Amidst all the devastation in Darfur, Sudan, one seemingly trite facet of the issue has repeatedly drawn debate and polarized critics: semantics. In particular, the word ‘genocide’ has caused much grief and stutter-stepping on the part of governments, especially those afraid to use the word. Due to legal considerations and an increasingly complicated geopolitical atmosphere, genocide has become a problematic word. As a result, one school of thought defines the conflict in Darfur as genocide, and another refuses to acknowledge that genocide is what is actually taking place.
The current conflict in Darfur began in 2003, eclipsed by the war in Iraq. A decade previous, the Clinton administration had all but ignored a Rwandan crisis and purposely avoided the word ‘genocide’ in its description of current events, as noted by a declassified security brief. That intention stemmed from a desire to not involve the country in armed conflict – a concern heightened by the language of a certain treaty that mandated intervention in case of genocide. Unfortunately, that inaction seems to have set a precedent for the United States on such issues, as relations between USA and Sudan have become riddled by economic, ethical, and political conflicts of interest.
Though genocide was outlined as a crime in 1946 under international law, no legal definition existed until 1948 when the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) formed. At that point, genocide was defined to consist of one of several acts: killing, seriously injuring, or deliberately inflicting conditions calculated to bring physical destruction in whole or in part to a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. Additionally, imposing birth prevention measures or forcibly transferring children from one group to another was defined as genocide.
The most powerful, developed countries in the world held off from signing the treaty for years. The oft-designated sole remaining superpower in the world waited until 1988. Though even that did not stand. Today, the United States is in the same boat as Israel and Sudan, having unsigned a key provision of the CPPCG that effectively exculpates any legal liability. This hesitation and opposition to the treaty’s provisions, much like the reticence to employ the word genocide, has stymied the efforts of activists for years. On all sides of the issue, people strive to make their voice heard and do their best to describe the calamity taking place. At the same time, various entities provide conflicting and sometimes diametrically opposite points of view, leaving a confusing and turgid landscape to sort out.
While there is no shortage of figures and estimates given as to the number of displaced persons, fatalities, and so on, the disparity between them is often alarming and troublesome. On one end of the spectrum, estimates of displaced peoples and total casualties veer into the hundreds of thousands and even millions. On the other end, the government of Sudan offers a trifle amount not above ten thousand. Granted, margins of error are present and different scopes factor in, but there is clear subterfuge among Sudanes officials.
Therein lies one of the centerpieces of this debate: the scale of warfare is not readily quantifiable. Assessing the number of internally displaced people is not an easy task. Yet, despite the lack of idealistic accuracy concerning statistics, there is ample evidence that specific peoples are being targeted and specific crimes are being committed against them: namely crimes that are outlined in the legal definition of genocide as put forth by the CPPCG. However, the situation’s sufficiency to meet the terms outlined by the resolution hinge on proving intent, as with common murder.
One reporter who spent the month of June this year in Nuba stressed the fact that this was not an ethnic or religious genocide, but one against the minority group of South Kordofans, who in large part contributed to the recent secession of South Sudan. In this reporter’s words, the appointment of a man with outstanding indictments from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes – Ahmed Haroun – was tantamount to a statement of malicious intent. Falsified election results seemed to be the last straw for rebels in the area, and violence has broken anew.
There is much evidence that stands in support of the argument to categorize the conflict in Darfur as genocide. The Janjaweed for example, a loosely-organized Arab militia, had been operating at the behest of Sudanese officials while systematically destroying both the lives and livelihood of African tribes perceived to harbor the potential for insurgents. The victims – primarily the Fur, Massaleit, and Zaghawa – have suffered tremendous losses that did not end at death or rape, with widespread accounts of families being forced to witness such acts of cruelty against their brethren. Additionally, leaked intelligence from the United Nations (UN) confirms the fact that the Sudan Armed Forces are purposely targeting those of Nuban descent, in addition to the dark-skinned people of South Kordofan.
In fact, Al-Bashir has made it clear that his interests lie in furthering Islam and Arabic ideologies. Darfur is not the only region in which he is charged with having committed genocide. The UN confirmed that by mid-summer, half of the state’s districts were embroiled in conflict and thousands of people were evacuating their villages due to bombings, particularly in the foothills of central Sudan: the Nuba Mountains. There, traditional leaders – sheikh – were being executed as other villagers were forced to disperse into the surrounding mountains. Tragically, this appears to be the second coming of genocide for Nuba, which was ground zero for much of the Second Sudanese Civil War.
South Sudan’s recent independence is the result of years and years of civil war. Yet however overdue, it only places more strain on other provinces in Sudan. Its liberation has likely incited others to consider their chances, simultaneously prompting the government to take preemptive measures. Eager to quell such rebellion, Al-Bashir has ramped up his attacks and coordinated a resurgence that has featured indiscriminate bombings and mass burials.
Now that renewed violence is propagating dispersion, people that have already been displaced are facing the same fate all over again. This year alone, some 70,000 Darfurians have been displaced by aerial bombardments – that figure not including other provinces in peril. Blue Nile has declared a state of emergency since September, but regions like South Kordofan and Abyei have also been plunged in the crossfire. To make matters worse, desertification, lack of water, and a severely compromised harvest season have aligned to spell doom for many refugees.
The worst of the warfare has resulted in lasting damage inflicted to water supplies, agricultural resources, and land itself. Pursuant to the definition outlined by the ICC, this assault on infrastructure and resources clearly amounts to the calculated physical destruction of a targeted people – whether it is total or not is inconsequential since the legal clause outlining this offense contains the words “in whole or in part.” Further reading illuminates the fact that signatories of the CPPCG are required to take preventive measures as soon as there is a “serious risk” of genocide.
As on-the-ground sources confirm, the heavy amounts of violence experienced a lull years ago when a peace resolution was met in 2005. However, from then until now refugees were perpetually suffering from displacement and disease-ridden camps where the potential for waterborne diseases sky-rocketed. This summer, matters again took a turn for the worse.
The opposition to the usage of genocide has taken more than one conflicting stance in its attempt to avoid the term. In the Clinton days, the excuse was that using “genocide” would cause us to have to take serious action, placing us in a position where our hand was forced more or less. Fast forward to the Bush administration, where almost the opposite was true: usage of the word genocide was predicted to spur others into action, but when Colin Powell alone uttered the word, he found only resistance among political contemporaries. Both administration’s vacillation on the issue illuminates a clear concern for the consequences of uttering genocide, in spite of their ability to commit to ratifying the CPPCG.
Critics of the genocide categorization are quick to dismiss the severity and scale of the situation. One Sudanese official likened the events to disagreements between herders, shepherds, and farmers – downplaying the violence and attributing it to land disputes. Similarities can be found among such opponents of the word genocide: statistical marginalization, insertion of economic considerations, and debate of the definition of genocide. A recurring theme is the tendency to attribute genocide as all or nothing: it is only genocide if an entire people or group is in the line of fire.
An unusual amount of reporters – whether caught in the confusion or ambivalent – began utilizing such euphemisms as ethnic cleansing to describe the conflicts. Of course, the language differs, but the reality persists and inaction continues. Further, the United Nation’s own commission on the matter concluded that the crimes against humanity in Darfur may be “no less serious or heinous than genocide.” So while the world tiptoes around terminology, Darfur and others suffer from displacement, rape, abduction, and summary executions that unfold in lieu of any formidable defense.
Misinformation remains strong among the regime, and Sudanese press is quick to place the blame on religious zionists and western powers who are allegedly trying to divide the resources of the country for their own ends. The sheer amount of oil in the southern region of Sudan has amassed untold pressures and agendas, many of which factored into the inevitable zoning and territorial disputes, never-mind the recognition of the conflict as genocide globally.
Unfortunately, the damage is very clear once all veils have been lifted. For those in denial, several countries have passed resolutions that make it illegal to deny the Holocaust ever happened, yet there will be no such plans for legislation related to belittling the problems in Darfur. The rest of the world will have to strive to illuminate the truth of the matter in the face of those who would rather use euphemisms, distractions, and outright lies to convince those lucky enough not to be involved of what actually happened.
Those who would argue against the existence of genocide in Darfur, whether past or present, are downplaying a humanitarian crisis that has spiraled out of control. It is unclear why, when soft words and euphemisms contribute to apathy and avoidance of the situation. In the same way the Turkish government has methodically pioneered methods to deny and marginalize the Armenian genocide, Sudan and its president, Omar Al-Bashir, appear to be following in the footsteps of propagandists before them. The debate over genocide, its definition, and its perpetrators may be perpetual, but the utter inertia inspired by those issues ought not have consequences for the innocent.
1.Hamilton, R. (2011). Crisis in sudan: allegations of ethnic cleansing in the nuba mountains. The New York Times, Retrieved from http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/24/crisis-in-sudan-allegations-of-ethnic-cleansing-in-the-nuba-mountains/
2.Human Rights Watch. (2011, June). Darfur in the shadows: the sudanese government’s ongoing attacks on civilians and human rights. Retrieved from http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/sudan0611webwcover.pdf
3.Mountain, T. (2011). A lucid, powerful look at the darfur genocide. Foreign Policy Journal, Retrieved from http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2011/08/13/burying-the-darfur-genocide-myth
4.Reeves, E. (2005). Genocide in darfur – how the horror began. Sudan Tribune, Retrieved from http://www.sudantribune.com/Genocide-in-Darfur-How-the-Horror,11445
5.United Nations, (2005). Report of the international commission of inquiry on darfur to the united nations secretary-general. Retrieved from http://www.un.org/News/dh/sudan/com_inq_darfur.pdf