At Large

On Our Watch

Will gorgeous George Clooney save Darfur?

By 5.4.06

Send to Kindle

On Sunday thousands of concerned Americans trampled through the Washington Mall for what was called the "Save Darfur: Rally to Stop Genocide" rally. There were the stock puerile chants ("NOT...ON...OUR...WATCH!"), the ghastly folk songs ("Dove of Peace fly hiiiiiiiiiigh above, spread your wings, sing and dance the soooooong of peeeeeeeace!"), and the predictable, incoherent, and pious speeches by celebrities, athletes, and politicians ("Yo! Just having a rally is not going to stop the killing!"). The basket of hope was passed and its contents doubtless immediately misappropriated. Perhaps a handful of ralliers could even have found Darfur on a map, given a few broad hints.

Three years into the conflict and two years since Congress and the President famously uttered the G-word, rally organizers were calling for the U.S. government to -- for God's sake -- do something about Darfur. At almost the same time in Abuja, Nigeria, two of the three main rebel groups were rejecting yet another peace deal, demanding, among other things, a more equitable share of oil revenues, the disarming of the militias, the removal of government troops from the region, a vice president from Darfur, and merging the three Darfur regions into a single state.

No one can blame the rebs too much for balking at the peace deal. President al-Bashir's government has never once lived up to its bargains, and there is little reason to expect it will this time.

Sunday's rally was organized ostensibly to raise "awareness" of the Darfur crisis, and if 60 seconds of network TV coverage constitutes an elevated sense of awareness, then organizers succeeded handsomely thanks largely to an appearance by movie star George Clooney. The fact remains, however, that the conflict in Darfur cannot be explained by even the catchiest of chants, or a few cliche-ridden lines by Gorgeous George, and certainly not in a 60-second spot on the CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer. It's a bit more complicated.

Actually, it's a lot more complicated.

At its roots the Darfur conflict is chiefly a matter of the mostly Muslim Black Arab Sudanese government and its proxy janjaweed militias (janjaweed: a man with a horse and a gun) battling Muslim Black African rebels (whom the militias refer to as "slaves") over scarce natural resources made even more scarce by the relentless, ever-encroaching Sahara Desert. Complicating matters are the countless atrocities committed on all sides, but especially by the janjaweed, as they flush out the rebels, a process which sometimes includes gang rapes, the murder or displacement of civilians, and the torching of mosques.

The Sudanese government has repeatedly claimed that it does not support these animals, which is like Charlton Heston saying he doesn't support the Second Amendment. In July 2004, Human Rights Watch acquired Sudanese government documents that it says proves that Khartoum took an active role in supporting the militias' campaign of "ethnic cleansing," another name for Khartoum's unorthodox approach to building a base of support in the region. The documents confirm beyond a doubt the government's complicity. Not that that was any great surprise.

THIS LATEST ROUND OF ethnic conflict began in 2003, when Black African rebels, weary of their status as second class citizens, launched a series of attacks on government forces. This gave the government the excuse it needed to commence its campaign of ethnic cleansing or "Arabization" of the Darfur region. Since then, perhaps 300,000 people have been killed and 2 million driven from their homes.

Unlike the U.S., the African Union, the UN, and the EU have stopped short of calling Darfur "genocide." Presumably the genocide designation mandates intervention, and few people outside of the killing fields of Darfur want that. So what has the U.S. Congress done in the two years since it first dropped the infamous G-word? Well, says the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof, who won this year's Pulitzer for his Darfur coverage and does not hesitate to employ the word genocide, "they cut all $50 million" in the 2005 budget that would have helped "pay for the African peacekeepers in Darfur."

Doubtless there would be great benefit politically to the many humanitarian groups, and the rebel side in particular, if everyone would agree that the actions of the janjaweed constituted genocide. It would certainly help focus the media's attention, as well as boost fund-raising dollars. But is the term applicable here? Is it applicable when the rebels -- whose fellow tribesmen are the victims of these continuing atrocities -- refuse to sign a peace deal that would presumably end the killing? Is it genocide when both sides are armed and supported by government sponsors (the janjaweed by the Sudanese government, the rebels by Chad, Libya, and Eritrea)?

A January 2005 report by the UN International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur found that the Sudan government and its proxies are responsible for countless atrocities; however, it said, the government of Sudan had not pursued a "policy of genocide in Darfur." Likewise Human Rights Watch has yet to use the G-word. HRW's Program Director Iain Levine says his organization doesn't have enough evidence to show the "intent to destroy" provision as set out in the Genocide Convention. "However," he says, "we do use terms such as ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes to describe the killings and other atrocities perpetrated by the Sudanese government and other parties to the conflict..."

To label as genocide every civil war or rebel insurgency with civilian casualties trivializes things and likely contributes to "genocide fatigue." But genocide or not, Darfur is certainly the "world's worst humanitarian crisis," and those responsible in the Sudanese government and its proxy militias must be held accountable. But first thing's first, and what's needed now is a ceasefire that sticks. Gorgeous George and his humanitarian pals may scream for peace and justice on the Washington Mall, but those things do not seem much of a priority where it really counts, in Darfur.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.