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Talking about Darfur: Is Genocide Just a Word?


Monday, Sep. 13, 2004

"We have learned from Rwanda," said Secretary of State Colin Powell last week, in response to a question about atrocities taking place in the Darfur region of western Sudan. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Powell declared that the horrific violence over the past year in Darfur constitutes genocide.

The U.S. has concluded, Powell said, "that genocide has been committed in Darfur ... and that genocide may still be occurring."

Powell's bold language was, indeed, quite unlike that used by U.S. officials during the slaughter in Rwanda. In April and May 1994, as hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were being killed, State Department representatives hemmed and hawed. It was a sorry spectacle: what genocide chronicler Samantha Power later characterized as "a two-month dance to avoid the g-word."

But with Darfur, as with Rwanda, the meaningful question is not what which words are used to describe the violence but what is done to stop it. And to date, despite much rhetoric and many expressions of concern, the measures taken to protect civilians have been grossly inadequate.

The Security Council's Resolution: A Demand for Disarmament

Although most human rights groups have not gathered the information necessary to confirm the charge of genocide, they all agree that the Sudanese government is responsible for "ethnic cleansing" and crimes against humanity.Since April 2003, the Sudanese government and its Arab militia allies have systematically attacked Darfur's civilian population, targeting members of the Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa, and other African ethnic groups. Tens of thousands have been killed.

The international community was initially slow to react to the violence. While human rights groups and humanitarian organizations sounded the alarm in 2003 and early 2004, governments, the United Nations, and the media were largely silent. Preoccupied by the war in Iraq and other crises, they were little inclined to worry about Africa.

Finally, over the summer, as refugees continued to flow and the number of dead mounted, the world's attention focused on Darfur. In late July, in a move that upped the pressure on Sudan, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that the Sudanese government disarm and prosecute the Arab Janjaweed militias directly responsible for much of Darfur's violence.

The Security Council gave the Sudanese thirty days to comply with its resolution, a deadline that has since expired. Over the past two weeks, the Security Council has been reviewing developments in Darfur to decide what, if any, measures to undertake in response. One option, pressed by the U.S., includes the threat of sanctions against Sudan's oil exports.

Powell's Statement: More Important Than He Himself Acknowledges

The timing of Powell's statement -- precisely as the Security Council is debating Darfur - increases the pressure for U.N. action. But the Security Council is deeply split. China, Pakistan and Algeria are overtly hostile to the U.S. approach, and even many European countries are less than enthusiastic about the possibility of sanctions. And no other country has taken up the U.S. conclusions regarding genocide.

Even Powell, moreover, lessened the impact of his genocide statement by explicitly downplaying its significance. "No new action is dictated by this determination," he emphasized during his remarks to the Foreign Relations Committee. "So let us not be too preoccupied with [it]," he added, somewhat bizarrely.

While Powell is right to suggest that the U.S. should not ignore large-scale abuses that do not amount to genocide, this does not mean that a finding of genocide is of no consequence. As a party to the Genocide Convention, the U.S. has specifically undertaken "to prevent and to punish" the crime. By concluding that genocide has taken place -- and is probably still taking place -- the U.S. is morally and legally obligated to do something about it.

The Fear of a Genocide Finding: Obligating the U.S. "To Actually 'Do Something'"

In her masterful history of U.S. responses to genocide, author Samantha Power describes why the U.S. was so determined to avoid calling the violence in Rwanda genocide. American officials were afraid, she explains, that using the term would have obliged the United States to act.

A Pentagon discussion paper on Rwanda, issued at the height of the violence there, tells a cautionary tale: "Be Careful," the paper said, referring to a possible investigation of genocide claims. "Legal at State was worried about this yesterday -- Genocide finding could commit [the U.S. government] to actually 'do something.'"

By avoiding the word genocide, the U.S. no doubt found it easier to avoid action. Let us hope that this time it doesn't say the word, but avoid action all the same.

Joanne Mariner is a FindLaw columnist and human rights attorney. She was part of a Human Rights Watch delegation that visited North Darfur in July and August to document recent abuses committed against civilians. The views expressed in her column are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights Watch.

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