Category Archives: Darfur

Thakur on the ICC, Darfur, and Bashir

When I blogged about the ICC’s missteps on Darfur yesterday I had not yet seen this excellently argued recent article by Ramesh Thakur.
Thakur, who for a long time was Vice-rector of the U.N. University, based in Tokyo, argued centrally there that:

    a more troubling issue is how an initiative of international criminal justice meant to protect vulnerable people from brutal national rulers has managed to be subverted into an instrument of power against vulnerable countries. A court meant to embody and pursue universal justice is in practice reduced to imposing selective justice of the West against the rest.

He writes,

    no senior U.S. general or Cabinet member is likely to face international criminal prosecution for Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo or other abuses.
    Does the world not deserve an honest accounting of what happened in Fallujah in April 2004, how many were killed, and whether any criminality was involved, including the use of chemical weapons prohibited under international humanitarian law?
    Nuremberg was supposedly about who started the war, not who lost. Same for the Tokyo tribunal. We know who started the Iraq War; and we know they have not been called to account for the crime.
    Africans are being held to international accountability for domestic acts of war crimes, but Westerners seem to escape international judgment. What of the war-crime charges by Hamas and some Israelis in Gaza earlier this year?
    Unlike Bashir or any other Africans in the dock, whose alleged atrocities were limited to national jurisdictions, the Bush administration asserted and exercised the right to kidnap suspected enemies in the war on terror anywhere in the world and take them anywhere else, including countries known to torture suspects. Many Western allies colluded in this distasteful practice of “rendition.” No Westerner has faced criminal trial for it.

And he argues, as I did in my blog post yesterday, that the ICC should be mothballed until it can become a more robust instrument of a much more equitable international system.

De Waal & Flint’s great new article on ICC-Darfur

Longtime readers of JWN are aware that I have long been intensely skeptical about the value of “international” war-crimes courts, in general. Some of my concerns were spelled out in this Spring 2006 article in Foreign Policy: PDF; ignore the Latin and the blank space for ads. My criticisms were more fully spelled out in the concluding chapter to my 2006 book Amnesty After Atrocity? Healing Nations After Genocide and War Crimes.
And yes, just so that our many pro-Israeli readers understand my position, let me also spell out that some years ago, when my friend Chibli Mallat was working with survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacres to have their case against Ariel Sharon prosecuted in a Belgian court, I had severe misgivings about that effort, too. I felt then, and still feel today, that the Palestinians have something more important they need from Israel’s leaders than to have the short-lived satisfaction of seeing them in a courtroom: They need Israel’s leaders to end the occupation of the Palestinian lands that has continued far too long… And some time after that, there might be an all-round reckoning regarding everyone’s criminal acts of the past.
Trying to do criminal prosecutions before a conflict is ended is, generally speaking, to put the cart before the horse. Worse than that, even just bringing the criminal case puts the defendant into a “defensive crouch” and can thereby exacerbate tensions– as it certainly has done with Sudanese Pres. Omar Hassan al-Bashir. And the whole prosecution effort diverts time, attention, and other scarce resources away from the main goal, which should be a concerted effort at sustainable conflict termination.
After all– a point seldom mentioned in the law-books– atrocities on the scale that are prosecuted in these war-crimes courts take place only in the circumstances of intense and violent inter-group conflict. So first, the conflict(s) must be ended. Otherwise, the risk of further atrocities down the pike only continues.
All of which is a slightly lengthy introduction to the warm invitation I extend to all JWN readers to go and read this excellent article about the ICC’s Darfur case, which has just been published in World Affairs Journal.
The authors, Julie Flint and Alex De Waal, are both real (and much published) experts on Darfu; and they’ve voiced some criticisms before now of the wisdom of the indictment ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo issued against Pres. Bashir. In this latest article, which is lengthy and extensively researched, they delve in great detail into Moreno-Ocampo’s personal record at the ICC, and before that, too.
He really does look like a terrible pick, made somewhat hastily by ICC’s governing “Assembly of States Parties”, back in 2002.
Flint and de Waal hold out some hope that– most likely with a different Chief Prosecutor– the ICC can still some day start to live up to the hopes of the many millions (or, maybe, hundreds of thousands?) of rights activists who had worked so hard for its establishment throughout the 1990s.

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Cassese, Goldstone, Ntsebeza, Robinson call for international investigation of Gaza atrocities

A very high-octane group of 16 prosecutors and judges associated with various recent international atrocity investigations and prosecutions has now called for for a full international investigation into alleged abuses of international law during the recent Gaza conflict.
The letter’s signatories include Antonio Cassese, who is undoubtedly the dean of international criminal jurisprudence and was also the first President of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, Richard Goldstone, first chief prosecutor of ICTY, Dumisa Ntsebeza, a member of South Africa’s TRC, and Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Oh, and Archbishop Tutu, chair of South Africa’s TRC.
In a letter the group sent to UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki-moon and the members of the Security Council, the group wrote,

    We urge world leaders to send an unfaltering signal that the targeting of civilians during conflict is unacceptable by any party on any count. We call on them to support the establishment of a United Nations commission of inquiry into the Gaza conflict. The commission should have the greatest possible expertise and authority and: a mandate to carry out a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation of all allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties to the conflict; it should not be limited only to attacks on UN facilities; act in accordance with the strictest international standards governing such investigations; if it finds sufficient evidence, it should provide recommendations as to the appropriate prosecution of those responsible for gross violations of the law by the relevant authorities.
    The events in Gaza have shocked us to the core. Relief and reconstruction are desperately needed but, for the real wounds to heal, we must also establish the truth about crimes perpetuated against civilians on both sides.

Actually, as longtime readers of JWN are probably aware I am fairly skeptical about the value of international criminal prosecutions and international criminal investigations in general. I believe what the beleaguered people of Gaza and the also harmed (but far less armed) people of southern Israel need above everything else is a speedy and sustainable end to the conflict between their two peoples.
Absent such a final peace settlement, the institutionalized violence of Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza will continue; resistance to that occupation will obviously continue, in ways that may include violence (and properly regulated violence is a quite legal way to end military occupation); and Israeli military actions of a frequently lethal and very harmful nature can also be expected to continue.
The most urgent goal is to end all that violence, the commission of which continues to this day. Once the direct violence of occupation and all the violence that flows from that situation, has ended: That will be, I think, the best time to start examining the “truth” about the past.
Some of my Black friends in South Africa used to say: “We already knew so many things about the violence that was been committed against us by the White colonial regimes. We didn’t need the TRC to ‘gain’ that knowledge. What we needed it for was to gain acknowledgment from our former tormenters about their past abuses.” The same may well be true of the Palestinians. But what they need, most urgently of all, is an end to the violence that continues to plague their every waking minute.
Still, these international-lawyer types like to have a job, and they like to be “relevant.”
Perhaps, too, in a context in which “international” courts are now pursuing a criminal indictment against one Arab president (Sudan’s Pres. Bashir) and a criminal investigation that might well get close to another (Syria’s Pres. Asad), while no-one is even considering any authoritative form of criminal investigation into the abuses the Bush administration committed in Iraq, in Guantanamo, and elsewhere, these jurists realize that the whole machinery of “international criminal justice” now looks very lopsided… a little bit too much like judicial colonialism?
Anyway, in Gaza as in Darfur, I still strongly believe that what’s needed above all is full support for effective peacemaking, rather than criminal prosecutions. Investigations and possible prosecutions can come later. But first, these conflicts need to be resolved.
(On Gaza, I think Amnesty’s recent call for an international embargo on the shipment of all arms into the theater of the recent war– that is, to Israel as well as to Hamas– makes a lot more sense than this call for an international investigation.)

Moreno-Ocampo and the future of the ICC

The International Criminal Court started its work in 2002 with great fanfare and expectations. The hopes of its many supporters around the world (but concentrated particularly in rich western countries) was that this new court could bring a new day of “accountability” to the perpetrators of some of the most heinous mass crimes of our day.
Sadly, those hopes have not been realized. And not just because of the complete inability of the ICC to even start grappling with Pres. Bush’s perpetration of a monstrous Crime Against the Peace in 2003, and his administration’s perpetration of numerous serious war crimes subsequent to that big original crime.
But beyond that big lacuna, the way the ICC itself has gone about its business since 2002 has also been deeply, perhaps fatally, flawed… And one person who has certainly contributed to these mistakes has been the Chief Prosecutor, Argentina’s Luis Moreno-Ocampo.
Tragically, one of the main problems for this court that was meant to usher in this new era of “accountability” has been that the degree to which the court’s own major organs are– or even, can be– held accountable to the public they purport to serve is extremely limited; or, almost non-existent.

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ICC showboat Moreno-Ocampo, and Darfur

What is the ICC’s showboating Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo up to regarding Darfur?
I admit I haven’t been watching either the ICC or the Darfur situation quite closely enough in recent weeks. But this op-ed in Saturday’s WaPo certainly caught my eye. Not least because it’s written by Ju;ie Flint and Alex de Waal, two of the people who know the most about Darfur of any of the hundreds of westerners who have taken it up as their “celebrity-riven cause celebre” (or, as their way to try to change the topic of conversation in the US from Iraq, where the US does have direct responsibility, to Darfur, where it certainly doesn’t.)
Flint and de Waal start their piece thus:

    Is the International Criminal Court losing its way in Darfur? We fear it is. Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s approach is fraught with risk — for the victims of the atrocities in Darfur, for the prospects for peace in Sudan and for the prosecution itself.
    We are worried by two aspects of Ocampo’s approach, as presented to the U.N. Security Council early this month. One concerns fact: Sudan’s government has committed heinous crimes, but Ocampo’s comparison of it with Nazi Germany is an exaggeration. The other concerns political consequences: Indicting a senior government figure would be an immense symbolic victory for Darfurians. But Darfur residents need peace, security and deliverable justice more than they need a moment of jubilation. And with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir and his men still in power, a high-level indictment would probably damage all these objectives.
    While addressing the Security Council on June 5, Ocampo described a Darfur we do not recognize. He spoke of a vast, single crime scene where “the entire Sudanese state apparatus” has been mobilized “to physically and mentally destroy entire communities.” He said he would seek to indict a senior government official — whom we infer may be Bashir — next month. He outlined a criminal conspiracy within government to destroy the social fabric of Darfur with, as he has said, the first stage being the massacres of 2003-04 and the second the destruction of the refugee camps and the ethnic groups housed there.
    We were among the first to document the massacres in Darfur — in 2002, even before the rebels announced their uprising — and to call for accountability. We see grave continuing violations of human rights there. But we do not see evidence for the two-stage plan Ocampo described. Yes, there are great obstructions of relief efforts and much violence in and around the camps (not all of it by the government). Government functionaries and soldiers abuse civilians with impunity. But defining today’s violations as a “systematic” campaign to destroy “entire” communities goes too far.

Many, many of the points Flint and de Waal make– especially those I underlined above– are very similar to points that I have made about Darfur over the past couple of years.
They conclude:

    Sudan’s government has only itself to blame for the difficulties it faces. But the ICC prosecutor also is erring. Many crimes have been committed in Sudan. The systematic eradication of communities today is not one of them. Bringing charges of this nature against the highest echelons of government, at this moment, would be gambling with the future of the entire Sudanese nation.

I hope that everyone in the western “Save Darfur” campaign reads this article and thinks deeply about it. I know these are not easy issues. But I certainly believe that Flint and de Waal know (and understand, which is a slightly different matter) a lot more about the situation in Darfur than Ocampo.
As they say, “Darfur residents need peace, security and deliverable justice more than they need a moment of jubilation.” What we also need to look much more at is what kind of justice the Darfuris really need. Return to their homes and the reconstitution of their lives, livelihoods, and communities– that is, the satisfaction of core issues of economic and social justice– is probably, for them as for other populations wracked by atrocity-laden inter-group conflict, their first and most pressing need.

Darfur & the need for care in reporting casualty tolls (again)

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).
    Action
    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.”
He adds:

    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.

Darfuris getting saved

Yesterday’s NYT had a fascinating piece of reporting (also here) by Jeffrey Gettleman, datelined from “Artala, Sudan”. As he makes clear, Artala is located in south-western Darfur– and the story is about a number of formerly displaced villagers from the area who have chosen to return to their home villages and rebuild rather than staying in the IDP camps to which they had earlier fled.
As I’ve written here a number of times before (e.g., here), providing the conditions in which Darfur’s villagers can return to their home areas and rebuild in security and peace is the best way to “Save Darfur”– though a vocal and extremely well-funded information campaign in the west has been trying to persuade us that other, much more hostile and polarizing actions like bringing prosecutions against Sudan’s leaders or finding other means to punish them, insisting on a forced entry of international troops into Darfur, or even (by some coalition members) urging “regime change” in Sudan itself, are the best way to “Save Darfur.”
Having seen, just back in July, the misery of Ugandan Acholis forced to live in “Internally Displaced Persons” (IDP) camps for ten years now, forcibly prevented from returning to their homes and from cultivating their crops, and thereby forced into an existence of dependency, displacement, and chronic mental distress, my conviction that enabling a peaceable return to the homestead is the best outcome for most such people has only been strengthened.
Gettleman’s story is therefore a modestly hopeful one.
Let me just quote a few paras from his lead:

    Omar Abdul Aziz Gader cupped his hand over his eyes and scanned a landscape of scorched fields and mud huts reduced to rings of ash.
    Where others might have seen a wasteland, Mr. Gader saw home.
    “It’s good to be back,” he said.
    As a displaced person from Darfur, Mr. Gader found his options were not great. He could have stayed in the packed, increasingly unruly camp where he had been living for the past two years, or he could have ventured back to Artala, his native village, which was burned to the ground by nomadic raiders.
    He decided to go home in September after learning that his corner of southwestern Darfur was actually rather peaceful, a place where nomads and farmers had begun to take halting steps toward reconciliation.
    Much of Darfur, a vast swath of territory in western Sudan, is still a battlefield, with vicious fighting between the Sudanese government and rebel forces, and masses of people fleeing their villages each day.
    But there are other parts, lesser known, where people are heading the other way, going home.
    It is a journey that is also difficult, with homecomings that may prove to be short-lived. But aid workers estimate that there are several thousand returnees like Mr. Gader — and many more on their way.
    Mr. Gader says he is looking ahead, building a new hut and planting onions, though at times the past seizes him…

It looks like a great piece of reporting. Gettleman doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties returning farmers like Mr. Gader face as they return home. But neither does he seem to sugar-coat the difficulties of life in the IDP camps, either… Indeed, he refers to Mr. Gader having faced a degree of social pressure (or worse) in the camp, that sought to “persuade” him not to return home:

    Mr. Gader, 32, spoke in hushed tones of camp politics and how some of the displaced people had called him a traitor for even thinking of going home, because they said it bolstered the government’s claim that things were not so bad. Mr. Gader, who lived in a huge camp in southern Darfur called Kalma, with an estimated population of 100,000, said he, his wife and his two children had to leave in the middle of the night.
    “We basically escaped,” he said.
    Aid workers and camp dwellers say camp elders have a vested financial interest in keeping as many people as possible in the camp, because the elders can make money by siphoning food aid and selling it in local markets. But the returnees are learning that home is a complicated place, too.

This reminds me a little of the situation that developed in the IDP camps and cross-border refugee camps in and around Rwanda in late 1994, when forces loyal to Rwanda’s ousted government of anti-Tutsi génocidaires kept two million or more displaced Hutus forcibly within the camps that had developed there and fought hard to try to prevent them from returning peaceably to their homes.
Under these circumstances, I am delighted that there are parts of Darfur where the situation has been improving so much that people in the camps are prepared to brave the intimidatory tactics of “camp elders” and go back home.
If you are interested in Darfur at all, I urge you to go and read the whole of Gettleman’s article there. It has many telling vignettes. Above all, don’t imagine that the ideologically bowdlerized version of his story that has been put up on the website of the “Save Darfur” coalition gives anything like an accurate representation of the whole article.
… This coalition has meanwhile been spending massive amounts of money on large numbers of full-page ads in major US newspapers that are, essentially, a fairly exploitative form of “waving the bloody shirt” mobilization. One full-page ad in the NYT costs, I believe, $48,000. I must have seen a dozen such ads– between the NYT and the WaPo– in the past month or so, and I’m sure they’ve been running them in many other papers nationwide. Perhaps the members of this coalition would have done better by actual Darfuri women and men if instead of running these ads they had put that money into the kinds of programs Gettleman was writing about: programs that have already helped thousands of Darfuris return to their homes?
… People in comfortable life-situations in western countries like to talk a tremendous amount about “accountability”. But the form of “accountability” they talk about is nearly always: (a) backward-looking and (b) very selective. I am very concerned about accountability, too. But the kind I’m more concerned about is forward-looking accountability: the accountability that people should have to each other to end current oppressions and build a better, more equitable and life-affirming social order going forward. And quite frequently, when people are in crisis situations, attempts to establish western-style, backward-looking “accountability” can actively impede the chances of being able to build such a better order. (Think of, for example, the effects of the Saddam trial in Iraq, or Rwanda’s many attempts to establish its very selective– but also, very extensive– forms of “accountability” for the horrendous inter-group violence of 1994… )
It strikes me that the situation in Darfur is now giving us further examples of these (always difficult) kinds of decisions being faced…
But meanwhile, I have to say I was really delighted to learn from Gettleman’s article that there are parts of Darfur where rebuilding– including some non-trivial social rebuilding– is already taking place.

Prunier on Darfur

I have a lot of respect for Gerard Prunier, a French Africanist with broad knowledge of the recent history of central and eastern Africa. I thought his 1995 book The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide was the very best study of that whole terrible episode. When I interviewed him in Paris in 2001 he was patient, articulate, and extremely informative.
Now he has what seems to me an equally informative article on the Darfur crisis on the Open Democracy website. He gives quite a lot of background about the nature and troubled history of Darfur-Sudan relations. His prescription for what might be done to improve the lot of Darfur’s people is, regrettably but probably realistically, rather depressing and very thin:

    What, then, is to be done? In the real world, the options are grim. It is possible to let things run their course and see the ethnic cleansing result in several thousand casualties more. This is still the most likely probability, given the incapacity of the international community to think beyond a ritualistic wail for a UN force to be deployed (which, even were it to be deployed, is unlikely to be effective).
    Another option would be to accept the fact that a major historical process is at work in a key corner of the continent and that it can be brought to a close only by the Sudanese themselves, not by foreigners. The ensuing logic of intervention would be to take sides in favour or against some of the actors in the conflict. This would in turn involve a clear, realistic judgment of their political character…
    In any case, there is no room for self-delusion: a true negotiation about the future of Sudan and the relative place of its various populations in an ensemble that still remains to be defined will in no way resemble the shadow theatre of Naivasha or Abuja [the locations of previous negotiations on the issue.] It can only come after political-military control and positioning on the ground have been redefined by the combatants themselves, rather than being artificially manipulated by outsiders (and outsiders, moreover, who are not even ready to honour the commitments they have made once the Sudanese they have “persuaded” into signing raise this issue).
    A true negotiation would also mean that the type of centralised, Nile valley “Arab” regime which has ruled Sudan since 1956 under one guise or another will also have to go. Its replacement must be a federation of some kind, though the creation of such a model will require an immensely difficult and detailed task of institution-building. The multi-ethnic nature of the country will have to be turned into a reality and not – as is the case at present – remain a polite fiction hiding the reality of “Arab” cultural, economic and political domination.
    None of this will be easy or peaceful. The elections scheduled for 2009 in Sudan will be an important political benchmark of progress in this direction, though if the present regime remains in charge it is unlikely that they will be free, fair or honest.
    Even amid such a long-overdue comprehensive overhaul of an unjust and obsolete political system – still a distant prospect – Darfur will remain a particular case. Its citizens will have to choose whether they accept their common regional bonds or whether they prefer to follow the beat of a distant drummer on the banks of the Nile. Their future, their lives – or possibly their deaths – will depend not on short-term technical fixes but on themselves: on the choices they make and on the means put at their disposal to achieve them.

More on Darfur death tolls

A few readers have challenged what I wrote here recently, when I challenged Ruth Messinger’s claim that “Half a million people are dead and 3.5 million are displaced” as a direct result of the genocidal violence in Darfur. In that post I noted that the WaPo’s Emily Waxreported from the Chad-Darfur border at the end of April that “tens of thousands” had been killed during the genocide, and said my judgment would be to prefer Wax’s figure over Messinger’s.
I’ve done a little more online research on the issue. A WaPo editorial noted on April 24 that, “On his recent visit to Sudan, Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick… said that the State Department’s estimate of deaths in Darfur was 60,000 to 160,000.”
The editorial claimed that range was far too low, and continued: “Other authorities suggest that mortality is likely to be closer to 400,000.” The sources they used for that included various extrapolations from limited samples taken by NGOs.
In this report from Khartoum yesterday, Evelyn Leopold of Reuters wrote,

    Since 2003, at least 200,000 people in Darfur have died from bullets, hunger or disease, 2.5 million have been thrown out of their homes, many burned to the ground, and hundreds of women have been raped, mainly by Arab militia after a rebellion broke out. The Sudan military had armed militia although it is no longer certain if they control their allies.

And in this June 4 report, also from Khartoum, AFP’s Charles Onians wrote:

    In 2003, the SLM alongside the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) launched a rebellion in the western region of Darfur, prompting a heavy-handed crackdown by the Khartoum government and its proxy militia called the Janjaweed.
    Since then, the conflict has left around 300,000 people dead and 2.4 million homeless.

Since Leopold and Onians are currently on the ground in Sudan, and presumably in good contact with the many aid workers and international diplomats there, I would be inclined to go with their estimates at this point.
I really liked the way Onians framed his little casualty report– putting the casualties clearly in the context of the armed political conflict of which they are such a tragic result, without trying to claim that they were “all” the victims of either one side or the other.
So maybe I would go with his casualty total, or say something like “somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 deaths.” This is considerably more than “tens of thousands.” But I also think it’s important not to convey the false impression (as Messinger did) that all the deaths have been inflicted by one side in the conflict.
Each one of these deaths is a tragedy. How many unrecognized Mother Theresas, how many Yo-Yo Ma’s had their lives snuffed out in those brutal circumstances?
Let’s all do whatever we can to help end the conflict that made such brutality possible.

Darfur: the casualties

Estimating the casualties in a situation of inter-group conflict and mass mayhem is always difficult. But in a letter in today’s NYT, Ruth Messinger, the Executive Director of American Jewish World Service writes about Darfur that, “Half a million people are dead and 3.5 million are displaced, the victims of a genocide that uses rape, murder, assault, displacement, hunger and illness to claim its victims.”
I note that in an article at the end of April, the WaPo’s generally excellent and very careful Africa correspondent Emily Wax, reporting from the Chad-Darfur border, wrote only of “tens of thousands” dead from the genocidal violence in Darfur. Since then, there have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of additional (mainly civilian) deaths– many of them having been caused by inter-necine fighting amongst the anti-Khartoum rebels. (As I noted here and here.)
Whom should we trust? Emily Wax, writing from the borderlands there, and based on her lengthy field reporting, knowledge of the situation, and contact with aid workers and community leaders of all persuasions– or Ruth Messinger, sitting in her office in New York City?
I have never previously seen any estimate as high as “half a million dead.” I have earlier seen estimates of 200,00, and 400,00 dead, that I already thought were very high. But they, at least, were described as “estimates.” Ruth Messinger now states as bald fact that “half a million” are dead because of the genocidaires there.
This matters. It is a basic principle of reporting of human rights abuses not to exaggerate, and where there is uncertainty always to err on the side of caution in one’s estimates. Exaggeration of casualty figures or of any other dimension of the abuses does not help anyone. Indeed, by making the person who exaggerates far less credible in general, it weakens the fabric of responsible human rights reporting and ends up doing a disservice to those people whose rights have been abused.
I see no possible basis in any reports that I have seen for any estimate anywhere near as high as “half a million deaths.”
Messinger wrote her letter in response to this op-ed by Alan Kuperman, that the NYT ran May 31 and that I commented on here.
This part of her letter seems a little confusing to me: “We do not tout the rebels as freedom fighters, nor have our actions fueled the genocide. That has been done by the Sudanese government…” (What? The Sudanese government has been touting the rebels as freedom fighters? H’mmm.)
I applaud her call that, “all armed actors … lay down their weapons, end the conflict and provide safe space for both civilians and humanitarian aid agencies that are saving lives.” But I really fear that by (a) exaggerating the number of those killed by the pro-government side beyond any reasonable estimates, and (b) making no mention whatsoever in her letter of the suffering caused by the rebels, she is being quite unfair and also further stoking the sentiments and energies of those who still want to act militarily against the Sudanese government and its allies.
Also, though Messinger’s letter was in response to the Alan Kuperman op-ed, she did nothing to challenge any of the very specific points he made about the dynamics of the situation inside Darfur.