Does Criminology Offer a Useful Model?
Much of the contemporary analysis of genocides has taken on a legalistic tone inspired by the revival since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s of interest in the United Nations convention on genocide and the work of Raphael Lemkin. John Hagan and Wenona Rymond-Richmond’s book on Darfur is a provocative variation on this in that it takes a sociological and criminological approach. The fundamental premise of both legalistic and criminological ways of thinking is that crimes have been committed, that there is very widespread acceptance of this fact, and that those who are responsible should be tried and punished.
The book excellently shows that by any commonsensical definition genocidal massacres have been occurring in Darfur, but it goes beyond this to try to prove that even by the United Nation’s legal definition, this is genocide. This it does by showing that there is an explicitly racist, that is, anti-black ideology behind the killings.
This is not new. Some time ago Francis Deng exposed the complex, contradictory feelings of the Sudanese Arab elite that considers itself white but is actually, on average, quite dark skinned.
Arabs from Sudan have a very long tradition of raiding into blacker parts of Sudan and into eastern and central Africa for slaves, as have other Arabs from Arabia as well as the Muslim Saharan people between the Nile and the Atlantic such as the Tuaregs and Mauritanian Arabs who also consider themselves “white.” Despite Islam’s claim to be racially tolerant, this tradition has only ended in the second half of the twentieth century, though in some places it has persisted until much more recently, leaving bitter memories among all of the African people in the sub-Saharan savannah who were its victims. There are racist overtones to the many conflicts that beset this zone, except that in some countries, most notably Niger and Mali, it is the “white” Saharan peoples who are minorities whose way of life is being destroyed by desertification and a Malthusian population crisis throughout the area while the “black” majority governments view them with very little sympathy. In Sudan, because the Nile Arabs are the dominant political power, they have greater sympathy with Arabic speaking nomadic, semi-nomadic, and sedentary populations than with non-Arab speakers, so that the nomads in particular have been viewed as natural allies in the desperate wars waged by the Khartoum elite to keep control over the country. Sudan is not the only place in the world where desperate wars for control of resources between populations that define themselves as culturally, and in their terms even “racially” distinct have led to genocidal slaughters. Rwanda, parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Yugoslavia are other recent examples. So, to some extent was Guatemala during its civil war, where the majority of those killed were descendants of indigenous Mayas. And so, in part, was Cambodia where the Vietnamese minority as well as Khmer exposed to Vietnamese influence or “infected” by Vietnamese thinking were particular targets of the genocidal Khmer Rouge. We all know of many prior historical examples all over the world, many of which have been covered by Ben Kiernan’s recent major study of the history of genocide.
The question we should pose, however, is whether the Hagan and Rymond-Richmond book’s claim that their approach can contribute a solution to the Sudanese problem is correct. Can applying the theories and tools of American criminology and insisting that the perpetrators be brought to justice end the killings and deter others that might occur elsewhere in the future?
There are four problems with their argument. One is that it is quite unclear how much of the world accepts this evaluation of what is happening in Sudan. For example, Al Ahram, Egypt’s leading newspaper, has written that the main reason the United States is eager to blame the government of Sudan for genocide is that it wants to seize yet one more Arab country for its oil, and furthermore, that Israel and Jewish interests are actively working to destabilize Sudan. A Palestinian intellectual told me that what is happening in Sudan is vastly exaggerated by Americans. I do not believe these conspiratorial accusations; but much, probably most informed Arab opinion believes these groundless accusations, and of course, believes that Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians is much more criminal. In those circumstances, any direct military action taken by the United States to combat the government of Sudan would simply be taken as unlawful interference by Arab, and probably by most Muslim states and populations.
Secondly, is public insistence on criminalizing Sudan’s leadership without backing this up with a forceful police action really useful? Even though the authors of this book make it clear that they are not enamored of many domestic American police procedures with respect to minorities and the poor, the problem is that without the police around to arrest those accused of criminal acts, there would not be any justice system. So, this gets us back to the unsolvable issue of who is going to serve as an international police force if Arabs states, Russia, and China are opposed to a particular police action, and if none of the major powers are willing to spend the money or lose the lives necessary to go to war.
Third, in the end, the only political leaders prosecuted for genocide or major human rights violations are the losers who have been overthrown. It is possible to do this with a small amount of force in little and very weak countries, but it takes a lot more to do it larger states. And who is going to prosecute Putin for what has been done in Chechnya, or Chinese leaders for Tibet, or for that matter Robert Mugabe unless either South Africa or his own military overthrow him? How about the Burmese leadership? And really, what is the deterrent effect of endlessly long trials of a few broken evildoers like Milosevic, or, thirty years later, of a tiny number of Khmer Rouge leaders? Was Saddam Hussein’s execution viewed by most Sunni Arabs as fair justice? If anything, what trials have been held are likely to persuade rulers who turn to massacres in order to hold on to power that they had better not lose, so killing all of the potentially enemy populations had better get done quickly so as to leave no troublesome opponents around. It was, as Gérard Prunier demonstrated in his book on Rwanda, the United Nations brokered power sharing agreement that was the proximate reason for unleashing the genocide in that country, as the Hutu elite decided this was a better solution than losing absolute power and having to possibly face retribution for their many lesser, but still quite grave killings.
The fourth problem is the tone of outrage by well meaning Westerners who get so carried away that they wind up blaming their own countries as if they were the guilty ones. Samantha Power pioneered this by asserting that the United States was in a position to stop the major genocides in the twentieth century. The Hagan and Rymond-Richmond takes this one step further by even comparing what has been going on Sudan to the way in which the United States criminalizes and mistreats some of its minorities. I personally found this offensive, not because it attacks some of what is wrong about the United States, but because, after all that outrage about Darfur, it trivializes the suffering there. It can also offer comfort to those such as the Sudanese Arabs perpetrating these moral crimes because they can say, well, Americans are just as racist, so unless the world is prepared to prosecute them, why pick on just us?
This book does a very good job pointing out the fact that a most atrocious genocide has been taking place in Darfur, and that the world has done almost nothing to stop it. What it does not do successfully is to propose a way to prod those likely to disagree with our moral conclusion into action. I admit that I do not know how to do that either, though my colleague Clark McCauley and I tried to propose a more balanced approach to these problems in our recent book called Why Not Kill Them All? The Logic and Prevention of Mass Political Murder.