Darfur Experts Debate Conflict

ALEX DE WAAL: The point of activism is to make a difference. And the Darfur campaigns have made a difference to U.S. policy—certainly in rhetoric, and significantly in substance. For a start, humanitarian agencies working in Darfur have little difficulty in getting the funds they demand from the U.S. government, and no presidential candidate can outline a position on foreign policy that doesn't have some reference to what he or she proposes to do in Darfur. Without the campaigners there would have been no genocide determination and no referral to the International Criminal Court, and it's unlikely that there would have been an effort to change the African Union force to United Nations peacekeepers.

It's certainly true that a lot of what has passed for U.S. Darfur policy in the last three years has been hot air—beginning with Colin Powell's Sept. 9, 2004, determination that genocide had been committed in Darfur (and may be continuing), immediately followed by his assertion that U.S. government policy would not change. But hot air can make a difference too, when we are dealing with a government in Khartoum that has been on the receiving end of U.S. cruise missiles and that fears that the U.S. government will take sides against it in a future war for the secession of southern Sudan. When you are dealing with the U.S., you need to pay attention to what its leaders say. Hot air also makes a difference to inexperienced but heady young rebel leaders who think that if they play their cards right they might just get a NATO military intervention, à la Kosovo, which delivers them from the hands of Khartoum into some form of self-government.

Thirteen years ago, in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide and a lopsided relief response that aided the refugees in (what was then called) Zaire, a group that included much of the genocidal interahamwe militia, and neglected the people threatened by genocide itself, humanitarian agencies went through a painful period of soul-searching. Their first response to their critics (of whom I was one) was something like, "We are not politicians, we are only here to help—and how dare you blame the ambulance crew for car crashes!" But relief workers in the field had long been troubled by the way in which their good intentions were subverted by the realities of horrible wars, in which the material resources provided by aid agencies could turn into an asset that actually worsened conflict and abuse. The principle "do no harm" was adopted to guide humanitarian engagement.

The same "do no harm" principle applies to advocacy, too, and I think that what is happening in Sudan today will soon turn into soul-searching by activist organizations. How could they have inadvertently done harm (or failed to do good)? And what should they learn from this experience? Let me pose three questions, as possibilities we shouldn't evade:

1) Could the focus on Darfur mean that the challenges of consolidating the North-South peace have been neglected? Could it mean that the threat of major violence in Kordofan, the region that borders Darfur, has been overlooked?

2) Could the Darfur campaign have driven the Bush administration to adopt hardline rhetoric that made Khartoum less cooperative, while at the same time encouraging the rebels to believe that they could win a military intervention if they held out long enough? Could it in fact have impeded the search for a compromise between government and rebels?

3) Has the stress on genocide—which has continued even after the end of large-scale hostilities in early 2005—misrepresented the situation? Has this meant that we have missed more appropriate actions? Does putting Darfur into the same category as the Holocaust and Rwanda mean that we are obliged to do the same for a whole array of ethnic wars and counterinsurgencies across the world?

· You write: "Has the stress on genocide—which has continued even after the end of large-scale hostilities in early 2005—misrepresented the situation? Has this meant that we have missed more appropriate actions? Does putting Darfur into the same category as the Holocaust and Rwanda mean that we are obliged to do the same for a whole array of ethnic wars and counterinsurgencies across the world?" The answer is no, no and no. Genocidal intent was there in 2003-2004 in Sudan and it is still there today. Without activists pushing on the U.S. to back up the genocide rhetoric with some action, the Khartoum regime would have pursued a scorched-earth policy until many more hundreds of thousand—and perhaps millions—were dead. This is not an "ethnic war," and it is remarkable that you would parrot exactly what the government of Sudan is saying. Also, are Rwanda and the Holocaust the litmus test for genocide? I hadn't realized… You should reread the Genocide Convention. The sincere reading of that document by the preponderance of activists, including this one, leads to a conclusion that the regime in Khartoum is pursuing policies calculated to create conditions that would bring about the destruction, in whole or part, of specific groups of people on the basis of their ethnicity. The names of the groups are the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit. We should know their stories just as we now know the stories of the Tutsis of Rwanda, or the Jews in Germany. And if there will ever be any meaningful response to these crimes, it will be because of activists saying that as voters we will not tolerate our government standing by in the face of genocide.
ALEX DE WAAL: Whoa! I wrote my thoughts in anticipating a constructive debate on how activism could learn the lessons of the successes and failures of the last few years. My three clusters of questions were precisely that—questions, to open debate. You took them as charges—in fact, as personal accusations. Not so! I was hoping for a substantive discussion on how activism by citizens and leadership on moral issues by political figures—congresspeople, aspiring presidential candidates, other public intellectuals—helps shape foreign policy, and how this new wave of international public activism on Africa and human rights can be made more effective.

John, your ad hominem attacks are shameful. They display wanton ignorance about the peace process in Abuja and the role I played in it. Have you not read my accounts of what went on there? (Published in the London Review of Books and more recently in "War in Darfur and the Search for Peace.") Are you not aware that I strongly advocated for power-sharing provisions that would have provided parity for the movements and the NCP in Darfur rather than the imbalance that was proposed? Are you ignorant of the fact that after the deal was signed on May 5, with Minni Minawi—a man whom I advocated the U.S. should NOT back—I stayed behind on my own initiative to try to get [rebel leader] Abdel Wahid to continue negotiating with the government and came closer to an agreement than all the assembled diplomats and heads of state on May 4-5?

I joined the peace process late, as an adviser. The Sudan government objected to me and I was smuggled in as a personal advisor to the chief mediator, Salim Salim. I didn't dictate that process. My advice was sometimes followed, more often not. I declined the invitation to join the last mediation in Sirte [Libya] because the advice I have been giving was not followed at all. I and others involved have scrutinized and criticized every aspect of the process. Knowing how agonizingly close we came to an agreement in Abuja, and looking at the small things that might have made the difference, I search my memory and conscience every day to examine what I might have done differently.

You, however, served in government. You were a senior official on African policy in an administration that fired cruise missiles that destroyed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum and which endorsed regime change by rebels in both Sudan and Zaire. In the latter case, that regime change happened and ushered in the humanitarian disaster that is the Democratic Republic of Congo today. Do you ever ask yourself what you might have done differently to avert that disaster?

Most of your response is an exercise in pyromania of straw men. But although careless with both facts and logic, it deserves a response.

Let me start with the first sentence of your second paragraph, in which you unhesitatingly use the word 'genocide,' and your final point about the genocide convention. There is almost six decades of scholarly work on the definition of genocide and almost twenty years of debate among Sudanese activists about whether or not to use the term in Sudan (see my recent article in the Spring 2007 Harvard Human Rights Journal). It's not as straightforward as you imply. If we applied the letter of the convention, any attempt to inflict harm on members of a racial, religious or ethnic group, with the intent to destroy them in whole or in part, would be genocide. That would mean that at least half a dozen episodes in the Sudanese civil war would be genocide, as well as episodes in Ethiopia in the 1980s, Uganda in 1983, Somalia in 1988 and 1992-3 and again in the last few months, numerous episodes in the DRC and various others would all be genocide. It would include most ethnic wars and counterinsurgencies (in passing, your attempt to smear me with endorsing Khartoum's explanations for the Darfur war is a cheap shot—I did not write that Darfur's war was an ethnic war and you know it). Many scholars prefer to use a narrower interpretation of the genocide convention to apply to projects of racial or ethnic annihilation—which Darfur is not. Racist insults by militiamen simply aren't proof of genocidal intent. And in your final sentence you cannot resist the temptation of comparing Darfur's victims to the Rwandese Tutsis and European Jews—rather than (for example) the displaced fleeing the fighting in Mogadishu.

There's another problem with your argument. The period of intense conflict in Darfur was from about April 2003 to January 2005. The great majority of massacres were committed between July 2003 and April 2004. Mortality from hunger and disease peaked at the end of 2004 and fell away rapidly after that. By this time a major humanitarian operation had been mounted, the AU had dispatched troops, peace negotiations were all under way, and Darfur had been referred to the International Criminal Court. That's not a bad response, from governments, much of it underway before the grass-roots activist campaign got properly into gear. (See your point 3.) Don't claim the credit for everything—governments aren't always as cynical or apathetic as you imply.

After that, the nature of the war has changed. There haven't been big government offensives—for one reason, when they try, the rebels usually shoot them up pretty comprehensively. The main reason for ongoing displacement has been generalized insecurity, much of it banditry and extortion rackets, some of it fighting between militias, as the government-armed tribal militias turn on one another. The rebels have launched quite a lot of the offensives themselves. If you are looking for genocidal intent in the period since early 2005, it's pretty hard to find. It looks to most people on the ground like a thoroughly nasty combination of a rather ineffective counterinsurgency and intertribal fighting (the government's description is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy). The government isn't responsible for most of the divisions among the rebels—they have done a pretty good job of that themselves.

Darfur is a pretty sorry mess today. No one should be patting themselves on the back for that. The Darfur Peace Agreement failed. The activist campaign hasn't succeeded either. Did you stop any offensives in the last two years? I rather think that the SLA fighters in north Darfur did that. And be careful about proclaiming that protection is on its way. Expectations are sky high for what U.N. troops will do. When they disappoint, I'm sure you will be the first to criticize. But when you get what you call for, your basis for condemnation begins to get thin.
The campaign on China has definitely made a difference. I'm not against activism—quite the contrary. I began my human rights activism in Sudan in 1988 and among other things helped start the land-mines campaign, co-wrote the first big report on Rwanda in 1994, opened up the Nuba Mountains to human rights investigation and humanitarian access in 1995, and campaigned for Sudanese civil society organizations to be involved in the peace process from the late 1990s on. (But I would note that China's first serious change in tack happened a year ago, before the Genocide Olympics campaign.) Each time I have tried an honest assessment of what went right and what didn't. It's precisely because activism can make a difference that we need to be honest with ourselves when we assess what has succeeded, what hasn't, and what has had unanticipated side effects.

You need to be a lot more careful in describing what activists and their fellow travelers in Congress and among the Washington political aspirants actually said and wrote, and when. During the months when the Abuja peace process was alive and progressing, there was a deafening silence from the activists about it. During those months the overwhelming emphasis was on U.N. troops. I might call it tunnel vision. In the critical days after the signing of Abuja, when I was one of two mediators to stay behind to narrow the gap between Abdel Wahid al Nur and the government, the chorus of condemnation of Abuja was, to say the least, unhelpful. Your point 7 is shockingly misleading and shows a deep ignorance of what happened in Abuja.

Afterward, it's true, you and others neatly reversed direction and began to call for a revamped peace process and began to criticize the rebels. Advocacy, like politics, is all about timing. Sorry, John, you were too late.

But my serious point here is about how advocacy does influence both rhetoric and policy (and rhetoric can become policy) and how it changes the structure of incentives of peace processes. Making a peace deal involves making compromises with the enemy. The guarantee of faithful implementation is built into the structure of the deal itself—when you do A, we'll do B. Usually the stronger side is asked to act first—e.g., to withdraw its troops or start disarmament—before the weaker one does. A monitoring team or peacekeeping force is there to help keep it on track. This was the structure for the North-South peace deal, for example. Direct security guarantees, in the form of foreign troops who enforce the deal, are pretty rare—Kosovo is the example that comes to mind. The Darfur Peace Agreement was designed with these types of internal security guarantees—staged reciprocal actions by the parties, with the government acting first—built in. They were tough on the government, and when the final text was presented, all the rebel leaders congratulated the mediators on this chapter and accepted it. It was the government that raised objections.

But the activist campaign had raised the promise of a military intervention with direct guarantees, and that was the message that got through. In the final session, Abdel Wahid demanded guarantees like Bosnia—he wanted an intervention before he signed. [U.S.] Deputy Secretary Robert Zoellick wouldn't give him that guarantee.

I'm not blaming the activists for the failure of the talks. Most of the blame goes to the intransigent miscalculations of Khartoum's chief negotiator, Majzoub al Khalifa, and much of the balance to the rebels and their poor leadership. The mediators made some bad mistakes too. But the question I want to pose, for our own learning and for future activism, is the following: do we run the danger of encouraging rebels to aim too high in their demands, and risk them rejecting workable deals in favor of unrealizable dreams? That's a serious question that demands a serious debate.

You completely mistake the point of my comparison with the aid agencies after the Rwanda genocide. The tragedy of that humanitarian response was that one good intention—feeding the hungry—conflicted with another ethical imperative: preventing and punishing genocide. I for one never accused aid agencies of being deliberately complicit in feeding genocidaires. What I did was to point out the unanticipated and often unacknowledged side effects of what they did, and asked that they examine the context of their actions and their outcomes. That is what I am asking you to do now.

As any senior policymaker will tell you, much time and energy on issues like Sudan is driven by the clamor of activists. This relates to point 8. There's no doubt that the activist and congressional focus on Darfur drove—and distorted—U.S. policy priorities. Again, pay attention to my argument. I wouldn't blame aid agencies for the Rwanda genocide and I don't blame activists for the failures of U.S. policy on Sudan. But insofar as you make a difference, however small, you must attend to what that difference might be.

There's much more I could write—your scattergun approach leaves almost every sentence up for challenge.

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