Genocide by Force of Habit?

John Maynard Keynes was once irritated by a half-witted critic: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

In 2004 I wrote in the London Review of Books, “this is not the genocidal campaign of a government at the height of its ideological hubris, as occurred with the 1992 jihad against the Nuba, or coldly determined to secure natural resources, as occurred when the government sought to clear the oilfields of Southern Sudan of its troublesome inhabitants. This is the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by its years in power, it is genocide by force of habit.”

During those horrific months I wrote that the atrocities in Darfur met the legal definition of genocide, as actions intended to destroy in part an ethnic group. Some enthusiasts of the charge in Darfur have suggested that this means that I subscribe to the entirety of the genocide accusations made against the Sudan Government in general or President Bashir in particular, or even that I subscribe to the “genocide narrative” for Darfur.

To those who make these charges, I say, examine what I wrote and examine the evidence for what is happening.

What was I writing about genocide? First, I contrasted the Darfur counterinsurgency with other episodes in the Sudanese civil war. As the title of the piece”””Counterinsurgency on the cheap”””should make clear, I subscribe to the view that the intent of those who planned the campaign was counterinsurgency, and that the foreseeable, habitual outcome of such a campaign was massacre, forced displacement, hunger and disease. I did not allege a genocidal plan. Moreover, I took pains to trace the origins of Arab supremacism in Darfur to Libya and Chad, and from there to some elements in the Janjawiid. The Arabism of Khartoum was different. The report of the International Commission of Inquiry into Darfur, headed by Prof. Antonio Cassese, came to a broadly similar conclusion. There was one significant difference: Cassese concluded that because the Sudan Government’s objective was counterinsurgency, that precluded Governmental responsibility for genocidal atrocity. At the time I argued that this objective was not relevant to whether acts of genocide had been committed.

The difference hinges on an interpretation of intent. Can one commit genocide while pursuing another objective””committing genocide in passing””as it were. This would amount to perpetrating a massacre or forced removal””the actus reus of genocide””with criminal intent but not with specifically genocidal intent. In 2004, I argued yes. Since then, lawyers have persuaded me that this would be stretching the law on genocide too far. An identification of genocide also requires a socio-political theory for how and why the crime was committed, and the genocide-as-ancillary-to-counterinsurgency theory of genocide is too contentious. (See my discussion on this issue on 10 February.) I think this conclusion is still up for discussion and this question deserves ongoing debate.

Eric Reeves, in The New Republic, writes that I contributed to the “genocide narrative.” In fact, it should be clear, I was specifically trying to create an alternative genocide narrative. This narrative made genocidal acts subordinate to the objective and means of counterinsurgency. Two other elements to my alternative narrative are worthy of note. First, I argued against international military intervention (though supportive of putting some international troops on the ground as peacekeepers). Second, I argued that we needed to rethink how genocides end. As it happens, I convened a seminar on this topic at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in January 2004. The overview paper for that seminar specifically challenges the conventional genocide narrative, arguing that most endings are determined by domestic national political processes, not international intervention, and that peace and reconciliation are possible afterwards.

So, it is true that I shifted my position. First, because of the law. It was, perhaps, a minor shift but, a shift across a watershed.

Second, because of the politics. Among the activists who called it genocide in those early days, some were doing so less because they had studied the facts and the law and mostly because they believed it was the best way to get a military intervention. This was intellectually, politically and ethically wrong. However, my efforts to establish an alternative genocide narrative, true to the realities of Sudan, and compatible with finding effective solutions, didn’t get far””it was swamped by the powerful simplicities of the conventional story that presumed a genocidal plan and had international military intervention as its only acceptable outcome. This dominant genocide narrative became an obstacle to action.

And third and most important, the facts changed. Scores of thousands of people were killed in 2003 and 2004 in violence. Most of them were killed by the Sudan government and its allies. A famine was unleashed that killed larger numbers. In 2005 this changed. Violence dropped by 90 percent or more and the humanitarian crisis was brought under control. The figures for this are pretty authoritative. Genocide Intervention Network, an organization with impeccable activist credentials, estimates that about 150 people were killed each month in violence from January to September last year. GI-Net used a variety of open access sources. UNAMID monitoring data, which are not public, give almost exactly the same figure. These data are not exhaustive, but UNAMID has a 24/seven presence in Kalma and some other IDP camps.

We are analyzing the data now. But, what would it mean for the genocide claims if it turned out that more Arabs were killed than non-Arabs? What would it mean if the armed movements were responsible for more killings than the Sudan Government?

Some have questioned why I alerted Sudanese political leaders to the likelihood that the ICC Prosecutor intended to demand an arrest warrant for President Bashir. The first I alerted was Salva Kiir, before I spoke with civil society and opposition leaders including Sadiq al Mahdi. They suggested that it would be advisable to let the President know as well, on the grounds that if he were caught by surprise, there was a danger that he would overreact. I took that advice. I am told the President was angry, but by the time that the official announcement was made on 14 July last year, wiser counsel had prevailed and he responded coolly. He didn’t expel aid agencies, for example.

Why criticize the Prosecutor of the ICC for his genocide charge? Because he’s doing a poor job. It’s not that Bashir is innocent but that with an incompetent prosecution he might be acquitted. Given the wealth of good evidence about crimes committed, the Prosecutor put together an extremely poor case. It is precisely those who are most serious in their criticisms of the Sudan Government and most supportive of the pursuit of justice who should hold the Prosecutor to the highest standards, for these reasons. Imagine if President Bashir were arrested, prosecuted””and acquitted. Antonio Cassese also criticizes him, as do influential legal scholars, precisely because they see the risk of this kind of outcome. Sudanese ambassadors circulate all these critiques of the ICC””overlooking the fact that the discerning reader will see that they actually give the Prosecutor guidance for doing a much better job.

Today, those who cry “ongoing genocide!” do so by force of habit and not force of evidence.

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14 thoughts on “Genocide by Force of Habit?

  1. We should of course respond to “changed facts”; what we should not do is change the facts.


    Neither here nor elsewhere does Alex de Waal offer a remotely adequate account of a key action specified by the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” This is a critical shortcoming, given the extraordinary destructiveness of village attacks by the Janjaweed and the National Islamic Front/National Congress regime, attacks that were clearly meant to destroy livelihoods on an ethnic basis. The continuing effects of such comprehensive and deeply threatening destruction are, I believe, the single most important way in which “genocide continues.” To argue otherwise is to trivialize the suffering of Darfuris in camps and in other highly distressed circumstances, directly attributable to antecedent ethnic violence. It is also to ignore the implications of the brutal ethnically-targeted attacks that are ongoing, e.g., north of el-Geneina in February 2008; and it is to ignore the fact that the UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that 317,000 civilians were newly displaced in 2008—largely through ethnically-targeted violence. Yes, many were Arabs; this does not bear on the question of the Khartoum regime’s “intent” with respect to African populations, “as such,” in Darfur.

    As to mortality, a subject to which I’ve given a considerable amount of attention, there is simply no way to tabulate deaths in the current environment. In any event, UNAMID accounts would be one of the least reliable means of calculating deaths, either from violence or from disease and malnutrition. There are simply too many places they do not or will not travel, and far too many attacks they do not investigate. My own view of GI-Net is that they have made a good faith effort with far too few resources to draw upon. I doubt that there will be any real advance on our knowledge of overall mortality in Darfur until we have studies conducted with cluster samples, attention to statistical significance, and a much clearer sense of margins of error. For now, whatever one’s convictions about the integrity or usefulness of data such as that provided by the Coalition for International Justice study (August/September 2004), it seems more than enough to say “hundreds of thousands have died,” a phrase that in its most expansive form is certainly accurate.

    The part of the London Review of Books quotation that seems to me most interesting in responding to this post is not “genocide by force of habit,” but rather the description that comes before:

    “[Counterinsurgency in Darfur] is the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by its years in power.”

    If we take this description seriously, as I think we must, what implications does it have for our present assessment of the regime’s behavior? For the regime’s “intent” in actions taken within the present circumstances in Darfur? Or has the nature of these men somehow changed along with the status of the Darfur “genocide”?

    Eric Reeves

    PS “Intent” is a term deployed here without an adequate differentiation from “motive”; this confusion—part semantic, part psychological—is perversely persistent in discussions of genocide, but must be the subject for another occasion (it is discussed at considerable length in various essays on my website).

  2. Dear Eric,

    I has happy to read some implicit but significant retractions in your comment.

    First, you concede that the figure of 150 violent fatalities per month is not the product of “one organization” but the outcome of considerable independent efforts by a fully-accredited activist group, determined to develop a reliable evidence base for its policies, and the UN. It’s true that the UN does not get everywhere in Darfur, and as a result some of its figures are undercounts. Its figure for the JEM killings of Meidob dissenters on 1 January is lower than others, for example. But it is present in all the major IDP camps and receives daily, sometimes hourly, incident reports. If there’s a hidden genocide, it’s extremely well-hidden. I am currently working with UNAMID to upgrade its investigation and reporting so, hopefully, there will soon be no quibbling over the numbers.

    Second, you acknowledge that a proper, professional mortality survey is needed. That’s correct. But we have better mortality studies on Darfur than for almost any humanitarian crisis of the last 20 years, and the most professional review to date was by the General Accountability Office. Getting an authoritative number is a tough one here for all sorts of methodological reasons, but we can at least rank the estimates. The expert panel found your estimates of mortality the least reliable of all those they considered.

    Beyond that, I was going to write some more substantive comments on mortality issues, and responsibilities for excess deaths, but I realized it had been said before: you can read it under the thread “numbers” on this blog:

    The ‘intent’ debate will have to be rejoined on another occasion.

  3. There is no response here to my comments about the issue of genocide in Darfur. Nor does this post discuss the implications, past and present, of the trenchant description—I would say “fact”—of the National Islamic Front/Nation Congress Party regime: “[Counterinsurgency in Darfur] is the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by its years in power.” Whether we are talking about potential Darfur peace negotiations, the conduct of war, responses to the ICC, humanitarian access, or the fate of the exceedingly tenuous Comprehensive Peace Agreement, it is essential that in all communications and negotiations with the regime we keep its character clearly in mind. To do otherwise is to indulge in diplomatic fantasies.

    We will not make progress on the “genocide debate” until the significance of Article 2, clause [c] of the Genocide Convention is squarely addressed: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” This was the central point of my post—not to suggest that some “hidden genocide” that was occurring in rural areas. Are the victims of violence in 2003-2005, and beyond, no longer victims of genocide because they survived previous efforts, precisely defined by this key term from the Genocide Convention? Are their livelihoods any less comprehensively destroyed? Have the poisoned wells been replaced? Have the fruit trees cut down somehow re-grown? Have the destroyed seed- and food-stocks, the livestock, the water vessels, homes, and mosques been replaced?

    Moreover, when thinking of the terms of the Genocide Convention and the lives of the displaced persons in the camps, we should keep in mind Article 2, clause [b]: “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.” This “harm” must, of course, be directed at a targeted group “as such,” but there seems to me little disputing that those in the camps are essentially those who were victimized by the most violent phase of the genocide and afterward (again, 317,000 people were displaced in 2008, most by violence). Clause [b] offers the very definition of life in the camps, and that life is of course dramatically deteriorating with Khartoum’s long-considered decision to expel more than half the humanitarian capacity in Darfur

    As to mortality in the course of the Darfur genocide: it will be clear to all who actually read the GAO assessment of mortality estimates that my work (as well as that of John Hagan and co-author Patricia Parker) was essentially dismissed because it relied heavily on the statistically impeccable work of the Coalition for International Justice, which in August 2004 conducted over 1,000 carefully randomized and exceedingly detailed interviews among Darfuri refugees all along the Chad/Darfur border. It is true that the CIJ study was not designed as a mortality study, but its implications for mortality are so striking that it persuaded as distinguished a scholar as John Hagan to use it (if in a way somewhat different from mine). We still have nothing that rivals it as a source for estimating (or “guesstimating”) violent mortality. If suffering a downgrade from the GAO is the price for using such a critical report, it is a price I would not hesitate to pay again.

    In any event, it remains the case, as I argued in the previous post, that we may safely say “hundreds of thousands” have died, and for present purposes that more than satisfies the “in whole or in part” language of the Genocide Convention.

    Eric Reeves

  4. Professor Reeves:

    Hundreds of thousands have died. Does that automatically make it a genocide? No! The worst massacre of the last 12 months was by JEM! It killed 128 Meidob over 2 days. Those 128 are part of the 200,000 or 300,000 or however many. But did the Sudan Government kill them? Look at the news reports from Darfur and you will see, month in and month out, forty or fifty or sixty people killed in fighting between the Baggara tribes. These late citizens are counted in the total. Are these people victims of genocide? Nonsense!

    A little learning is a dangerous thing. You treat facts like a magpie collects shiny things. Every now and then you may get a gold coin but most of it is just shiny trash. And there’s no context, no analysis. You paint a picture of a simple Manichaean country that isn’t the Sudan we know. You decided long ago that the Sudanese government was evil and responsible for every evil and whatever may happen, this remains your article of faith.

    For the last four years while things were getting better in Darfur. Bit by bit things were improving on many fronts, and you carried on saying that things were getting worse. And you predicted they were about to get worse and a new genocide was around the corner. It didn’t happen, until….

    How come you missed the ONE time when things REALLY DID get worse? How come you failed to predict that one which was staring us all in the face? The answer is obvious. It happened on the day that your dreams came true and your friend Mr Ocampo got his arrest warrant for your devil-president Omer El-Beshir.

    Yes it’s true that El-Beshir and his clique are devils. But Prof Reeves they are not YOUR devils. The devils you write about exist in your imagination and only in your imagination.

  5. Dear Alex

    With all respect I appeal to you. This forum is “Making Sense of Darfur” (which is difficult enough to tax us all) not “Making sense of Eric Reeves” (which is beyond even the best and the brightest). We can read Dr. Reeves interminable self-referential rants on his own website. We turn to your website because don’t want to have to read it all over again.

    Gibril Mohammed

  6. Abd al-Wahab Abdalla: No warning from me about the unfolding catastrophe in Darfur? Clearly you are prepared to characterize me before reading what I have written (the following is but one of many examples, this from The Christian Science Monitor of November 24, 2009—note especially the second paragraph):

    “Obama, Darfur, and ICC Justice”

    “Mr. Obama’s clear and effective response [to the Darfur crisis] is needed, because the Khartoum regime has threatened aggressive violence in a calculated campaign to fend off the arrest. Indeed, its threats are as shocking as they are underreported.

    In August, the UN head of mission in Sudan declared to the Security Council: ‘The government has conveyed to me that the issuance of an arrest warrant against President Bashir could have serious consequences for UN staff and infrastructure in Sudan.’ Translation: Seek to arrest our president and we’ll unleash further hell on the aid personnel who protect Darfur’s vulnerable civilian populations.

    Also in August, Bashir declared, ‘We are ready to go through war with the great power’ to forestall ICC actions. Such threats against UN personnel and operations are unprecedented—and they must be fully registered by the Security Council, both for Darfur and for future peacekeeping and humanitarian operations….

    Sudan’s unambiguous threat—which also poses grave regional dangers—means the international community has no excuse not to act forcefully now. And yet, to date, Khartoum’s threats [against humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Darfur] stand unrebuked.”

    I’ll leave for Abd al-Wahab Abdalla to figure out for himself how incoherent his remarks on genocide and Darfur mortality are.

    Eric Reeves

  7. yawn yawn zzzzzz. (please wake me up when the professor has stopped droning….) Professor Reeves, this is not all about you. This is about Sudan. Our wonderful fascinating complex country which baffles and delights us all. You have managed the most amazing feat of making Sudan boring boring boring. Maybe you would like to come and see Sudan for yourself one day.

  8. Gibril Mohamed—I’ve loved my time in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains; I can’t wait until my health permits me to return.

    Eric Reeves

    PS You might do some research on arguments that are “ad hominem”—especially their logical status

  9. As much as facts are on the table, i would gather that Gibril and abd-al wahab are not on their senses. If everything was going seemingly well, then i don’t see the point of government expelling more than 13 International aid groups bringing in NIF/SAF ‘National Volunteers’ to carry on with humanitarian aid instead. Am pretty sure the deployed so called ‘volunteers’ are part of the National Security who will go and repress information and facts on the ground. I bet distribution of aid rations will be based on ‘make our govt. look good and you will get double-ration or talk ill and you will not see the light of the day’ etc. We also need to remember that some JEM rebels were indicted too and ruling will be issued by the same court soon. Thus Justice from both sides is being sought after.

  10. Professor Reeves, and precisely how long did you spend in South Sudan and the Nuba Mountains? And how long in Darfur?

  11. I think comment sections are helpful when they stay germane to the topic at hand. Whether or not Eric Reeves has been to Darfur is a non sequitur and as such has no bearing on the argument.

    What is an interesting point, one that hasn’t really been discussed in this thread, is the distinction between motive and intent, two terms that are often confused and used interchangeably when it comes to debating charges of genocide. As far as the 1948 convention is concerned, there is plenty of room for a motive of counterinsurgency and intentional actions to destroy in part an ethnic group. This, I think, means that there is room for both the genocide and the counterinsurgency claims.

    The debate is an interesting one and has (imperfect) parallels in both Rwanda and the Ottoman Empire when Tutsis and Armenians were targeted as belonging to a certain group following (to varying extents) the reasoning that because of their ethnicity they were fifth columns in cahoots with enemy armies — the RPA in the first case and the Russians in the second.

    It would be a shame to let such a forum degrade into ad hominem attacks rather than jointly addressing issues that directly inform the discussion.

  12. Dear Sean,

    I cannot tell you the number of ad hominem comments I have deleted! And I will continue to do so. There are a couple of contributors who have been debarred for that reason. (They can turn to Sudan Tribune if you want to indulge in that kind of freedom of speech.)

    However, I do think that the question of whether an individual has been to Darfur or has lived in Sudan for any length of time is extremely germane to the question in hand. Lawyers routinely slap down their peers, and non-lawyers too, for their failure to (in their view) “correctly” understand the law. I would suggest that understanding the facts is as important as understanding the law, and that those who have lived in Sudan, studied Sudanese society and politics at first hand, and carried out investigations in Darfur, carry an advantage over those who have not.


  13. Having spent a considerable amount of time in Eastern Chad, documenting the lives and stories of refugees in camps, genocide seemed to be a definitive fact. My purpose was to record the flight and the nature of the violence in Darfur. However what terrified me most was the prospect of a prolonged conflict which would leave these people trapped in these camps, away from their villages, their way of life.

    Leaving aside the semantics, should the refugees and IDPs stay for an indefinite period in temporary settlements, a way of life will be lost. Working communities will be in danger of becoming hand to food masses, dependent on humanitarian aid.

    Kosovo: Ethnic cleansing was the buzzword, and there was systematic mass murder, documented. Even with a relatively swift return, life has still not normalized for the average citizen. It’s almost a decade past.

    Canada: The assimilation of Sayisi Dene, a way of life was lost, a group of people almost wiped off the face of the earth due to relocation by government policy. And were it not for their grandchildren who went back and tried to re-learn how to survive in such a harsh environment, their stories would not make it to the 21st century.

    Ngorno-Karabakh: The Azeri IDPs from the region are still in camps around the country. The conflict is one which will not be resolved anytime soon, as Armenia has already started moving Armenian families into once Azeri villages. Once farmers, the IDPs are now living in makeshift shelters, ghetto-like refugee camps, long forgotten. Their children will learn the little life around them, not the rich existence their farming families once enjoyed.

    The point? Should masses be kept away from their way of life, that way of life will be lost, which will in turn bring the masses in question to the brink of extinction. Now is THAT genocide? Or is that a natural cycle following an unresolved conflict? And were the perpetrators of the crimes in Darfur between 2003 and 2004, those who planted the seeds of this endangerment, is it the Western world with is Western ways reaping the results: Veering a conflict which has been toned down from an all out war on the civilian population to lower intensity clashes, from its relatively low death tolls, back to the thousands we were accustomed to hearing back say, 6 years ago?

    Up until the quibble and the action surrounding the arrest warrant, those that were in IDP camps and camps in Chad had hope. With the international NGO presence in Darfur, at least there were “observers” I am not naive to suggest that this was enough. But there was hope that the natural cycle would be completed, and Bashir would eventually step down, giving room to breathe, and a chance to the civilians a chance to go back. However now uncertainty looms once again.

    It is hard to argue against the arrest warrant, and for the weakness in the case of the prosecutor, however the argument needs to be done. Should the killing start again in Darfur because the “civilized world” has messed up again, who will be accountable for the civilian deaths this time around? Let me tell you: We all will, sitting here in the relative comfort of our homes, debating on issues in eloquent style when the real people in question are being deduced to numbers.

    Prosecution is necessary, we are taught, otherwise should the perpetrator go unpunished, he/she may commit the crime so much as it sets an example. However those that spend innumerable days on the field come to learn quickly that what is taught to us does not necessarily work. One needs alternatives. And sometimes one simply needs to wait.. For the right time. If these people have been waiting for years to go back to their homes, their land, their way of life as they remembered so they can start to “go on” I believe we all can wait this one out until those we are trying to prosecute are capable of as little harm as possible to those we are trying to protect.

  14. Alex:

    I agree that “being there” can be very helpful, but I can say that it is certainly not sufficient for understanding a place or even sometimes absolutely necessary. I live in Beirut and know of plenty of people who have spent time here (often years) and still don’t seem to understand even the most elementary lessons Lebanon has to offer. (Part of the problem is often a linguistic one — it’s difficult to get a hold on a place if you can’t talk to people in their tongue.)

    Likewise, in countries where visas are used to filter out bad press, the question of access to the terrain (similar to access in the Bush administration) can be problematic. I admire both you and Julie for your work in Darfur on the ground, but I’m not sure that whether or not Eric has or has not been to Darfur is sufficient to discount his position wholesale. (Something some of your commenters are doing, not you.) I appreciate seeing you both debate on the merits, and I think that both this blog and his are great media to open up the discussion to those who haven’t (or haven’t been allowed to) visit Sudan or Darfur.

    In any case, keep up the good work.

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