Darfur Activism: The Debate Continues (Part 2)
The issues you raise are serious and deserve a serious response. Your critique of my position is, to my mind, the most thoughtful and incisive that I have encountered — as well as the most civil. Our starting point for our shared concerns as well as our differences is outrage at what is happening to the people of Darfur and a determination to make sure their suffering is ended and their injustices righted.
On my recent visit to Darfur I was told of a shootout on the edge of one of the IDP camps. No-one was killed, but a four-year old boy was frightened and ran away into the bush. His mother tracked him down some hours later and brought him back to the camp but he was so dehydrated and traumatized that he died. Should we be arguing as to whether this poor child was a victim of violence or stress, whether it was war or genocide, whether better security or better health services are more important? The bottom line is, this kind of thing should never be happening in our world. Along the same line, the strongest point you raise is the “so what” question — does it matter whether the government is weak or strong, and whether the atrocious counter-insurgency conducted in 2003-04 was conducted according to a well-orchestrated plan, or whether it was clumsy and ultimately counterproductive? It was killing maybe 200,000 people and needed to be stopped.
The problem is, the closer you come to the problem, the more complicated it becomes. Twenty three years ago, Bob Geldof raised a huge amount of money for famine relief in Ethiopia and told the world public that the problem was very simple — all that was needed was their money and getting the bureaucrats and politicians out of the way. There was enough truth in that to make it a compelling point. But Geldof quickly learned that feeding the hungry is a fiendishly difficult business — alongside reaching the needy, the aid operation in Ethiopia fed the army of Mengistu Haile Mariam, which was instrumental in creating the famine. In that instance, the charitable impulse triumphed over the politics of human rights. Stopping atrocities during wars is no less difficult, and a mirror-image challenge can arise when the demand for justice overrides the pragmatics of finding solutions that save lives.
I strongly believe that the details of what is happening in Sudan — the rivalries within the regime in Khartoum, the ethnic relations in Darfur, the relationships between the profiteers from the war economy and the military entrepreneurs — do matter. I think that social science brings a great deal to the table. I’m sure you won’t disagree with this — but I fear that using the language of “evil” encourages those who want to brush aside the essential subtleties of how wars unfold and how authoritarian regimes function.
I don’t believe that explanation is exculpation, and I don’t think that understanding precludes judgment. To the contrary, the moral imperative is unchanged — it makes no difference to the victims of a massacre whether they were killed as part of a genocidal campaign or whether it was “only” a crime against humanity, and the guilt of the perpetrator is, I would argue, indistinguishable.
But fine-contoured empirical distinctions can make a huge amount of difference when it comes to making things better in Sudan. Over the years, we have seen enough disastrous interventions in Africa’s wars and famines to know by now that clumsy and simplistic responses are almost always destined to make things worse.
Darfur is a tragedy, both in the simplistic sense that it is a catalog of human suffering, but also in the more profound sense that there are clashes of good intent, contradictions between different paths that are each, in themselves, morally worthy. You allude to one of these — the need to make deals with people who are responsible for terrible acts. This is ethically difficult territory, and one that is trodden professionally by the conflict mediator. As you indicate, when supping with the devil, keep an eye on the menu — and the check.
The humanitarian imperative of feeding the hungry and treating the sick can often conflict with the duty of bearing witness to injustice and seeking to expose and punish those responsible. This is the oldest and sharpest humanitarian dilemma — the one that impaled Geldof. In the Sudanese case there is also the specific and unique dilemma of the experiments in national democracy and self-determination for South Sudan, alongside the ongoing war in Darfur. One point on which I would challenge you is to point out that Darfur activism ranges well beyond the American movement. There are many Sudanese groups which wrestle with these interlocking challenges, taking risks with their lives and liberty every day. There are African groups, which for example successfully pushed for a special session of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights on Darfur in September 2004. (But the Arab world has been pretty disappointing to say the least.) There are peace groups and democracy organizations. President Carter has made statements that reflect the opinions of many of these activists, Sudanese and international — he has been applauded by some while criticized by others. There are activist humanitarian groups — let me single out Médecins Sans Frontií¨res and Oxfam — which have taken a very different line to the Save Darfur coalition. (A year ago, of course, the U.S. humanitarian agencies, through InterAction, were anxious to distance themselves from some of the Save Darfur claims.) And there are specialist human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — neither of which, incidentally, have labeled Darfur as “genocide.” Some French activists have lionized Abdel Wahid al Nur. My point isn’t to come down on one side or the other, to say that some these groups are more authentic than others — or indeed that the European or African campaigns are better informed or more entitled to their views than the American campaign — but to point out that the worldwide campaigns on Darfur include a wide variety of opinions, and there isn’t an obvious answer as to which is correct.
Uniquely, Darfur raises another possible tragedy — a possible contradiction between the goals of grassroots internationalism in America and finding solutions for Darfur. (Let me repeat: possible contradiction — the point of this exercise is to explore the possibilities not to point fingers of blame.) One morally desirable goal is sustaining the energy and enthusiasm of this astonishing North American citizens’ movement. Liberal internationalism has languished for decades in the U.S. and its reinvigoration needs all the support it can get. I’m a huge enthusiast for a civic mobilization which can hold out the prospect of creating a permanent American domestic constituency against genocide and crimes against humanity worldwide, as GI-Net founder Mark Hanis hoped. But, building this constituency is not the same project as finding solutions for Darfur. There can be tensions between the two aims — and our challenge is how to manage those tensions.
Necessarily, an American campaign will simplify its descriptions and focus on solutions, putting the analysis in the background. Inevitably, it will focus on what Americans can do. My worry is that the American campaign’s headline description is no longer valid and the proposed solutions aren’t going to work.
I would argue that to describe what is happening in Darfur today as genocide is stretching that much-abused word too far. The level of killings — best estimates are about 7,000 violent deaths since the end of major hostilities in January 2005 — doesn’t in itself refute the charge of genocide, but it does shift the burden of proof onto those who are claiming ongoing genocidal intent.
It’s more than a minor detail that some of the fiercest fighting of the last few months has involved the government fighting against mutinous Arab militias. It’s harder to argue the case for an ongoing Arab genocidal intent when some of the biggest Janjaweed commanders — including Mohamed Hamdan Hemeti and Musa Hilal — are flirting with the rebels. (The question of what really is going on with the Arabs is complicated and I will explore it elsewhere. But you will agree that demonizing the Arabs as genocidaires is a pretty dangerous approach, especially at this particular juncture.)
And I would also make the case that while the north American Save Darfur coalition has achieved some remarkable feats of mobilization and brought real pressure to bear on the U.S. government — and also the British and French — there are important successes in Darfur that occurred before the campaign got moving.
The most important success is reducing the numbers of people who have been killed. Figures for deaths from violence and hunger and disease are controversial, but all data sources concur on two things. One, the great majority of violent deaths occurred between approximately June 2003 and April 2004, with more killings continuing until approximately January 2005. Since then, the numbers of killings have fluctuated from month to month, and place to place, averaging about 200 per month, both civilians and combatants. We don’t have figures for the recent fighting between the Arab militias and the Sudan armed forces, or the last few days’ of battles along the border with Chad, which will push these numbers up.
This tells us (a) that the numbers of killings were reduced at almost exactly the point of the first international outcry (we can speculate about cause-and-effect, but the most likely cause was that the government’s offensives had succeeded in their immediate aims and so they scaled back), and (b) that the constant refrain of “things are getting worse” doesn’t apply to the level of killings in Darfur.
Violent deaths don’t tell the whole story by any means. But the same pattern holds true for mortality rates due to disease and hunger. General mortality among the populations that have been measured — principally camp populations — began to fall during 2004 and returned to approximately normal levels during 2005. It’s true that large numbers of people haven’t been reached by relief aid, but if famine conditions existed among these populations, we would know about it for sure. There are certainly elevated malnutrition rates (they have worsened in the last six months) but no widespread famine. So, if any congratulations are in order, they should go to the humanitarian agencies and their donors.
It’s a pretty tough job to set up a relief operation in Darfur in the best of times. It took USAID and World Food Programme about a year to get their deliveries up to target in 1984-85, with peace and a cooperative government. In the recent/current crisis, the turnaround in mortality rates occurred in the middle of 2004. Looking back, we see that senior USAID officials were already visiting Darfur in the summer of 2003, pledging food aid, and linking the Darfur crisis to the U.S. push for peace in Sudan as a whole. That early action, well before the activist campaigns got underway, was instrumental in saving lives. More pressure for securing relief access was piled on in early 2004, with some success. The best time for humanitarian access in Darfur was in April and May 2004, just after the ceasefire was signed in N’djamena. It is not correct to attribute this success to the activists — it was already in hand.
So, it’s simply not the case that without the American advocacy movement, nothing would have been done.
I continue to believe that the focus on international troops was and is misplaced. I think it’s naí¯ve and flies in the face of experience. It’s very clear that serious pressure is needed to get the Sudan government to respect its commitments — but the instruments available for exerting that pressure are limited and it’s important that the pressure is applied in a smart and strategic manner. I think that the pressure on Sudan over Darfur has been neither smart nor strategic.
Am I giving solace to the abuser by criticizing the proposal to dispatch UN troops? I don’t think so. Actually, I think that hard-liners on one side of a conflict (in this case within the Sudan government) often benefit from the hard line taken by their adversaries. It strengthens their hand vis-í -vis those who want compromise. And it may surprise you that although I am critical of proposals that rely on international troops, I am actually in favor of regime change. I just think it should — and can, and ultimately will — be accomplished by peaceful and democratic means. I support democracy in Sudan and it is inevitable that a democratic system in Sudan will lead to a change in government or at least the creation of a broader-based coalition government. This I believe is how real change will come about. And I think that the focus for international pressure should be on keeping democratization on track.
Am I confusing and demoralizing members of this remarkable American grassroots movement for Darfur with my critiques? If I am causing people to think more deeply and explore the issues more, then that’s great. If I prompt people to consider the perils of simplistic responses, then I’m doing well. The activists I know have no difficulty in grappling with these challenges. Those who are dealing with the situation at close quarters — the humanitarians for example — are already confronting these dilemmas, so what I am saying is nothing new to them. (I should re-emphasize that what looks like a consensus from within the American campaign for Darfur, looks like one end of a whole spectrum of opinions when the range of international activism on Sudan is taken into account.)
America’s Darfur activists will, sooner or later, confront these dilemmas and challenges. There are no simple answers to the problems of Sudan which have confounded activists, humanitarians and policymakers for decades. There’s a real debate to be had. I appreciate your readiness to enter this debate in a serious and civil manner — this is the kind of exchange which will allow us to grope towards real solutions.