By Laura Seay
Journalist Rebecca Hamilton’s new book: Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide, is a remarkable discussion of a difficult question: Why, despite gaining support from millions of grassroots activists and leading policy makers, did the Darfur advocacy movement fail? In terms of drawing ordinary people to support a cause, getting them to pressure influential politicians and world leaders, and drawing public attention to a previously-unknown crisis, the Darfur advocacy movement was remarkably successful. But its ability to achieve its primary goals – stopping the violence in Darfur and protecting civilians there – was severely limited.
Hamilton, herself a former student activist in the movement, identifies several reasons for this failure, among them advocates’ early lack of understanding about the complexity of the crises in Sudan, the fact that the advocacy movement became strong only after the worst of the atrocities had occurred. The movement was also hindered by advocates’ inexperience with handling large sums of money and developing policy proposals, and the simple fact that Western governments could only do so much to affect developments in Khartoum. In this sense, Fighting for Darfur serves as a stellar account of lessons learned of which current and future advocates for other causes should take heed. Hamilton’s book implies that if advocates fail to fully understand the situations they confront, the policy solutions they pose will be inadequate, inappropriate, and, in some cases, downright disastrous. She identifies the advocacy community’s call for military action in Darfur as one of the latter. While it seemed perfectly reasonable to outsiders to call for a peacekeeping or other type of military intervention in the region, Khartoum responded by forcing out several humanitarian aid agencies that had been serving displaced Darfuris, thus making their situation even worse.
One question with which Hamilton does not seriously engage is that of the nature of the conflict in Darfur. She does not engage in the debate over whether the crisis in Darfur actually constituted genocide, most famously raised by Mahmood Mamdani in his Saviors and Survivors. Mamdani argues that the situation in Darfur circa 2003-04 did not constitute genocide in the legal sense of the term, and that advocates wrongly construed it as such while ignoring the conflict’s context.
By contrast, Hamilton – who is also a lawyer by training – firmly believes that a genocide took place in Darfur. Hamilton provides a nuanced discussion of the difference between an “essentialist” genocide, in which genocide is the goal in and of itself, and “instrumentalist” genocide, in which genocide is the means to another end (e.g. taking control of land). This discussion, however, takes place in the context of understanding how genocide might end, not whether Darfur constituted genocide. Hamilton also provides an in-depth analysis of internal debates in the U.S. government over whether to label Darfur as “genocide” or not, but again, there is little debate as to whether the claim was in itself wrong.
Reasonable people everywhere can agree that whatever happened in Darfur in 2003-04 was horrible and constituted horrific human rights violations on a massive scale. Does it really matter whether we labeled it genocide or not? The standard advocacy answer is “yes,” because labeling Darfur as genocide meant that the provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide would then go into effect. Yet, as Darfur makes clear, even when a conflict is labeled “genocide,” this seems to have little effect on whether states will take the necessary steps to prevent, halt, or punish those who engaged in the crime. Labeling the crime as such in Darfur made very little difference for on-the-ground outcomes.
Or did it? As Mamdani points out, calling the crisis genocide had direct effects on the global community’s inability to broker a crisis. By labeling Khartoum as génocidaires and the Darfuris as victims, there is very little room for reconciliation or peace talks, the normal processes for ending an uprising or civil war. If Darfur is genocide, then al-Bashir is a war criminal, and we cannot negotiate with war criminals, even if a negotiated settlement would be the best way to restore stability and peace to the region.
Hamilton’s book would have benefitted from some consideration of this question, even if she is ultimately correct about the nature of the Darfur crisis. While she and other advocates are quite self-aware in her assessment of their early lack of understanding of the North-South dynamic and Sudanese politics in general, that same critical attitude about understanding what happened in Darfur would also be of great utility in attempting to draw lessons from the movement. Could a more nuanced understanding of the conditions in Darfur themselves have produced better and more successful advocacy platforms? Had they understood the conflict not as a case of good vs. evil, but as a civil war, could advocates have supported extensive negotiations and a power-sharing arrangement with Khartoum, which may have been the only path to real peace and stability in the region? These are questions to which we will never know the answers, but I suspect that a fuller understanding of the Darfur crisis – not just of Sudan – would have led to better advocacy overall.
Finally, the Darfur case raises disturbing questions about human nature and our response to labeling and language. As “genocide,” the Darfur crisis certainly drew much more attention than it otherwise would have. As she notes, rabbis in American synagogues preached about Darfur to their congregants, stirring up great passion and a sense of urgency among those who wanted to prevent a repeat of their own Holocaust. College students who had never heard of Sudan but who had learned about Rwanda were determined to stop the killing in Darfur. Would they have done so had the conflict been labeled as yet another African civil war? Must a conflict be labeled “genocide” in order to stir outsiders to action? If so, what does this say about our true attitudes towards the protection of human rights, whenever and however they are violated?
Laura Seay is assistant Professor in the department of Political Science, Morehouse College