The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency


The similarities between Iraq and Darfur are remarkable. The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and large identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be a cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make?

The most powerful mobilisation in New York City is in relation to Darfur, not Iraq. One would expect the reverse, for no other reason than that most New Yorkers are American citizens and so should feel directly responsible for the violence in occupied Iraq. But Iraq is a messy place in the American imagination, a place with messy politics. Americans worry about what their government should do in Iraq. Should it withdraw? What would happen if it did? In contrast, there is nothing messy about Darfur. It is a place without history and without politics; simply a site where perpetrators clearly identifiable as â€ËœArabsâ€â„¢ confront victims clearly identifiable as â€ËœAfricansâ€â„¢.

A full-page advertisement has appeared several times a week in the New York Times calling for intervention in Darfur now. It wants the intervening forces to be placed under â€Ëœa chain of command allowing necessary and timely military action without approval from distant political or civilian personnelâ€â„¢. That intervention in Darfur should not be subject to â€Ëœpolitical or civilianâ€â„¢ considerations and that the intervening forces should have the right to shoot â€" to kill â€" without permission from distant places: these are said to be â€Ëœhumanitarianâ€â„¢ demands. In the same vein, a New Republic editorial on Darfur has called for â€Ëœforce as a first-resort responseâ€â„¢. What makes the situation even more puzzling is that some of those who are calling for an end to intervention in Iraq are demanding an intervention in Darfur; as the slogan goes, â€ËœOut of Iraq and into Darfur.â€â„¢

What would happen if we thought of Darfur as we do of Iraq, as a place with a history and politics â€" a messy politics of insurgency and counter-insurgency? Why should an intervention in Darfur not turn out to be a trigger that escalates rather than reduces the level of violence as intervention in Iraq has done? Why might it not create the actual possibility of genocide, not just rhetorically but in reality? Morally, there is no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence against civilians in Darfur. The ambiguity lies in the politics of the violence, whose sources include both a state-connected counter-insurgency and an organised insurgency, very much like the violence in Iraq.

The insurgency and counter-insurgency in Darfur began in 2003. Both were driven by an intermeshing of domestic tensions in the context of a peace-averse international environment defined by the War on Terror. On the one hand, there was a struggle for power within the political class in Sudan, with more marginal interests in the west (following those in the south and in the east) calling for reform at the centre. On the other, there was a community-level split inside Darfur, between nomads and settled farmers, who had earlier forged a way of sharing the use of semi-arid land in the dry season. With the drought that set in towards the late 1970s, co-operation turned into an intense struggle over diminishing resources.

As the insurgency took root among the prospering peasant tribes of Darfur, the government trained and armed the poorer nomads and formed a militia â€" the Janjawiid â€" that became the vanguard of the unfolding counter-insurgency. The worst violence came from the Janjawiid, but the insurgent movements were also accused of gross violations. Anyone wanting to end the spiralling violence would have to bring about power-sharing at the state level and resource-sharing at the community level, land being the key resource.

Since its onset, two official verdicts have been delivered on the violence, the first from the US, the second from the UN. The American verdict was unambiguous: Darfur was the site of an ongoing genocide. The chain of events leading to Washingtonâ€â„¢s proclamation began with â€Ëœa genocide alertâ€â„¢ from the Management Committee of the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum; according to the Jerusalem Post, the alert was â€Ëœthe first ever of its kind, issued by the US Holocaust Museumâ€â„¢. The House of Representatives followed unanimously on 24 June 2004. The last to join the chorus was Colin Powell.

The UN Commission on Darfur was created in the aftermath of the American verdict and in response to American pressure. It was more ambiguous. In September 2004, the Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, then the chair of the African Union, visited UN headquarters in New York. Darfur had been the focal point of discussion in the African Union. All concerned were alert to the extreme political sensitivity of the issue. At a press conference at the UN on 23 September Obasanjo was asked to pronounce on the violence in Darfur: was it genocide or not? His response was very clear:

Before you can say that this is genocide or ethnic cleansing, we will have to have a definite decision and plan and programme of a government to wipe out a particular group of people, then we will be talking about genocide, ethnic cleansing. What we know is not that. What we know is that there was an uprising, rebellion, and the government armed another group of people to stop that rebellion. Thatâ€â„¢s what we know. That does not amount to genocide from our own reckoning. It amounts to of course conflict. It amounts to violence.

By October, the Security Council had established a five-person commission of inquiry on Darfur and asked it to report within three months on â€Ëœviolations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Darfur by all partiesâ€â„¢, and specifically to determine â€Ëœwhether or not acts of genocide have occurredâ€â„¢. Among the members of the commission was the chief prosecutor of South Africaâ€â„¢s TRC, Dumisa Ntsebeza. In its report, submitted on 25 January 2005, the commission concluded that â€Ëœthe Government of the Sudan has not pursued a policy of genocide . . . directly or through the militias under its control.â€â„¢ But the commission did find that the governmentâ€â„¢s violence was â€Ëœdeliberately and indiscriminately directed against civiliansâ€â„¢. Indeed, â€Ëœeven where rebels may have been present in villages, the impact of attacks on civilians shows that the use of military force was manifestly disproportionate to any threat posed by the rebels.â€â„¢ These acts, the commission concluded, â€Ëœwere conducted on a widespread and systematic basis, and therefore may amount to crimes against humanityâ€â„¢ (my emphasis). Yet, the commission insisted, they did not amount to acts of genocide: â€ËœThe crucial element of genocidal intent appears to be missing . . . it would seem that those who planned and organised attacks on villages pursued the intent to drive the victims from their homes, primarily for purposes of counter-insurgency warfare.â€â„¢

At the same time, the commission assigned secondary responsibility to rebel forces â€" namely, members of the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement â€" which it held â€Ëœresponsible for serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law which may amount to war crimesâ€â„¢ (my emphasis). If the government stood accused of â€Ëœcrimes against humanityâ€â„¢, rebel movements were accused of â€Ëœwar crimesâ€â„¢. Finally, the commission identified individual perpetrators and presented the UN secretary-general with a sealed list that included â€Ëœofficials of the government of Sudan, members of militia forces, members of rebel groups and certain foreign army officers acting in their personal capacityâ€â„¢. The list named 51 individuals.

The commissionâ€â„¢s findings highlighted three violations of international law: disproportionate response, conducted on a widespread and systematic basis, targeting entire groups (as opposed to identifiable individuals) but without the intention to eliminate them as groups. It is for this last reason that the commission ruled out the finding of genocide. Its less grave findings of â€Ëœcrimes against humanityâ€â„¢ and â€Ëœwar crimesâ€â„¢ are not unique to Darfur, but fit several other situations of extreme violence: in particular, the US occupation of Iraq, the Hema-Lendu violence in eastern Congo and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Among those in the counter-insurgency accused of war crimes were the â€Ëœforeign army officers acting in their personal capacityâ€â„¢, i.e. mercenaries, presumably recruited from armed forces outside Sudan. The involvement of mercenaries in perpetrating gross violence also fits the occupation in Iraq, where some of them go by the name of â€Ëœcontractorsâ€â„¢.

The journalist in the US most closely identified with consciousness-raising on Darfur is the New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, often identified as a lone crusader on the issue. To peruse Kristofâ€â„¢s Darfur columns over the past three years is to see the reduction of a complex political context to a morality tale unfolding in a world populated by villains and victims who never trade places and so can always and easily be told apart. It is a world where atrocities mount geometrically, the perpetrators so evil and the victims so helpless that the only possibility of relief is a rescue mission from the outside, preferably in the form of a military intervention.

Kristof made six highly publicised trips to Darfur, the first in March 2004 and the sixth two years later. He began by writing of it as a case of â€Ëœethnic cleansingâ€â„¢: â€ËœSudanâ€â„¢s Arab rulersâ€â„¢ had â€Ëœforced 700,000 black African Sudanese to flee their villagesâ€â„¢ (24 March 2004). Only three days later, he upped the ante: this was no longer ethnic cleansing, but genocide. â€ËœRight now,â€â„¢ he wrote on 27 March, â€Ëœthe government of Sudan is engaged in genocide against three large African tribes in its Darfur region.â€â„¢ He continued: â€ËœThe killings are being orchestrated by the Arab-dominated Sudanese governmentâ€â„¢ and â€Ëœthe victims are non-Arabs: blacks in the Zaghawa, Massalliet and Fur tribes.â€â„¢ He estimated the death toll at a thousand a week. Two months later, on 29 May, he revised the estimates dramatically upwards, citing predictions from the US Agency for International Development to the effect that â€Ëœat best, â€Å“onlyâ€

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