Revisiting the Genocide Debate
President Jimmy Carter on his recent visit to Sudan was outspoken in his criticism of the Sudan government, which he accused of “ethnic cleansing” and a “crime against humanity.” But he also argued that it was “unhelpful” to describe the crimes committed in Darfur as “genocide,” adding that they didn’t fit the definition contained in the 1948 Genocide Convention.
There is room for honest disagreement over whether the crimes committed during the phase of large-scale hostilities in Darfur, during 2003 and 2004, qualifies as “genocide” or not. While I agree that the genocide debate has been unhelpful, my own view differs slightly from President Carter’s. My reflections on this were published in the Harvard Journal of Human Rights this spring. I argue that the 1948 Genocide Convention is so broadly drawn that Darfur–and in fact many episodes in Sudan’s wars of the last 20 years, not to mention events during wars in Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda and elsewhere in that time period–would legally count as “genocide” if the definition were applied uncritically. I draw on my personal experience of working in many of these wars, and especially in the Nuba Mountains in 1995–an occasion marked by a heated debate on whether to use the term “genocide”.
Calling these horrible instances “genocide” would mean that the definition of genocide, and the field of genocide studies, must depart significantly from the core of cases that have most preoccupied scholars and policymakers, namely the Nazi’s Final Solution and Rwanda. Darfur doesn’t resemble either of these cases, in the intent of the perpetrators or the activities carried out in pursuit of their goals. According to this tighter definition of “genocide”, Darfur isn’t one. (The Nuba in the early 1990s was closer but still falls short.)
My conclusion is the same as Carter’s, namely that crimes against humanity have been committed in Darfur, but that to call them “genocide” is problematic. In this, I also concur with the 2005 report of the UN’s International Commission of Inquiry into Darfur, that crimes as heinous as genocide have been committed.