The NYT had an informative and very thoughtful op-ed in today, by Sam Dealey, described as a writer on Africa for Time. He noted that on Wednesday, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority had ruled against the Save Darfur Coalition there, judging that the high death tolls the SDC claims in some of its public advertising there “breached standards of truthfulness.”
Here is the ASA ruling.
It had to do with a national print ad campaign that stated, “In 2003, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir moved to crush opposition by unleashing vicious armed militias to slaughter entire villages of his own citizens. After three years, 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed … “.
That ad campaign has run in the US, as well as in Britain. And it hasn’t been cheap. Here in the US, I estimate it may well have cost more than half a million dollars.
In the UK, a complaint was launched by the European Sudanese Public Affairs Council against the claim made in the ad; and it was that complaint that was upheld by the ASA. The ASA ruling presented much of the evidence it considered, and concluded:
- SDC & AT [the Aegis Trust] were entitled to express their opinion about the humanitarian crisis in Darfur in strong terms, we concluded that there was a division of informed opinion about the accuracy of the figure contained in the ad and it should not have been presented in such a definitive way.
The ad breached CAP Code clauses 3.2 (Division of opinion) and 8.1 (Matters of opinion).
We told SDC & AC to present the figure as opinion not fact in future. We urged them to consult the CAP Copy Advice team for help in amending their ad and we also advised them to state the source for such claims in future.
Of course, this is not the first time that Save Darfur campaigners have used unsubstantiated (and improbably high) casualty figures in order to enhance their case. In June last year I noted that Ruth Messinger had stated quite baldly in a letter to the NYT that “Half a million are dead… ” I presented some of the counter-evidence to her claim, and also pointed out the need for rights-abuse reporting always to be very careful and where necessary err on the side of caution.
In his NYT piece today, Dealey is absolutely right to note that this sloppiness with the figures has real consequences on the ground in Darfur. He writes of SDC:
- While the coalition has done an admirable job of raising awareness, it has also hampered aid-delivery groups, discredited American policy makers and diplomats and harmed efforts to respond to future humanitarian crises.
He then looks quickly at all the considerable (though not definitive) evidence that’s available, and concludes that: “Combining these estimates suggests Darfur’s death toll now hovers at 200,000 — just half of what Save Darfur claimed a year ago in its ad and still claims on its Web site.”
- whether 200,000 or 400,000 have died, the need to resolve the conflict in Darfur is the same. But Save Darfur’s inflated estimate — used even after Dr. Hagan revised his estimate sharply downward — only frustrates peace efforts.
During debate on the House floor last month, for example, Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee claimed that “an estimated 400,000 people have been killed by the government of Sudan and its janjaweed allies.” Ms. Jackson-Lee is hardly alone in making that allegation, and catering to the Sudanese government’s sensitivities may not seem important. But the repeated error only hardens Khartoum against constructive dialogue. If diplomacy, not war, is the ultimate goal for resolving the conflict in Darfur, the United States must maintain its credibility as an honest broker.
Inaccurate data can also lead to prescriptive blunders. During the worst period of violence, for example, the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster estimated that nearly 70 percent of Darfur’s excess deaths were due not to violence but to disease and malnutrition. This suggests that policy makers should look for ways to bolster and protect relief groups — by continuing to demand that the Sudanese government not hamper the delivery of aid, to be sure, but also by putting vigorous public pressure, so far lacking, on the dozen rebel groups that routinely raid convoys.
Exaggerated death tolls also make it difficult for relief organizations to deliver their services. Khartoum considers the inflated numbers to be evidence that all groups that deliver aid to Darfur are actually adjuncts of the activist groups that the regime considers its enemies, and thus finds justification for delaying visas, refusing to allow shipments of supplies and otherwise putting obstacles in the way of aid delivery.
Lastly, mortality one-upmanship by advocacy groups threatens to inure the public to both current and future catastrophes. If 400,000 becomes the de facto benchmark for action, other bloody conflicts around the globe — in Sri Lanka, Colombia, Somalia — seem to pale in comparison. Ultimately, the inflated claims fuel a death race in which aid and action are based not on facts but on which advocacy group yells the loudest.
Two-hundred thousand dead in Darfur is egregious enough. No matter how noble their intentions, there’s no need for activists to kill more Darfuris than the conflict itself already has.
I agree with nearly everything he has written there. I’ll just note that, on this page, the SDC website doesn’t say absolutely definitively that the genocide has killed 400,000. Rather, it uses the decidedly slippery formulation of saying that it “has… already claimed as many as 400,000 lives.”
“As many as… ” is not any kind of a scientific or systematic quantity. If SDC wants to be taken seriously as a good-faith participant in the discussion over Darfur, they should quit their partisan and fear-stoking exaggeration and go with the same figures that the best-informed people in the humanitarian-aid community are using. (They might also note that not all of the killing and mayhem is caused by the Government and its allies. A non-negligible part has been caused by the anti-government forces– and some of them have had their anti-government belligerence hardened by the prospect they might expect extra political help to be whipped up on their behalf by outsiders from the SDC.)
I would also note, regarding what Dealey wrote here: “If diplomacy, not war, is the ultimate goal for resolving the conflict in Darfur, the United States must maintain its credibility as an honest broker” that for the US to maintain its credibility is important in any case, not just when there’s a prospect it might be involved in some way in the Darfur peace negotiations. (Which actually, I don’t think there is, much, these days… After the Somalia debacle, I don’t think the Bush administration has much credibility as an honest broker in most of Africa.)
But we need to remember that exaggerated claims about rights abuses have also frequently been used to goad countries into wars. (Remember the Kuwaiti babies in 1990?) Waving the bloody shirt is a time-honored tactic of the war-mongers. That’s why it is always very important to stay sober, calm, and very, very close to the evidence when reporting rights abuses.
There was one small pro-Darfur organization in this country, Damanga, which last year was openly urging the US to engage in a policy of “regime change” in Sudan as a response to the suffering in Darfur. Luckily, Damanga did take that call for warmaking off its website.
Anyway, I am glad that the ASA made the ruling it did. If you read the whole ruling, and the whole of Sam Dealey’s article, you can get a fairly good idea of what the best evidence about the casualties is, and where it’s coming from.