Politics of Humanitarian Emergencies in Africa- Darfur

The Crisis in Darfur: Genocide or Civil War?

Harvard University

Darfur- Civil War

The Crisis in Darfur: Genocide or War? © Politics of Humanitarian Emergencies in Africa

Argument: Present the case that the crisis in Darfur should be primarily treated as a civil war, with international responses accordingly.

The waging of war was once a relatively clearly-defined concept. While civilians and non-combatants have always been targeted by pillaging victorious armies, defining the conflict - and the combatants - has historically been relatively straightforward. Even when armies haven't worn uniforms or been readily identifiable by ethnicity or cultural origin, the line between military warfare and the intentional decimation of specific groups - genocide - has been apparent. There are clear examples of both: the methodical murder of Jews and other non-Aryans during Hitler's reign was clearly genocide; by comparison, Sherman's march to the sea during the American Civil War, despite it's targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, was an act of warfare rather than genocide. These examples arguably point out perhaps the defining distinguishing feature that separates genocide from warfare: the intent of the action. Where the goal of warfare is military - and ultimately political - gain, the primary goal of genocide is eradication of a segment of the population. If this is an accurate definition, it quickly becomes clear that, in modern conflicts, the line between genocide and warfare - especially civil warfare - is no longer as bright as it once was. In the former-Yugoslavian Balkans, for example, the conflict arguably began as a civil war of Croat versus Bosnian versus ethnic Serb, but once the bullets began to fly, genocide became at least a secondary factor, if not the primary purpose of some of the warring parties. Nowhere is the distinction more blurred than in the seemingly countless conflicts that have raged in sub-Saharan Africa over much of the last half century (Deng 123). Fueled by post-colonial friction, the last vestiges of the European slave trade, and religious and sectarian conflict, Africa has become synonymous with bitter warfare in recent decades; Somalia, Ethiopia, Chad, Zaire, Zimbabwe, and Sudan are just some of the examples (Burr & Collins 82). The post-2003 conflict still raging in the Darfur region of Sudan is just the latest example of this phenomenon in operation, and like the other modern African conflicts, choosing the appropriate label for the violence - genocide or civil war - is difficult. Both sides of that debate can be effectively argued; moreover, there is unquestionably a genocidal component to the Darfur conflict ("Q & A" 445). However, closer examination suggests that the Darfur crisis is more properly termed a civil war, precisely because of the question of intent: the Janjaweed militias, with the support of the Sudanese governing authority, may be targeting Massaleit, Zaghawa, and other ethnic groups - but the purpose of those genocidal acts is to achieve military and political gain (Hertzke 16).

A key part of the evidence for arguing in support of a civil warfare versus genocide label for the Darfur conflict is found in the history of the region, and in the historical origins of the most recent fighting. As aforementioned, the deepest root causes arguably go back centuries to the era of European colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade; however, for purposes of this discussion, the history of the last century is both more relevant and more telling. Following centuries of conflict in the region, most often between Arab Islamists and the African population - and between specific sects of Islam - the British invaded in 1916 and established colonial rule: "Darfur remained defiantly independent until 1916, when it was decisively defeated and subdued" (Deng 54). As so often occurs in regions with centuries of conflict, the external influence of a powerful authority had a temporary calming effect; just as Tito managed to rule all of the Yugoslav Balkans with an iron fist, the British colonial authorities brought a cessation of sectarian and religious violence (Sidahmed 17). But just as in Yugoslavia, which dissolved as Tito's reign ended, the Sudan returned to conflict as status quo once the British granted the colony nominal independence in 1956.

However, there was another geopolitical paradigm that maintained some stability in the region following Sudanese independence: the ongoing Soviet-American Cold War. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, northern Africa was a quiet battleground of the Cold War, with both American and Soviet organizations seeking to dominate the region. The net result, once again, was to establish a sense of superficial order - to metaphorically separate ethnic, religious, and cultural factions that would otherwise be at war (Anderson 55). As Soviet influence in the region began to wane in the 1970s, conflict became increasingly apparent; in fact, most historians pinpoint the direct roots of the post-2003 conflict to early 1970's strife between warring factions, and the early 80s famines and epidemics that raged in the region - both of which were arguably consequences of Cold War neglect by the superpowers (Makki 28).

The Darfur conflict - of which the post-2003 violence is arguably just the latest flare-up - in a conflict that has now gone on for more than 30 years, with the factions divided along lines that are not only ethnic and religious, but political; however, the current revolt and warfare, despite its genocidal overtones, is clearly internecine warfare between allegedly historically disenfranchised Arabs and ethnic Africans:

Dozens of ethnic groups inhabit Darfur, groups of Arab and African ethnicity who have lived peacefully side by side in the past. The majority is non-Arabic farmers of African origin. Among them, the largest ethnic group is the Fur. The Arab groups have complained of political marginalization by the Fur. The Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa complain of political marginalization by the Sudanese government. Since the current government took power through a military coup in 1989, it has changed administrative systems and taken other measures that are perceived to be supporting the political and economic cause of the Arab ethnic groups. ("Q & A" 446).

In short, the struggle is a political one and thus a conflict of civil warfare; nevertheless, the ethnic and racial overtones cannot be overstates. The Arab factions, historically disenfranchised, have controlled the government for decades; the various militias are thus operating with the support of the government, and utilizing genocide as a weapon of warfare. Whatever the conflict is labeled, there is no question that ethnicity is important. "Ethnically, Arabs make up 39 percent and Africans 61 percent. Religiously, Muslims make up 70 percent and the rest are Christians and traditional believers. The central government has been dominated by Arabs and Muslims since the country's independence in 1956" ("Q & A" 445)

This is primarily the argument of those suggesting that genocide is a more accurate label than civil warfare for the current iteration of the Darfur crisis; their evidence is prima facie proof that acts of racially and ethnically motivated violence are occurring routinely. They are certainly correct in one respect: there is no question whether genocidal acts are occurring, and the evidence of these heinous acts of sectarian and religious violence is indisputable. Since the uprising of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA) and other non-Arab factions began in 2003, the Muslim Janjaweed militia - with the full support of the Sudanese government - have conducted campaigns of intentional "ethnic cleansing" on a scale not seen since the 1990s crisis in Rwanda. As of 2005, the figures were already staggering: surveys placed the death toll caused directly by the violence at as high as 172,000; secondary effects, including malnutrition and disease, had killed more than 125,000 more. British governmental agencies put the total casualty count at no fewer than 300,000 people - almost all civilians - and almost 2 million people had been forced from their homes, most then living in squalid conditions in refugee camps (Bellamy 31). During the fall of 2005, the United Nations declared that it estimated that "up to 3.5 million people face famine in Darfur" (Hertke 20). With so much of the violence targeted specifically at civilians, and particularly because of the racial and ethnic nature of much of the killing, it is little wonder that many argue that "genocide" is the most accurate descriptive term for the conflict. In fact, "following a unanimous vote by the U.S. Congress in July 2004, Colin Powell took the unprecedented step of labeling the violence ‘genocide'" (Bellamy 31). In fact, Powell went on to clarify and confirm his statement:

The survey soon made its way to Powell's desk. Shortly thereafter, he unambiguously told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the survey's finding, saying, "We concluded that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility, and genocide may still be occurring." Powell's statement constituted a momentous occasion for Sudan activists, one of whom told me he cried like a baby when he heard it. But while the statement may have temporarily satisfied these activists-a large number of whom, incidentally, are evangelical Christians, which may help explain why Powell made it seven weeks before the election-no policy shift accompanied the declaration. (Goldberg 16).

However, despite this declaration from the U.S. government and the ample evidence of genocidal violence, objective analysis of the political situation at the core of the violence demonstrates that genocide is a secondary effect, rather than the primary action; in essence, the Darfur conflict is a civil war, in which genocide is being used as a military tactic. Regardless of the racial and ethnic factors, it must be remembered that the post-2003 conflict actually began for political reasons - with the disparate factions in conflict because of warring ideologies; they may be identifiable by ethnicity or religion, but it is political power that is at the core of the struggle, as in any civil war. The current conflict was actually triggered in 2003 when African rebel groups rose up against the Sudanese government, demanding equality; two of the groups, the Sudanese Liberation Movement and the Justice and Equality Movement, later merged with other factions and were explicitly demanding political and civil rights (Bellamy 36). The Sudanese government's response was largely to support the Janjaweed militia, an ethnic Arab group of religious Muslims; they were basically drafted into service after the rebels routed government forces in early clashes. There is no question that in the interim the Janjaweed have resorted to "ethnic cleansing" type attacks on civilian populations, but again those calling it "genocide" miss the point: the attacks are made for political and military gain, not for the sake of genocide itself (Totten 440). "The conflict in Darfur, an independent kingdom annexed to Sudan in 1917, started in the 1970s as a low-key dispute between migrant Arab nomads and local African farmers over grazing lands in this drought-prone region. By February 2003, the dispute had turned into a full-fledged civil war" (Makki 28).

The point of the debate here is not to minimize the suffering of the victims of violence, but to maintain a credible model of genocide for use in future conflicts; to mislabel or misunderstand genocide carries a risk of missing the warning signs of a future holocaust. The African and non-Arab Sudanese are suffering grievously due to genocidal-type violence at the hands of government supported Muslim militias; however, genocidal violence does not necessarily equate to genocide, in either terms of international law or by simply logical analysis (Goldberg). Those arguing that genocide is the proper descriptive label for the Darfur conflict are basing their argument solely on the statistical and numerical data, rather than on a historical or political analysis: they argue ipso facto that because thousands have been killed, Darfur represents an episode of genocide in progress. However, this argument is specious; were it true, every conflict in which thousands died - or in which the warring factions were notably distinct ethnically or racially - could be termed "genocide." A much more accurate assessment must focus on the motivational factors behind the violence: in the simplest terms, if "ethnic cleansing" is an end in and of itself, "genocide" is occurring; by contrast, those who argue in favor of the "civil war" label, suggest that where genocide is a tactic - a means to an end rather than the end itself - than "genocide" is not the proper label.

The latter argument is logically and rhetorically superior, and is supported by history, specifically in the case of Darfur. The Sudanese government is not aiding the militias in eradication of African Sudanese primarily for ethnic cleansing purpose; they are supporting the violence - and using "genocide" as a tactical part of an overall strategy - in order to quell a rebellion. In short, as governments in power tend to do, they are seeking to hang onto that power, by any means necessary. Therefore, at its core the Darfur conflict is rooted in a political power struggle; the ethnicity is a secondary aspect. Politically motivated conflict, taking place in a domestic arena, is warfare - civil warfare - by definition, and should be described as such, despite the heinous violence occurring as part of that war.

References Cited

Anderson, G. Norman. Sudan in Crisis: The Failure of Democracy. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1999.

Bellamy, Alex J. "Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq." Ethics & International Affairs 19.2 (2005): 31-39.

Burr, J. Millard, and Robert O. Collins. Africa's Thirty Years War: Libya, Chad, and the Sudan, 1963-1993. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Deng, Francis M. War of Visions: Conflict of Identities in the Sudan. Washington, DC: Brookings Institutuion, 1995.

Goldberg, Mark Leon. "Khartoum Characters: Exactly 142 Days after Bush Said the Word "Darfur," He Added a More Important Word "Genocide." but Does the Policy Match the Sentiment?" The American Prospect July 2005: 14-18.

Hertzke, Allen D. "The Shame of Darfur." First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life Oct. 2005: 16-22.

Makki, Sala. "Sudan: Darfur, More Than a Conflict; "It Is Genocide." That Is, at Least, How Mukesh Kapila, the Outgoing UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Khartoum, Describes the Fighting in the Darfur Region of Western Sudan. Sala Makki Reports." New African May 2004: 28-33.

"Q&A: Crisis in Darfur." Social Education 68.7 (2004): 445-456.

Sidahmed, Abdel Salam, and Alsir Sidahmed. Sudan. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Totten, Samuel. "The Darfur Atrocities Documentation Project." Social Education 68.7 (2004): 438-447.

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