral action that would have been acceptable in 1994 was no longer an option in the years following the invasion of Iraq.
The United States was also in a different position in terms of its relationship with Sudan. Having labored to bring an end to the North-South conflict, a strong relationship with the government in Khartoum was essential to ensuring peace.
Hamilton takes her readers though the negotiations happening within the Bush administration and shows how advocates were successfully able to raise the profile of the genocide, but had little chance of forcing a government to act that was no longer the world's superpower. The U.S. would have to go through more traditional international channels such as the U.N. and ICC, options that were not politically popular.
Darfur advocates ran into an even larger problem when the fighting stopped shortly after campaigns began to gain traction. The need had shifted from military and diplomatic pressure to aid such as medicine, food and shelter. Because of a lack of coordination, leadership and understanding by supporters, the campaign was unable to make a smooth transition.
Hamilton writes, "The same human dynamics that limit the ability of government officials to respond early -- prioritizing the immediate crisis over the looming one, attending to what is familiar in preference to learning about a new situation -- seem to be present within the advocacy community as well."
Looking toward Rwanda, advocates justifiably thought that the campaign for Darfur would be much easier. It was not. Foreign interests, changing powers and the wrong tactics all conspired against the people trying to put an end to the genocide.
Seven years later, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur persists, the change in administration has brought little meaningful policy changes, South Sudan is a free nation, and reports of fighting in Kordofan may signal future conflict. "Never again" was used to apply to Rwanda, but the same phrase should be used when considering the Darfur advocacy campaign.
There were some small victories. Raising the profile of mass atrocities is a feat. Being able to speak with the President of the United States is only less impressive than compelling congressmen and women to make the issue a priority. Thanks to the research done by Hamilton, the information is now available to prevent people from making the same mistakes.