Human Rights Reporting on Darfur: A Genre that Redefines Tragedy (3)
Human Rights Reporting as the First Draft of the Indictment
Journalism has been described as the “first draft of history.” By the same token, the human rights report is the “first draft of the indictment.”
The genre of the human rights report shares much in common with legal documents such as indictments and court judgements. This was manifestly the case 25 years ago with the documents produced by Amnesty International. As I have tried to show, the genre has subsequently moved away from these disciplined legal origins to embrace a much broader and more ambitious narrative structure. The final part of this paper shows how this developed genre is so influential that even the highest official international human rights institution, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has followed the same path.
This section specifically compares the text and discourse of Prof. Eric Reeves’s columns and the reports of the ICC Prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo on the Darfur case. Although Reeves is not a mainstream exponent of the human rights genre, his writings have set the tone and agenda for a radical and influential sub-genre. I take Ocampo’s reports and presentations to the Security Council from 2006-2008 as the text for analysis, in addition to the application for an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. I find that the columns of Reeves and the reports and indictment of Ocampo are extremely close in argument and similar aspects of presentational style, although there are notable differences in two writers’ prose style. While Reeves is more colorful and hyperbolic, the Prosecutor sticks more to a restrained legal style. For example, Ocampo shuns adjectives while Reeves rarely misses an opportunity to use one to drive home the horrors of Darfur.
The influence of the human rights genre and especially Reeves’s writing can be seen in how Ocampo’s reports evolve over time. His report of December 2006 is balanced and sober in tone, and mostly devoted to procedural questions with little on the actual substance of the crimes being investigated. The Prosecutor stresses how the ICC is independent, examining “incriminating and exonerating evidence in an impartial manner.” Elements of this judicious approach (the classic legal-human rights sub-genre) remain prominent but over the following two years, Ocampo’s reports take on more and more characteristics of Reeves’s radical human rights sub-genre. In his June 2007 report, some (muted) adjectival color begins to creep in: “The ongoing situation remains alarming” and IDPs continue to be “immensely vulnerable”. (p. 2) He tells the Security Council that indictee Ali Kushayb was involved in “notorious episodes.” (p. 4) By the end of the year (report of December 2007), Ocampo has adopted a melodramatic tone in his address to the Security Council, telling them: “You can make a difference; you can break the criminal system. What is at stake is, simply, the life or death of 2.5 million people.” (p. 10) In his June 5, 2008, report he compares the Sudanese government’s genocidal campaign to the Nazis’ campaigns of genocide and aggression.
In this section I select five of Reeves’s numerous columns for comparison against the presentations by Ocampo to the UN Security Council from 2006-2008. Reeves’s writing is too prolific for it all to be analyzed and besides only selected columns are relevant to the case for prosecuting genocide. The most obvious explanation for why the texts are similar is that they are dealing with the same facts and this would account for why the two writers describe them in the same way. In addition, both Reeves and Ocampo extensively quote human rights reports on Darfur, often the same ones. This would naturally lead them to the same conclusions.
However, this is not a convincing explanation. Human rights organizations have not been so consistent in their descriptions of the atrocities in Darfur. They have their distinctive styles and each one has its own special and different focus. The majority of human rights organizations including Amnesty International and HRW have not used the word “genocide” to describe Darfur. PHR has done so and has specifically used “genocide” to describe the destruction of livelihoods by the Sudanese government and Janjaweed, a theme that Reeves emphasizes.
Among all the human rights campaigners, only Reeves has made the following three points: (1) there was a long-standing racial-ideological animus in the Sudanese government and its “cabal of genocidaires” headed by President Al-Bashir, (2) their planned genocide unfolded in two successive stages, characterized successively by massacres and then by attacks on internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside and outside the camps, and (3) starvation, systematic rape and the destruction of a traditional village culture are a feature of especially the second phase. This is the almost exactly the same argument that the ICC Prosecutor proffers in his July 14, 2008, Application for an arrest warrant against the Sudanese president.
Reeves first identified the atrocities in Darfur as genocide in December 2003. In September 2004 he published a column, “Khartoum’s Strategy for Sustaining Genocide in Darfur: Present evidence of the regime’s tactics and goals,” where he argued that apparent change in behavior by the Sudanese government should not be seen as an effort
“to halt the genocide, or to rein in the brutal Janjaweed militia that continue to terrorize civilian populations, or to permit an African Union peacekeeping force to provide security to more than 2 million internally displaced persons. On the contrary, the regime is as committed as ever to the systematic, deliberate destruction of the African tribal populations of Darfur and their agricultural economy.”
He claims that the strategy and goals are unaltered and it is merely that their tactics have shifted. Among the genocidal methods he describes are: (1) “Control of the camps for displaced persons through intimidation, including executions and the use of rape as a weapon of war.” Also in the column he describes how
“The war-affected population is now so large and vulnerable that absent immediate, substantial humanitarian intervention, we may be sure that hundreds of thousands will die, and that ongoing morbidity and deferred mortality will affect countless thousands of other human beings.”
“(2) [An] ominous new goal of forcing displaced persons to leave the camps and return to “˜their villages.’ As aid workers have repeatedly declared, such expulsions are death sentences, given the ongoing presence of the Janjaweed and the total lack of food in destroyed villages to which people have been forced to return.”
He concludes, “The status quo is fully adequate to genocidal ambitions, and as a consequence Khartoum’s political strategy largely entails sustaining present insecurity in the camps and the rural areas of Darfur, forcing people into Chad, and allowing genocide-by-attrition to proceed for the foreseeable future.”
In an August 2008 column (see below), Reeves specifies that “[A]nother deadly weapon in Khartoum’s war of attrition against humanitarian efforts is its obscenely misnamed “˜Humanitarian Aid Commission’ (HAC).” At that time, HAC was under the authority of the ICC-indicted war criminal Ahmad Harun, who was Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs. Reeves quotes the UN special envoy for Darfur Jan Eliasson, who described the camps in these words: “The poverty is beyond description. The fear is physically palpable when you move there. The suffering of the population has gone on for so long now that if we have an escalation with this very small margin of survival for people in Darfur that we may have the risk of a catastrophic development.” Reeves rounds off this column by citing HRW reports of mass rape.
On December 5, 2007, Ocampo said the following words to the UN Security Council, announcing a new investigation, which led inexorably eight months later to the Prosecutor naming President Al-Bashir as wanted for genocide:
“First, we will investigate present acts of violence against civilians, in particular the victims of displacement. We are witnessing a calculated, organized campaign by Sudanese officials to attack individuals and further destroy the social fabric of entire communities. All information points not to chaotic and isolated acts but to a pattern of attacks. We cannot and we should not deny reality. Calling those crimes chaos or “˜sporadic violence”˜ or “˜inter-tribal clashes’ is a cover up.” (p 5)
“Victims are faced with two options: remaining under attack in the camps or going back to hostile territory. They are left with no hope for the present and no prospect for the future. This is how the slow destruction of entire communities is pursued. In full sight of the international community… All indicia show that so-called eruptions of violence and in-fighting in the camps reflect a well designed strategy.” (p 6)
“In Darfur in 2003-2004, we witnessed the first phase of the criminal plan coordinated by Ahmad Harun. Millions of people were forced out of their villages and into camps. In the second phase – happening right now in front of our eyes –the victims are attacked in the camps. Ahmad Harun is a key actor. But he is not alone. … My Office will proceed to investigate who is bearing the greatest responsibility for ongoing attacks against civilians; who is maintaining Harun in a position to commit crimes; who is instructing him.” (p. 10)
Apart from the way in which Reeves and Ocampo describe the genocide in very similar terms, this presentation is notable for the “our explanation-their explanation” device. No fewer than four times, Ocampo mocks the Sudanese government’s attempt to explain away the atrocities as “inter-tribal fighting.” This is a rhetorical trick that presents only the selected alternative: believe me or believe the genocidaires.
The theme of “genocide by attrition” became one of Reeves’s leitmotifs. In 2005 he published an article with this as its title. “Genocide by Attrition: Agony in Darfur,” where he wrote, “The National Islamic Front regime has engaged in a genocidal policy of relentless, systematic destruction of the agricultural means of survival for the African tribal groups in Darfur. The present “˜humanitarian’ crisis is not the collateral damage of war, but an engineered famine and health catastrophe…” He documents how the actions of the Sudanese government provide evidence for his charge of unremitting genocide:
“The Genocide Convention … speaks explicitly of acts that ‘deliberately inflict on groups conditions of life calculated to bring about their physical destruction in whole or in part.’ In Darfur this is the new norm, defining the way in which life must be endured by the Fur, Massaleit, Zaghawa, and other African peoples. Millions will either die or confront for the rest of their days this terrible prospect. Unable to reclaim the lands that have defined them for countless generations, drifting to the insurgency movements or increasingly to urban areas or other regions in Africa without prospect of meaningful employment, they will likely be witness to their own cultural extinction.”
Any comparison between the texts of Reeves and Ocampo must note that in February 2007, Reeves was outraged that the ICC Prosecutor’s first cases did not reach high into the hierarchy of the government and did not include the charge of genocide. His column is entitled, “The ICC “˜Application’ Concerning International Crimes in Darfur: Dilatory, exceedingly cautious, of little consequence, and taking minimal cognizance of the salient ethnic features of human destruction in Darfur.” He chides the Prosecutor for refusing to state the “obvious implication” of his indictments against two middle-ranking officers in the Sudanese forces, namely: “the attacks were on villages not simply because “˜civilian residents in and near these villages were supporters of the rebel forces.’ The civilian residents were constantly attacked on the basis of their ethnicity. How else to explain why “˜Arab’ villages as close as 300 meters from “˜non-Arab’ or “˜African’ villages stood unharmed, even while total annihilation was occurring in the neighboring but ethnically distinct villages?…” Reeves continues in similar vein and concludes that the Sudanese government was intent on an Arabizing and Islamizing agenda that added up to genocide.
Three years later, Ocampo’s narrative caught up with Reeves’s. In his June 5, 2008, address to the UN Security Council, barely a month before he announced that he was seeking have the Sudanese president arrested on ten counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, Ocampo spoke of a “calculated,” “organized” and “systematic” campaign, though he refrained from using the word “genocidal” which he reserved for the July 14 announcement itself. He said:
“In Darfur, the evidence shows an organized campaign by Sudanese officials to attack civilians, with the objective to physically and mentally destroy entire communities. Over a period of 5 years, they have been relentlessly attacked throughout Darfur. Attacked in their villages. Attacked in the camps. Their land usurpated. The first phase of attacks in 2003- 2004 has affected 4 million people. Since 2005, villages are still being attacked. What is the difference between those two phases? A simple one: there are fewer villages left to burn and loot, less civilians to terrorize and kill.”
In the “Public Application for an Arrest Warrant” the ICC Prosecutor then reprised the same arguments that Reeves had made for why the atrocities constituted genocide. For reasons of space let me give some illustrative quotations that can be compared with Reeves’s sentences, above. Paragraph 367 gives statistics for the destruction of villages according to ethnic group: “For example in Habila, Wadi Salih and Mukjar localities 97% of predominantly Fur villages were attacked and either destroyed or abandoned; and 85% of predominantly Masalit villages were attacked and either destroyed or abandoned, while fewer than 1% of predominantly so called “˜Arab’ villages were attacked.” In Paragraph 374 he draws the “”˜inevitable conclusion’… that the crimes in Darfur “˜must have stemmed from a deliberate policy accepted and approved by the highest levels of command.'” In Paragraph 379 he writes, “The crimes at issue reflected a conscious policy decided by AL BASHIR and their overall coordination and daily implementation at all levels demonstrates the existence of a plan.”
Again in April 2008, Reeves returned to the “genocide by attrition” theme in an article bearing that name. He notes, “Given the length of the conflict, news reports have inevitably taken on a grimly familiar and repetitive character that obscures the impending cataclysm of human destruction.” He predicts that without significant improvement in security, “deaths in the coming months will reach a staggering total. What Khartoum was unable to accomplish with the massive violence of 2003-04, entailing wholesale destruction of African villages, will be achieved through a “˜genocide by attrition.'” He identifies the obstruction of international humanitarian aid as the main means for achieving this goal, pushing millions of civilians already “surviving precariously” over the edge into cataclysm.
On August 8, 2008, Reeves hammers the same message. His article is entitled: “Victims of Genocide in Darfur: Past, Present and Future: Deteriorating humanitarian conditions and access, amidst deepening insecurity, present unprecedented threats to civilians previously displaced or affected by ethnically-targeted violence.” He describes “the most perilous season of destruction since the advent of major humanitarian operations in summer 2004.” He continues, “the reality is that genocidal destruction continues, and that the immense distress reflected in present humanitarian conditions grows directly out of antecedent ethnically-targeted violence.” Reeves describes how the Genocide Convention is applicable to the situation and how the Sudanese regime “modulate the level of violence to suit its larger genocidal purposes in any season.”
On December 3, 2008, Prosecutor Ocampo addressed the UN Security Council for the first time since he had demanded that President Al-Bashir stand trial for his crimes. He said that President Bashir “continues with the implementation of his plan to destroy entire ethnic groups”:
“Genocide continues. Rapes in and around the camps continue. Humanitarian assistance is still hindered. More than 5,000 displaced persons die each month…. Day after day, UNAMID and others tally the incidents of rapes against women and girls. Yet President Al Bashir publicly stated as recently as 7 October, that “˜Mass rape does not exist’ in Darfur, he stated that “˜women make these claims because they are relatives of the rebels’.” (p. 4)
The last of Reeves’s texts (December 18, 2008) under consideration returns to a critique of Prosecutor Ocampo, again for being too timid. The title explains all: “Genocide in Darfur: International focus on al-Bashir is too narrow: Even if an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for genocide and crimes against humanity is issued, other members of his regime will continue the atrocities in Darfur.” Reeves writes, “But despite Moreno-Ocampo’s finding that al-Bashir used the entire state apparatus to conduct genocide in Darfur, he has chosen not to name some other members of the regime who bear major responsibility for the atrocities that have been perpetrated on a massive scale since 2002, and indeed earlier. Moreno-Ocampo’s focus is perplexingly singular.” He names some senior figures in the Sudanese government. If the pattern of the previous three years is anything to go on, those two men should be worried about the ICC Prosecutor’s next statements.
Space constraints prohibit me from going into more detail about the narrative method employed by Prosecutor Ocampo, especially in his lengthy “Public Application” for arresting President Al-Bashir. But in that text we see many of the other familiar characteristics of the human rights reporting genre at greater length, albeit with a more formal legalistic style of presentation and structure.
The ICC indictment against the Sudanese president can be taken to represent the apogee of the human rights reporting genre. A radical variant of this genre has succeeded in influencing the world’s highest human rights official. One of its most skilled and persistent exponents, a literature professor who is not a professional investigator and who works in an “isolating” manner far away from the land which is his moral mission””I imagine him at his desk in Massachusetts with his computer, internet and telephone””has provided the template for the ICC to demand the arrest of a sitting president. In an age in which we are told that conventional text has its days numbered, it is an astonishing testament the power of old-fashioned writing, albeit supported by modern electronic communication. It is an example of the power of the pen and the power of the genre to capture the moral passions of people across the world.
Prof. Reeves ends his June 2007 Washington Post column with the following words:
“As someone who has devoted a lifetime to literary study, to discerning in words and narratives the most powerful of human truths, I have over the past four years found in Darfur’s agony an overwhelming reality, one that remorselessly forces the only questions that seem to matter. Will the world do anything except posture and bluff? Or will the denouement of Darfur’s tragedy be catastrophe? “˜The weight of this sad time we must obey,’ Edgar in “˜King Lear’ advises. “˜Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.'”
Reeves’s meaning, his moral passion, and his forecast for the Darfur genocide, are as clear and compelling as his could be. However, when he writes that the “denouement of Darfur’s tragedy [could] be catastrophe,” he confuses the literary and everyday meanings of tragedy. Perhaps this sentence caused the editor to give the article its misleading title, “A tragedy straight from Shakespeare.” According the literary meaning of tragedy, Darfur does not qualify, and Reeve’s “denouement” sentence does not make sense. Darfur is instead a terrible story of human wrongdoing and meaningless suffering.
There is, however, an incipient “Shakespearean” tragedy within the telling of the story of the Darfur atrocities, according to Reeves and Ocampo, using the Manichean sub-genre of the human rights report. The plot goes something like this.
These two protagonists possess noble intentions but, blinded by the power of their Manichean narrative””and partly because of their physical distance from the places and people of their concern””they are tone deaf to the moral ambiguity of their mission. They impose their meaning on the suffering. The two men have, perhaps unconsciously, modeled themselves on figures from history””in the case of Reeves, individuals like E.D. Morel and his campaign to extirpate the “Congo evil,” and in the case of Ocampo, his own (perhaps mythologized) younger self in the trials of the Argentine generals. The Prosecutor’s performance in the recently released documentary film The Reckoning gives clues that he may be susceptible to the tragic hero’s characteristic and fatal flaw: hubris. Reeves, playing a supporting role as Ocampo’s eminence grise, shares the flaw. But the two heroes’ quest for justice and humanitarian intervention in Darfur becomes a search for the Holy Grail of putting Evil on trial, which is destined to end in failure.
There may also be tragic heroes in Darfur itself””who knows, perhaps some of those now reviled as war criminals were originally driven by genuinely upright motives, and are now riven by the anguish of the blood they shed? Because of the inbuilt limitations of the one-dimensional Manichean account that is dictated by the narrative norm of the human rights genre, we can never know whether such individuals exist and who they are. The genre reduces Darfuris either to evil perpetrators or innocent victims””they cannot be both. The tragedy of the role played by Ocampo, Reeves, and their fellow practitioners of the genre, is that they cannot escape from the roles they have written for themselves, even as the world changes and the Sudanese actors do succeed in freeing themselves from the preordained roles which the narrative form has determined for them.
The human rights report has created for itself and the world a new genre of text, its narrative framed as the march of Evil, while its headline is “tragedy”. It is a simple snapshot of a complicated and morally ambiguous world, and in that idealization lies the makings of a true tragedy.