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Last Updated: 03/01/2006
Ignoring Genocide, One More Time
Benjamin Hess

The world watched with a mixture of horror and lethargy during the various genocides of the 20th century, later wondering why no one tried to stop it. But as the grimness in Darfur, Sudan, continues to unfold, the cycle is repeating itself.

The world stood by while six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust during World War II. It watched as over 800,000 Tutsis were murdered in just three months in Rwanda. It permitted “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia, even in United Nations “safe areas” such as Srebrenica. And now the international community is employing the same strategy of inaction in Darfur, Sudan, that has characterized its previous responses to genocide. When will it learn from its mistakes?

Since February 2003, when the Sudanese government initiated its brutal campaign of ethnic violence on non-Arab tribes in the Darfur region, hundreds of thousands have died from hunger and disease, thousands more have been savagely killed, and over two million people have been forced to flee their homes. The Sudanese government, through the Janjaweed, or Arab militias, has sought to control unrest and possible rebellion among the non-Arab tribes (which was a result of earlier massacres of their people by the Janjaweed) by killing as many of their members as possible. The government has done everything it can to facilitate the Janjaweed’s mission: it has set up training camps, provided weapons and equipment, and offered logistical support.

The Janjaweed’s tactics are truly heinous. Villages are razed to the ground, which has led to the massive displacement of the population mentioned in the previous paragraph. Women are gang-raped; men are forced to watch the rapes of family members before they are killed. In an excellent article for The New York Review of Books, Nicholas Kristof writes that the negative stigma attached to a rape victim and her family as well as the physical damage and risk of HIV transmission has made rape one of the most effective tools to instill fear among the tribes and force them to leave the area. At first, the Sudanese government rejected charges that rapes were occurring and even imprisoned rape victims who became pregnant for committing adultery. Though the government has been forced to soften its line, rape and murder are still a common occurrence in Darfur.

On April 8, 2004, the Sudanese government signed a humanitarian ceasefire agreement with two rebel groups in Darfur – the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement – which gave the African Union the mandate to provide military observers to monitor the ceasefire. Since then, the AU mission has been expanded to over 7000 personnel with new responsibilities for promoting confidence building measures between the two sides, facilitating humanitarian assistance, and ensuring security in the region. Nevertheless, despite the valiant efforts of the AU peacekeepers, the mission has been unable to protect civilians and the violence in Darfur continues unabated.

Recently, there have been renewed calls for a strong United Nations peacekeeping force to intervene. On January 31, 2006, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group sent a joint letter to U.S. President George Bush calling for the United States to push for intervention in Darfur when it assumed the presidency of the U.N. Security Council in February. They also pushed for a UN peacekeeping force at least 20,000 strong with a Chapter VII mandate that will enable the peacekeepers to protect civilians by force if necessary and disarm Janjaweed forces that pose threats to civilians. Others have urged NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Sudan to neutralize the Sudanese Air Force.

Nevertheless, there are still several issues that may block UN intervention. First, Sudan has powerful allies on the Security Council in Russia and China. As permanent members, both can veto any resolution that calls for UN peacekeeping in Darfur. Second, there is little support in Sudan or at the African Union for replacing an all-African force with a UN or NATO force composed of non-Africans. Third, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the more general “war on terror” require massive financial resources and manpower from countries like the United States and Great Britain, which are unlikely to divert these resources to Darfur. Fourth, despite Sudan’s oil supplies, most countries view any possible intervention on purely humanitarian grounds rather than for strategic interests, and thus may be less willing to become involved.

Finally, there are still those who wish to debate whether the violence in Darfur can be considered genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention. In the Genocide Convention, genocide is defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.” This definition should leave no room for doubt that the Janjaweed’s targeting of non-Arab tribes in Darfur constitutes genocide. However, the convention also requires all signatory parties to intervene to prevent genocide from occurring. Therefore, many politicians have been loath to use the term for political reasons.

Sadly, while the international community debates its next move, the tragedy continues in Darfur. Every day, the Janjaweed terrorize the civilian population by raping, looting, burning, and killing innocents. Now the conflict has crossed the border into Chad and threatens to erupt into civil war there. Inaction or weak measures in dealing with Darfur would be a terrible mistake for the international community. Still smarting from its recent failures to intervene in Rwanda and Bosnia, it cannot stand by while genocide occurs again. Let us hope that the world has learned from its past mistakes. The time to act is now. If not, we condemn Darfur to remain the hell that it has become.

Benjamin Hess is a M.A. candidate in the International Peace Studies program at the University for Peace.