Thursday, June 10, 2010

Darfur and the Politics of Genocide

When the slaughter raged on in Rwanda for three months, the Clinton administration, fearing yet another military commitment in Africa, refused to use the “G-word.” Secretary of State Colin Powell and both chambers of the U.S. Congress referred to the mass rape and killing in Darfur as genocide back in 2004, as if to atone for our previous sin of indifference; ironically, while Rwanda, one of the worst genocides in history, went unnamed by the world’s superpower, the United Nations has not defined Darfur with this category of killing. About 300,000 people have died from deportation, rape, and murder since 2003 in Darfur, the Western region of Sudan roughly the size of Spain. Almost three million people now live in refugee camps on the border or near main towns.

A UN investigation has concluded that the massacres in Darfur do not qualify as genocide under the UN’s 1948 definition of the term; investigators failed to find any intent to wipe out an entire ethno-religious group. Human rights organizations disagree and, frankly, not being privy to the details, I’m withholding judgment one way or the other. Careful commentators and journalists refer to the Darfur “Conflict” or “Civil War,” but not genocide. Nonetheless, the rape and slaughter is horrific enough, regardless of the label we choose to use. I’m not an advocate of genocide-inflation, that is, referring to any massacre abroad with this broad brushstroke. Aid workers and activists like to attach this word to just about any instance of bloodshed in order to raise awareness, but genocide is a specific crime and laxity in its use will only serve to downgrade it and ultimately hinder efforts to stop it. Keep in mind that the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide has its critics; some socialist scientists and journalists think the burden to prove intent to commit genocide sets the bar impossibly high for prosecutors. At the least, the killing in Darfur amounts to a “genocidal massacre," a helpful term used by historians and sociologists to refer to genocide on a smaller scale than, say, the Holocaust or Rwanda.

Who’s responsible for the mass killing in Darfur lo these many years? In modern history genocides are inevitably state-sponsored events. Indeed, the Arab government of Sudan has supervised the slaughter from Day One, though President Omar al-Bashir has of course denied responsibility repeatedly. Helicopter gunships have left the villages of the Fur, Massaleet, and Zaghawa, the target ethnic groups of Western Sudan, in smoldering ruins. Inevitably, the hideous Janjaweed, Afro-Arab militia with an eye for booty, would ride into the villages and hamlets on their horses and camels before the smoke cleared to pillage, rape, torture and murder. Genocidal governments rely on paramilitary death squads more than the regular armed forces. In the wake of German military victory in Poland and the Soviet Union, SS Einsatzgruppen swept through the area to round up Jews and shoot them into makeshift pits. The Hutu-based Interahamwe in Rwanda organized the killing on the local level. The Janjaweed, meaning “devil on horseback,” roam freely under the tacit approval of Khartoum. Publicly, the president tries to distance himself from these “thieves,” but the central government could stop the militia were it not benefiting from their murderous patrols.

What has the international community done to stop the killing? The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has made the bold move to indict al-Bashir on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. The effort has been largely ineffectual. Two precedents paved the way for the indictment of a sitting president. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia charged Serbian President Slobodan Milošević with genocide in the case of Bosnia and war crimes for Croatia. The Special Court for Sierra Leone indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor on crimes against humanity. The Iraqi Interim Government tried and executed Saddam Hussein also for crimes against humanity. Until these recent cases, international law considered national sovereignty sacrosanct. A head of state and his regime could persecute minority groups with impunity provided the killing didn’t spill over the borders. Fortunately, the civilized world has changed this stance since the bloody 1990s.  In any event, the conflict in Darfur has spilled over into neighboring Chad, as many refugee camps exist on the border. Similarly, the Hutu killers of Rwandan Genocide escaped into Congo and started a chain of killings in that country that continues to this day.

UNAMID, the United Nations Mission in Darfur, is a joint peacekeeping operation conducted by the United Nations and the African Union. Complicating matters are rebel groups who’ve either cut deals with Khartoum or refused to negotiate. Moreover, they’ve committed atrocities of their own. Western diplomats and representatives of both the AU and Arab League have had little luck with the various factions. The UN's record on keeping the peace has been mediocre, to put it mildly. It might pay off to rely more on regional international bodies like for example the aforementioned African Union, European Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  Still, Darfur is the latest reminder that international resolve is impotent and effective peacekeeping a chimera.