GENOCIDE IS not being committed in Darfur. This is not a popular position, I know. But to call what's happening there "genocide" when it's not is unlikely to help the people of Darfur -- and could even make it harder to mobilize the public to respond to similar crises in the future.
For 25 years, I've studied and written about conflicts, human rights catastrophes and humanitarian emergencies in Africa. I'm all too familiar with the many official excuses for inaction that can be given while millions of civilians die. Sadly, one of the reasons I prefer working as an attorney for prisoners on death row, rather than as a foreign policy analyst, is that I find it far less depressing than trying to change U.S. policy toward Africa.
The debate about what to do in Darfur -- and the use of anti-genocide rhetoric to arouse public concern -- has only deepened my misgivings about the way the United States responds to African crises.
From September 2004 to July 2005, I worked as Human Rights Watch's interim advocacy director for Africa, helping to publicize the organization's findings in Darfur. Beginning in February 2004, Human Rights Watch researchers documented horrifying abuses and released evidence that the Sudanese government was responsible for them.
There are no reliable estimates of how many Africans have died in Darfur. Including those killed in attacks and those who have died from disease or malnutrition, the total could be as high as 200,000.
As with so many tragedies in Africa, no one had heard of Darfur until U.N. humanitarian organizations began reporting that hundreds of thousands of civilians had been driven out of their villages. If the world had noticed and responded in early 2003, when the Sudanese government first armed groups of Arab nomads, known as janjaweed, and ordered them to attack villages suspected of harboring antigovernment rebels, the question of genocide would have never arisen -- and thousands could have been saved.
But it wasn't until December 2003 that U.N. relief officials warned about an impending humanitarian disaster in Darfur. Soon after, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reported that janjaweed, in concert with Sudanese military units, were slaughtering and displacing villagers.
Both organizations immediately urged the United Nations, the U.S. and other major powers to pressure the Sudanese government to call off the attacks and provide relief to victims flowing into refugee camps in Chad. But lawyers and researchers within Human Rights Watch (and probably Amnesty International) concluded that the events in Darfur did not rise to the level of genocide, a legal designation in international law, because there was no proof of "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such."
That didn't stop activists -- inspired in part by Samantha Power's book, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide" -- from invoking the emotive power of the word "genocide" to mobilize the international community. They buttressed their case by drawing attention to the fact that the atrocities in Darfur were coming to light as the world was holding ceremonies commemorating the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda.
In September 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, after hearing from a team of lawyers and investigators sent to Darfur by the State Department, famously declared that "genocide has been committed in Darfur." Congress had already done so.
But the pattern of human rights abuses in Darfur is very different from what happened in Rwanda. As Alison Des Forges, a senior advisor to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, and others have documented, the slaughter in Rwanda was carefully planned and ruthlessly carried out in a matter of weeks; the clear intent was to eliminate the Tutsi population of Rwanda. In all, 800,000 people were butchered.
In Darfur, the Sudanese government has targeted African villagers. But it is not clear that the government's intent is to wipe out these Africans. The assaults followed successful rebel attacks on some government military facilities. In unleashing janjaweed and targeting the rebels' base of support, the government used the same counterinsurgency tactics it employed in a decades-old war against southerners. (Darfur is in eastern Sudan.) The Sudanese government is certainly not the first to combat an insurgency by attacking sympathetic villages and displacing civilians.
Paradoxically, labeling the atrocities in Darfur genocide may exacerbate the underlying conflict and make it more difficult to create the conditions necessary for civilians to return and live in peace.
Alex De Waal, an activist, longtime expert on Darfur and advisor to the African Union, has written that ethnic, tribal and racial lines in Darfur have been far more malleable than the genocide characterization suggests. Before Darfur, there had been conflicts between janjaweed's nomadic Arabs and the African pastoral tribes that support the rebels. But these clashes were chiefly the result of environmental pressures and competition for land, not deep-seated ethnic or racial animosities. And, until 2003, Darfur was relatively peaceful.
BY CONTRAST, the genocide in Rwanda was presaged by a history of attempts by Hutus and Tutsis to slaughter each other. Even so, many scholars have attributed the tribes' antagonism to colonial policies that reinforced the ethnic dimension of economic and political competition.
Over the long run, peace in Darfur will require Africans and Arabs to live together. Calling their conflict "genocidal" won't make that easier. In Rwanda, for instance, the Tutsi government that came to power after the genocide now uses the rhetoric of genocide to rationalize political repression.
There is also a grave risk in raising the specter of genocide to galvanize a global response to the human rights abuses in Darfur -- the international community may be less inclined to react to serious abuses that don't rise to the level of genocide. This could be truly tragic because the only way to prevent genocide is to act at the first sign of threats to civilians.
Of the many tragedies of Darfur, one is that it had to be mislabeled a genocide before politicians and activists were stirred to respond.