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The TNR Roundtable Part 11: What Should Obama Do About Darfur?

Click here to read Part 10: An on-the-ground reaction to the ICC arrest warrant.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

From: Eric Reeves
To: Alex de Waal, Richard Just, Andrew Natsios, Elizabeth Rubin, Alan Wolfe

Alex de Waal says in his most recent post that he wishes to "steer the debate back" to Obama administration policy; but despite declaring previously that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and the Southern Sudanese self-determination referendum should be the administration's "single priority" for Sudan, he addresses none of the points I made in my first post about the grave threats to CPA implementation, to upcoming national elections, and to the self-determination referendum itself. So much for sharpness of policy focus.

And of course events compel de Waal to turn to questions about Darfur, most pressingly the recent expulsion of aid organizations. In the interest of simplicity, he would have us believe that "[a] week ago, [Bashir] had the option of surviving through negotiation. Today he can only survive through intransigence and, if necessary, fighting. The last week has amply demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that the more threats are made against the Sudanese government, the better behaved it will be."

But of course the issue is not, and has never been, Bashir alone; and he is not "the Sudanese government," as de Waal speciously suggests. The real issue is the larger consensus within Khartoum's National Islamic Front regime, what de Waal himself, in different political circumstances, once called a "security cabal, its humanity withered by years in power," given to "genocide by force of habit." It is this "cabal," along with the armed forces and security services, that will decide the fate of Bashir--and Darfur. Khartoum is certainly feeling a great deal more stress from the ICC arrest warrant than de Waal suggests, and the sidelining of Bashir would provide the regime with a moment to reconsider the expulsion of humanitarians and a genuine opportunity to opt for meaningful peace negotiations, even if for wholly expedient reasons (e.g., escaping the pressures and sanctions of which de Waal is so scornful, but which continue to weigh heavily on an economy that is suffering fiercely from the precipitous decline in oil prices). We hardly have angels waiting in the wings (Nafie Ali Nafie, Ali Osman Taha), but Taha in particular, though opposed by the army, is capable of making the right Machiavellian choice under certain circumstances (as he was in the Naivasha talks that produced the CPA).

And there are signs that Bashir's legitimacy, and hence his chance of surviving as president, are diminishing. In particular, the Arab League's support for Bashir is waning after years of indifference to the Darfur crisis and its recent de rigueur condemnations of the ICC. According to Arab League officials who were quoted in the Britain-based paper Asharq Alawsat, some Arab countries fear that any visit by Bashir could lead to "international embarrassment." We may expect to see a steady erosion of Bashir's legitimacy, making him an ever-greater target for removal. Since none of his replacements has any real claim to legitimacy, a transition in state leadership might be the moment in which we see (grudging) movement toward meaningful peace talks.

This hardly addresses the immediate crisis caused by humanitarian expulsions, and the question of how the Obama administration should respond. But here further context is demanded. These expulsions have been Khartoum's clear ambition from the very beginning of major humanitarian operations in July 2004, and the ICC announcement is as much pretext as it is the basis for retaliation. We should recall that other organizations have withdrawn because of harassment or violence; many more organizations have felt increasingly threatened during their time in Darfur; and international aid workers were being evacuated for many months prior to the ICC announcement.

But the most embarrassing feature of the present situation is that Western nations, the U.N., and other significant international actors were caught flat-footed by Khartoum's brutal decision. We can't understand the Obama administration's currently constrained policy options without seeing how it has already missed opportunities to prepare for this crisis (much could have been done during the transition from election to inauguration). Given the stakes--the organizations expelled represent over 50 percent of humanitarian capacity in Darfur--this preparation should have been undertaken months ago, as I argued in a Christian Science Monitor op-ed in November.

Despite de Waal's misleading dichotomizing of our current situation, our options are not simply capitulation before Khartoum's decision or declaring war. There are a number of other sources of pressure that should have been exerted, and which the Obama administration might now have had at the ready (and though one would hardly gather it from a reading of de Waal's post, pressure and threats are not synonymous; pressures may be threatening, but the terms must still be distinguished). An immediate and substantial boosting of the capacity of UNAMID would be one productive source of pressure on Khartoum (more than a year and a half after the authorizing of the U.N. Security Council resolution, for example, UNAMID has none of the six tactical helicopters it requires). The Europeans, who have done so little to pressure the regime, should have been lobbied by the incoming Obama administration to prepare to impose trade and monetary sanctions of the sort already imposed by the U.S.; China should have been lobbied, with a real commitment of diplomatic capital, to warn Khartoum off actions of the sort it has taken; similarly, China should now be pressured to help reverse the expulsion of aid organizations; and the U.S. (and the E.U.) should press hard for other countries to commit to diplomatic sanctions against Khartoum.

All this requires significant diplomatic investment in a crisis that does not affect American national interest in the way that developments in Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea do. We will not be directly threatened by the decision to allow peace talks to emerge at Khartoum's leisure, or to allow hundreds of thousands to die for lack of food, water, and health care. But whether we conclude that the atrocities in Darfur are and have been crimes against humanity or genocide, this is the defining moment for an international community that has so far failed to confront those responsible or to reduce insecurity in Darfur, insecurity that derives directly from violence controlled or sanctioned by the criminals in Khartoum. If the notion of a "responsibility to protect" civilians threatened by atrocity crimes is to have any meaning going forward, the abject failure of this ideal in Darfur must be confronted and reversed.

As to the genocide argument that will not go away, and Alan Wolfe's skepticism in his most recent post, a few basic points must be made. An argument that genocide is no longer taking place because one organization estimates that there are only 150 reported violent deaths per month (1,800 per year) seems a painfully weak basis for any decision, especially given the staggering numbers we know to be more authoritative: hundreds of thousands already dead; roughly 3 million uprooted from their homes (including more than 250,000 refugees in neighboring Eastern Chad); 4.7 million conflict-affected persons in need of humanitarian assistance. Leaving aside questions about how and how well these data were collected, we need to remember that most deaths in rural Darfur, and in many of the camps, are unreported and have been for a long time; this is true of both violent mortality and mortality from other causes.

Violent mortality is likely to be understated for a number of reasons. For example, deaths that may be directly related to genocidal violence and displacement, but which take the form of dehydration or disease, are typically not reported as violent deaths, if they are reported at all. In some of the most brutal violence of recent years--which took place north of el-Geneina (West Darfur) in February 2008, in much of North Darfur during Khartoum's large-scale August 2008 offensive, and in Muhajeria and surrounding villages in South Darfur in February 2009--we know that many scores of thousands of people were displaced, and that a great many subsequently died. But we simply don't and can't know how many because there is no meaningful commitment of resources on the ground for a comprehensive tabulating of deaths.

When asking whether genocide in Darfur continues, however, we need to consider more than recent deaths. We should recall, for example, that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 315,000 people were newly displaced in 2008 alone, most of them deliberately and violently. The agents were typically Khartoum's regular forces or its militia allies (although there was substantial violence between Arab tribes as well). Given the harshness of the environment in Darfur, and the overcrowding of IDP camps, such deliberate displacement of African tribal groups should force to mind Clause (c) of Article 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention: "Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." This is precisely the meaning of much intentional displacement in Darfur, especially evident in the recent attacks on villages in the Muhajeria area of South Darfur.

There was a time when what Alan Wolfe calls the "genocide narrative" seemed obvious to de Waal's organization, Justice Africa: "In response to the question 'Is the Darfur conflict genocide?' Justice Africa replies, 'If we strictly apply the provisions of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, there is no doubt that the answer is yes.'"

But a change in the scale of violence hardly vitiates the accuracy of this assessment, particularly since genocidal intent remains clear. The intent animating the most destructive phase of violence (2003 to early 2005) may be more readily apparent; but this is only because the destruction of so many African villages resulted in vastly fewer targets of opportunity (e.g., more than 90 percent of Fur villages in southern West Darfur have been destroyed).

I doubt very much, on present evidence, that the Obama administration would have been more moved by an ICC finding of genocide than by the arrest warrant for "crimes against humanity" that was issued. If we are to believe the Obama presidential campaign and senior administration officials, the president has already decided that issue in any event. This leaves us again with the basic truth that has to guide any effective Sudan policy: The U.S. and its allies must create in Khartoum a good-faith negotiating partner--for security in Darfur, for humanitarian assistance, and for CPA implementation. Failure to understand the special circumstances that allowed the CPA to be negotiated--primarily the pressure Khartoum felt while conducting wars simultaneously in Southern Sudan and Darfur--will lead to naive expectations about how peace can be negotiated for Darfur. The rebel groups certainly present one large and exasperating set of problems; the Khartoum regime, with or without Bashir, presents a much more profound and challenging negotiating difficulty than de Waal suggests.

Click here for links to each part of the conversation.

Eric Reeves, a professor of English language and literature at Smith College, has written extensively on Sudan.

By Eric Reeves