Darfur and the Genocide Debate

Courtesy Reuters


In Sudan's western Darfur region, a massive campaign of ethnic violence has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 civilians and uprooted an estimated 1.8 million more since February 2003. The roots of the violence are complex and parts of the picture remain unclear. But several key facts are now well known. The primary perpetrators of the killings and expulsions are government-backed "Arab" militias. The main civilian victims are black "Africans" from three tribes. And the crisis is currently the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet.

The bloodshed in Darfur has by now received a great deal of attention. Much of the public debate in the United States and elsewhere, however, has focused not on how to stop the crisis, but on whether or not it should be called a "genocide" under the terms of the Genocide Convention. Such a designation, it was long thought, would inevitably trigger an international response.

In July 2004, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution labeling Darfur a genocide. Then, in early September, after reviewing the results of an innovative government-sponsored investigation, Secretary of State Colin Powell also used the term and President George W. Bush followed suit in a speech to the United Nations several weeks later--the first times such senior U.S. government officials had ever conclusively applied the term to a current crisis and invoked the convention. Darfur, therefore, provides a good test of whether the 56-year-old Genocide Convention, created in the aftermath of the Holocaust, can make good on its promise to "never again" allow the targeted destruction of a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group.

So far, the convention has proven weak. Having been invoked, it did not--contrary to expectations--electrify international efforts to intervene in Sudan. Instead, the UN Security Council commissioned further studies and vaguely threatened economic sanctions against Sudan's growing oil industry if Khartoum did not stop the violence; one council deadline has already passed without incident. Although some 670 African Union troops have been dispatched to the region

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