Handwringing Over Genocide - Darfur, Sudan

by Dan Connell

The Progressive magazine, December 2004



A 'the of gang rapes, bloody massacres, and village demolitions in Darfur, Sudan, flooded the news media this fall, Secretary of State Cohn Powell went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to characterize the carnage as "genocide." Both President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry echoed this indictment during the first of three Presidential debates. But what was most remarkable about these charges was not so much who was making them as how little impact they had on the unfolding disaster.

At least 70,000 civilians have been killed, 400 villages destroyed, and more than 1.5 million people displaced in a brutal campaign that has devastated Darfur over the past eighteen months, leading U.N. officials to term this "the world's worst humanitarian crisis."

Though large-scale attacks slowed over the summer after a parade of reporters, diplomats, and relief workers trooped through the area, acts of terror continue. Janjaweed militiamen are raping women and girls as they leave camps to collect firewood, says Dennis McNamara, a senior official in the U.N.'s Nairobi Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance. The U.N.'s special representative for Sudan, Jan Pronk, told the Security Council in October that since August there has been "no systematic improvement of people's security and no progress on ending impunity."

In response, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan established a five-member commission to determine whether genocide is being committed. Headed by Antonio Cassese, an Italian judge who served as the first president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the commission includes members from Egypt, Pakistan, Ghana, and Peru. Its appearance signals a growing international outcry over this slaughter, muted for nearly a year as the bodies piled up, even as punitive action is delayed.

The Dutch foreign minister has raised the prospect of European Union sanctions on Sudan, while Britain, Australia, and New Zealand have offered to send peacekeepers. Congress has called the killing "genocide" and, on September 18, the Bush Administration shepherded a resolution threatening sanctions through the U.N. Security Council.

But for all the public handwringing, precious little action has resulted from any quarter beyond the dispatch of a few dozen African Union monitors to document the deteriorating situation. Nor is it likely to, apart from efforts to send more monitors and to accelerate a belated relief effort-which suits the Khartoum government and just about everyone else involved, except the people of Darfur themselves.

The Darfur crisis often, described as tribal warfare between Arabs and Africans, is both more and less than that.

The frontline combatants and their victims are mainly of Arab or African descent, though it is often difficult to distinguish them face to face. But the Janjaweed themselves are more a rampaging gang than an organized militia. Even their name is merely a colloquialism for "horsemen with guns," not a term with cultural, linguistic, or political roots, and they do not in any organized way "represent" the Arab tribes in western Sudan.

Those who are being described as Janjaweed and are raping and pillaging under this name are drawn mainly from pastoral peoples who compete with the settled Fur farmers they are attacking for access to land and water. This longstanding contest has intensified as desertification has worsened. Many of these livestock herders only arrived in Sudan from Chad and West Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.

These tensions escalated into today's catastrophe when Sudan's central government-fearing a popular uprising among the Fur after the emergence in early 2003 of two small rebel groups demanding greater autonomy-stoked the resource rivalry by unleashing the Janjaweed as a proxy army. Since then, Khartoum has developed a more systematic counterinsurgency by incorporating Janjaweed militia members into the regular army and police.

The Darfur crisis is not one people assaulting another in a frenzy of long-buried ethnic hatred, as in Rwanda. It is a mob of armed thugs cashing in on the opportunity to loot at will, while securing political objectives set by their handlers: the quashing of an uprising that could not only threaten the government's hold on this region but also unravel its efforts to reach a lasting truce with the rebellious south.

Nor is the nature and scope of this disaster unique within Sudan. It is the outcome of a decades-long strategy of divide and rule that successive governments-all drawn from the fractious elite that resides in and around Khartoum-have used to put down challenges, mostly out of the international spotlight.

The tragic reality is that the Sudanese government has largely got what it wanted from its Janjaweed proxies by now: the routing of the two small rebel armies-the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement-that attacked government military installations in 2003 and the draining of the civilian sea in which they swam.

For their part, the Janjaweed have got what they wanted: a treasure trove of booty pillaged from their victims, none of which is likely to be returned, together with vastly expanded access to grazing land for their herds. Aid workers told visiting journalists in September that Janjaweed working as camp police are trying to bribe refugees to go back to their villages to blunt international protest.

If the Khartoum government can maintain a modicum of control over the Janjaweed, the Bush Administration will get what it wants, too: an apparent diplomatic success at modest cost. Such a result would satisfy Bush's evangelical Christian constituency, which is crusading against the regime's persecution of southern Christians. That result would also permit the dismantling of Clinton-era sanctions, thus allowing the reopening of Sudan's extensive and largely untapped oil reserves to American companies.


Dan Connell, the founder and former director of Grassroots International, writes frequently on the Horn of Africa. He teaches journalism and African politics at Simmons College in Boston.

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