| Upon reading Not on Our Watch: The mission to end genocide in Darfur and Beyond (Don Cheadle and John Prendergast, Hyperion), I felt goaded to action. In fiercely, simplistically, motivational language, this book tells you that if people continue to suffer and die in Darfur, it’s your fault: “The decisions we need to make to protect those who are suffering are clear, and the sooner we decide, the more lives will be saved.”
For several weeks, I wrote an impassioned letter a day to politicians I thought were in a position to make something happen about Darfur. One by one they returned to me pat, automatic responses. Imagine my shock and delight when, the day after receiving my letter, Gordon Brown responded by declaring that he was actually going to do something about the crisis. With the French President Nicholas Sarkozy, he announced to the world that the two leaders would push for an immediate ceasefire in Darfur and a UN resolution to dispatch African Union and United Nations peace keepers to the region. Both Britain and France, he said, were prepared to provide “substantial” economic aid “as soon as a cease-fire makes it possible.” I knew my letter had been strongly-worded, but still, I was impressed. Wow, I thought, you weren’t joking, Don and John, this book really works.
Seductive as Cheadle and Prendergast had been, the one thing that is clear about Darfur is that nothing is “clear”. Not what’s really happening, not how many people are suffering or dying, certainly not “the decisions we need to make to protect those who are suffering.” We can’t even agree on the reasons for the violence.
The confusion about basic causative factors was made clear in July when BBC News reported that a vast underground lake had been discovered in the Darfur region. Delight was general. It was widely reported that the find could contribute to ending the war by eliminating competition for water resources. Setting aside the fact that the lake turned out to be bone dry, the view that the crisis in Sudan is caused by scarce resources is not itself without controversy.
The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has been perhaps the most prominent proponent of the notion that the conflict is – as some journalists have put it - the “world’s first climate change war.” In June he had released a statement in which he proposed that the slaughter in Darfur stemmed “at least in part from climate change,” and that it “derives, to some degree, from man-made global warming.” Al Gore Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize this year based on the premise that there is a causal connection between natural resource shortages and violent conflicts. But scientists are less and less certain that ecological factors can be considered causal in modern conflicts.
Recent research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology indicates that lands where resources are heavily exploited show a clear connection to a lack of armed conflict. Nations troubled by war during the 38-year research period had lower exploitation rates of their natural resources. In other words, the findings give solid empirical support for stating that environmental scarcity is not the reason behind violent conflict.
In Alex de Waal’s introductory chapter to War in Darfur (Harvard University Press) he comments, in passing, on environmental determinism: “No scholar who has done field research in Sudan subscribes to the simple notion that drought and ecological degradation directly cause conflict.” A footnote adds that at least one “apologist for the Sudan government” has tried to encourage this explanation of the violence in Darfur. Maintaining that scarce water resources is the ‘reason’ for Darfur’s problems is about as subtle as imagining it really was my letter that got Brown and Sarkozy together to chat about Sudan.
So what is happening in Darfur? Genocide? International humanitarianism is a notoriously foggy area. The concept of ‘genocide’ as a ‘crime against humanity’ was at some level introduced to slash through that fog. The idea is that, once an event was officially termed ‘genocide’, a bona fide ‘crime against humanity’, governments would have an obligation to act. For this reason- governments have often avoided using the g-word at all costs – they’ll stick to “widespread atrocities” or “mass killings.”
It was a surprise when the US government termed the Darfur crisis genocide, and it is alone among states in doing so. Even its own special envoy for Sudan, Andrew Natsios, pointedly refrains from referring to it as such. The 1984 Genocide Convention states that two criminal elements – physical and mental - must be established for a genocide to have occurred. There must be actions aimed at or resulting in the deaths of members of a national, religious or ethnic group, and the perpetrators of these acts must have the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the targeted group.
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Ailbhe Darcy was born in Dublin and currently lives in Cambridge. She has published poetry widely in Ireland and Britain and will make her US debut with a poem in the next issue of The Cortland Review. She writes critically for a number of journals and websites and co-edits an online journal of new Irish art and writing at www.moloch.ie.
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