Can Sudan Activism Transform Itself for the Obama Era?
Human rights activism is many things. Among them, it is a liberal practice that uses one of the core principles of the political right in liberal democracies””a commitment to individual rights and liberties””as a critique to dismantle the power of the right. (Equally, it has historically deployed the left’s principles against Communists in power.) During 1980s, Human Rights Watch did this brilliantly, taking the standards of human rights that Ronald Reagan used to condemn the Soviet Union and applying them to Latin America and the U.S.-backed military regimes there, while its Helsinki Watch division breathed oxygen for the flame of dissidence in the Soviet bloc. The Republicans had no credible response to this critique and under the elder Bush their policies began to adjust.
By the time President Bill Clinton took office, bringing America’s human rights generation back to power, democratic revolutions had swept away Communism, while the greater number of pro-U.S. military dictatorships were crumbling. Human rights advocates in office faced new challenges, notably how to respond to the war and ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia. Instead of the 1980s chorus which was “stop that!” aimed at getting the Republicans to halt their support to abusive regimes, the 1990s cry was “do something!” aimed at pushing the Democrats to intervene to stop atrocities in faraway parts of the world.
Under the George W. Bush administration, in the defining year of 2004, a new generation of American liberals played a reprise of the 1980s. They used a moral narrative drawn from the right against a Republican administration, with Darfur as their focus. The American movement for Darfur was seeded by the fires of Darfur in that terrible year, but was equally forged in the shadow of the ethics of the “war on terror” and the war in Iraq, which was just then going terribly wrong. Most liberals detested these, or at least felt deep ambivalence about them. They wanted the tools of American power””military might and moral authority””to be used against the evil of genocide as well as, or instead of, the evils of terrorism and Saddam Hussein. The Republicans in power had no effective riposte to this critique, and didn’t want to have to say “we can’t do it” and “it won’t work.” They didn’t want to concede that U.S. power had obvious limits and neither did they want to admit their preference for doing business with a government with a detestable record.
Now President Obama has taken office and brought a new generation of human rights champions into power with him. They face crises around the world. Fortunately for them, the fact of the matter is that the Darfur crisis is on hold and they have a (modest) breathing space before the crunch time for the CPA and southern Sudan. But although the challenges for Darfur have changed–the killing has just about stopped and humanitarian crisis is under control–there hasn’t been a symbolic victory comparable to the Velvet Revolution which would cause the campaigners and columnists to declare that they had won and direct their moral fervor elsewhere. So it is difficult for the activists to let go and take their moral fervor elsewhere.
Tactically, the Darfur activist leaders and opinion writers are in a bind. Their friends are in power, so they are understandably reluctant to criticize in the same fearless way. As one of the contributors to this blog wrote, they are trying to fight while holding the stick in the middle. Their former colleagues, now in the NSC and State Department are reminding them of how those levers of power suddenly seem much less connected to the engine when you are actually tasked with pulling them.
We can read the discomfort in some recent Enough publications. Perhaps trying to hedge its bets, Enough is now advocating “lowering expectations” for the Sudanese elections. Of course no diplomat engaged in Sudan, let alone any Sudanese politician, needed to be told that. The audience for Enough’s injunction is the concerned American public: it’s an early warning that there’s some real politics to be done. Similarly, the Ugandan army doesn’t need an Enough staff member to tell it how to conduct its military operations against the LRA. The function of that report was perhaps to remind the Enough constituency that it is a not movement for peace and that it is engaging with some messy political and security realities. The real military and political work will be done without publicity and will involve the kinds of compromises that Enough’s leaders don’t want to be associated with in public (or at least not until they have succeeded).
Technological change has revolutionized activist tactics. Old-style human rights advocacy, as done by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, was slow paced””framed around occasional reports which were focused on specific rights issues. It was constrained by the need to print hard copies of reports or “urgent actions” and mail them out just ahead of deadline. At Africa Watch in the 1980s, on the day of a mailing, I remember everyone from the director to the newest intern sitting amid stacks of newly-printed reports, folding each one and stuffing it into an envelope, while the office administrator struggled to print address labels and ran to the post office to buy credit for the franking machine. Advocacy methods were dictated by this irreducible production bottleneck. It meant that while human rights publishing was sometimes an effective source of embarrassment for the U.S. government, it hardly ever impinged upon the workaday diplomatic terrain.
The communications revolution has not only created 24-hour news channels, reporting live, but also opportunities for real-time agitation by wired-in activists. This can be superb when it provides instant reporting as a human rights crisis unfolds. February 2001 saw the first-ever internet-live coverage of a political arrest in Uganda, posted on the website of an enterprising newspaper as it happened. Since then the method has been refined and expanded, so there can be almost instantaneous mobilization using the internet and cellphones, as shown in Ukraine, Iran and elsewhere.
The difficulty arises when there is no real-time crisis for real-time advocacy, activists feel impelled to generate enough “news” to keep their blog pages buzzing and their constituents on their toes. Often, the focus switches to policy and diplomacy. There’s much to be said for subjecting policy documents such as draft legislation to public scrutiny on the web. The case is much less strong for conflict resolution””like a military operation, diplomacy demands tight information management if it is to work. But for some activists it has been just too tempting to plunge in, dragging every detail of diplomatic maneovering into the spotlight. They can pre-empt every move of a special envoy and strangle his efforts by over-scrutiny. They can make the envoy’s job all-but-impossible: he has to spend more time and effort managing a domestic constituency than dealing with the real problem. They might even crash his email system with a flood of messages, some of them abusive. At moments of excess, Enough is to Human Rights Watch what Fox News is to the New York Times.
But there is a deeper issue facing activists than a conflict of loyalties or an excess of zeal in applying new methods. President Obama hasn’t just taken the liberal mirror-image of the neo-con moral logic and applied it to Sudan, as some American activists had hoped. Instead, Obama is challenging the Manichean worldview itself. The foundation of his strategy for international relations is coalition building. He is not preaching, let alone imposing, a moral fundamentalism but rather seeking a kind of global civil society in which a plurality of overlapping values can be embraced and promoted. In Cairo Obama said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and noted that it is easy to start a war but hard to bring it to an end successfully. To the dismay of some, this policy of unclenching the fist has extended to Sudan.
How should Darfur campaigners adjust their mode of activism to reflect the Obama philosophy? They are lucky in that the empirics of Darfur today do not demand dramatic or aggressive action. What’s needed is political process not forcible intervention. Those who bang the drum for no-fly zones and the like look more and more defensive””searching for convoluted arguments to support an unchanging position.
Today the strategic questions are different and much better aligned with the Obama philosophy. The challenge for Sudan is the future of the nation: whether to stay as one or divide and how to handle this question and its implementation in a democratic way. The U.S. government and people cannot decide this””in fact the more that America is seen as imposing its view, the less legitimate the outcome will be. A positive result demands a “tough love” approach from Americans: scale back on the promises of salvation and demand that groups such as the SPLM and the Darfur movements take greater political responsibility for the fate of their own people.
At the moment there’s a battle going on over U.S. policy towards Sudan. Some activists are gunning for the special envoy: they would rather he shouted from the sidelines rather than actually got to work helping the Sudanese solve their political problems. The outcome of that battle will help determine the future of Sudan. If American activists decide to fight on the same old battleground, with the same old weapons, they may win the skirmish””but they surely risk becoming obsolete in the new order.