Darfur: Necessary Knowledge for Effective Action
Tomorrow (May 30) I will be appearing at the National U.S. Holocaust Museum with John Prendergast to discuss strategies for resolving the Darfur crisis. John has posted his own position on the Enough! site: "A Plan B with Teeth for Darfur." What follows is my analysis of the crisis in Darfur and some recommendations for the way ahead.
In the spring of 2004, at the height of the brutal offensives by the Sudanese army and airforce and Janjawiid militia in Darfur, I wrote an article entitled "Counterinsurgency on the Cheap." In it, I wrote,
"this is not the genocidal campaign of a government at the height of its ideological hubris, as the 1992 jihad against the Nuba was, or coldly determined to secure natural resources, as when it sought to clear the oilfields of southern Sudan of their troublesome inhabitants. This is the routine cruelty of a security cabal, its humanity withered by years in power: it is genocide by force of habit."
My point was that the atrocities in Darfur had both similarities with, and differences from, the military campaigns with which we had become so wearily familiar over the previous twenty years of war in Sudan.
The motto of the Social Science Research Council is "necessary knowledge." What do we need to know about Darfur and what does this necessary knowledge tell us about what we should do?
I shall make five main points about what we know and three recommendations for immediate action.
- Darfur is the most recent instance of counterinsurgency in Sudan—a form of counterinsurgency that at its extreme moments crosses the line to become genocidal.
- Darfur today is a shattered society in the aftermath of a genocidal counterinsurgency facing continued war and anarchy. To portray the situation as ongoing genocidal atrocity by the Sudan Government and Janjaweed against African civilians may have been more-or-less correct three years ago. Today, we need to depict Darfur differently.
- What’s driving Sudan’s crisis is the combination of an extreme disparity in wealth and power between a central ruling elite and the provinces, combined with persisting instability within this ruling elite. It’s essential to understand both these realities because this understanding will determine how we deal with Sudan, both tactically and strategically. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement gives us a mechanism for tackling both of these core problems.
- The human rights and humanitarian response has been effective but is not a solution. The relief response has kept many people alive.
- Making progress towards peace and protection demands an international policy that is consistent, consensual and clear. Threats of military action are dangerous and counterproductive.
This analysis leads to three immediate actions. I do not promise a quick fix because no quick fix exists. But these steps can, I believe, make it possible to work fast towards peace and security for the people of Darfur.
- Put the A team on the peace process. A real investment of effort in the peace process will make a vast difference.
- Develop a security plan based on the realities of Darfur. The centerpiece of this should be integrating protection and local peacemaking.
- Take coercive military operations off the agenda. Bellicose rhetoric is an obstacle to progress.
If these are done, we can revive a realistic peace process, we can plan for a protection force that will actually do a useful job, and we can apply sanctions and similar measures as required in pursuit of a set of solutions that are actually feasible. Those solutions must be today’s solutions for today’s and tomorrow’s problems.
Read the argument in full detail:
Darfur: Necessary Knowledge for Effective Action (PDF).
Learning Lessons from Past Engagement with Sudan (PDF) .
Genocide Intervention Network
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Royal African Society
Mr. De Waal,
Like everyone else who does activism work on Darfur, I of course rely completely for my understanding of the region on your book with Julie Flint. Therefore I have noted with some interest and curiosity your divergence from Eric Reeves and John Prendergast on issues of what is needed in Darfur. I was unable to attend your debate with John in DC and so have read with interest the account of that debate on this blog.
I have worked on 2 previous genocides as an activist, first in Bosnia/Kosovo for which I was a founding member of the American Committee to Save Bosnia, secondly in E. Timor so my views have been formed based on those experiences. I have long been concerned by the divorce of some of the Darfur activism from legitimate experts, even from the Darfuris themselves at times. From Bosnia, as well, I have developed a skepticism about the usefulness of UN troops in stopping genocide but I understand there have been changes in UN peacekeeping since then. But my main concern is always leverage. In Bosnia, the war ended and peace was negotiated because the Bosnians were winning, their alliance with Croatia gave them the means to stop the conflict. In Kosovo, of course, it was NATO bombing that ended the war. So in both instances the leverage was military, partly though military action that we had fought for as activists through several years of cultivating politicians.
In E Timor, the leverage was economic. Indonesia’s economy collapsed and activists were able to make aid to Indonesia conditional on independence for E Timor. Both of these movements were much smaller than Darfur but I think operated more effectively.
So the question of course is what is the leverage for Sudan and how can we as activists operate more effectively to utilize that leverage? These are the only questions I ever ask and ones I return to. Part of the leverage for the N-S agreement seemed to be not just having an A team in place but also the pull-out of the Canadian oil company, so economic. Unfortunately, I think the Chinese are not so likely to pull out. And I somewhat agree with Mort Abramowitz (who was on our board of ACSB), our only real pressure point is our own government.
I of course call for the asset freezes of the 6 individuals that ICG proposes but that doesn’t seem like enough to me. Is it pressing our government to have other governments join the ban on doing business with Sudan enough? You seem to be arguing that the Sudanese government really doesn’t have control any more. (Although I tend to suspect that they have more control than they let on and, as you outline in your book, they are masters in undermining the coalitions that others form and turning groups against one another.
In the past I have found that it is best when activists write letters so explicit that policy could be directly written from them. So I am wondering about the most important points for that. I also found that in your recent article it sounded like you were arguing for a more robust peacekeeping force as part of the process so I am wondering if you are really so divergent as you seem from Mr. Reeves and Mr. Prendergast.
I am also wondering if, given the general intransigence and untrustworthy nature of the Khartoum regime, as documented in your book with Ms. Flint, the most reliable and elegant solution to the problem of Darfur (and future genocides that may be in the pipeline) might be the support of opposition groups that could achieve nonviolent regime change.
I apologize for the length of this posting. Sharon Silber, Ph.D.
Your questions cut right to the core of the debate and are very well-posed. Let me look at three types of leverage and three general concerns relating to how it is exercised and how it might work.
The aim of activism is to mobilize leverage of various kinds on those responsible for atrocity–or at least, capable of stopping it.
1. The first recourse is “mobilizing shame,” the traditional response of human rights organizations. This can work remarkably well, and has done so on occasions in Sudan. The exposure of the atrocities against the Nuba in 1995 was a case in point. But it has its limits.
2. The second recourse is economic/diplomatic pressure. Quite a lot of the economic/diplomatic pressures have been tried in the case of Sudan and the government has got so used to them that they have only very little additional impact. (I think the Talisman withdrawal from Sudan was double-edged: western activists had some leverage over Talisman but very little over the Chinese and other Asian companies who moved in when Talisman sold up.) The U.S.’s recent targeted economic sanctions are a definite escalation of that pressure. The administration has actually done what the activists wanted. But of course it would not be wise to announce exactly how those sanctions might operate, because that would alert their targets and help them find a way around them. On this, ENOUGH’s Plan B has no sharper teeth than the Administration’s.
3. Military leverage is the third. Under current circumstances–and indeed any that are immediately forseeable in Darfur–military action is reckless and likely to be counterproductive. As Julie Flint writes in today’s New York Times, it would be not only reckless but inhumane. Here I must admit I remain confused by the ENOUGH position. John Prendergast has conceded that a militarily-enforced no-fly zone and other forms of direct military coercion would be a disaster, for the humanitarian situation and the politics of Sudan’s peace processes. Yet he also advocates rattling this particular saber because it increases leverage on Khartoum. Because we cannot make a threat without making plans to enforce it, this means also planning for a ground military intervention to rescue the stranded populations in need of assistance (a totally wild and hare-brained scheme in my opinion). John: are you out there and ready to respond? I don’t think military threats increase U.S. leverage: I think they diminish it.
There are three other general points on leverage.
1. We need to know empirically what works and what doesn’t. The point you make about Bosnia is very important: the leverage (including military action) worked because of the political and military context: it reinforced other factors. On this you might want to look up the SSRC Webforum, “How Genocides End,” http://howgenocidesend.ssrc.org/. The rationale for this Webforum is that, while we all know how we would LIKE to see genocides end–rapidly and cleanly–the reality from history is more complicated. Understanding empirically how events of mass killing have ended can help us bring them to an end more quickly and effectively. It’s remarkable how much this issue has been neglected by scholars of genocide and activists alike–our Webforum is an attempt to remedy that.
2. The internal dynamics of the regime are key. Khartoum does have a fair amount of control over what happens, but that control is dispersed among different power centers within the ruling party and the security apparatus. The government is like a squabbling, dysfunctional family. If you have ever tried to make a conflicted family come to a rational decision you will know how difficult it is to do business with Khartoum. There is always some internal dynamic, some power consideration among the contending individuals, that unexpectedly emerges and upsets your calculations.
3. Local opposition groups are key to any change. On this you are absolutely spot on. International leverage on its own is worth next to nothing. It only translates into an effective policy if it is in concert with internal groups. One of the tragedies of Darfur has been that the internal Darfur leadership has been so divided and inept. And it’s unfortunate that the debate on peacekeeping continues to miss the fundamental point that the central issue isn’t mandate, money or firepower, but relations with local people. But the biggest opportunity we have is the elections scheduled for the 12 months between July 2008 and July 2009: that’s Sudan’s historic opportunity to choose a better government. And, I would argue, it’s that should be the focus of our effort as activists.
Sharon: Many thanks for your posting, and let me know if I haven’t answered the points sufficiently.