Not Saving Darfur

by zunguzungu

Texas in Africa reviews Fighting for Darfur, Rebecca Hamilton’s (insider) account of why the “Save Darfur” movement “was never able to achieve its primary goal of ensuring civilian protection in the region”:

…several dynamics interfered in reaching the ultimate goal of civilian protection. For one, most advocates had difficulty understanding that both the situation in Southern Sudan and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Darfur crisis had to be addressed simultaneously, difficult as this was. Says Sam Bell, a leader in the movement, “I think one of the biggest missing pieces for the movement initially was context, understanding the context.”

This theme of a lack of contextual understanding pervades Hamilton’s analysis. Advocates failed to understand that Sudan was not like Rwanda, that the situation in Sudan had evolved considerably by 2007-08, that their insistence on military action could – and did – have negative consequences for humanitarian operations serving Darfuris. But the biggest failure of understanding context came in understanding the role that the United States government could ultimately play in Darfur – or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Hamilton concludes that the advocates took years to finally understand that controlling the situation in Sudan is beyond the full reach of the United States government, the Chinese, or even the United Nations. Quite simply, we can’t do everything.

A propos, David Rieff reviewed the United States Institute for Peace’s task force report on genocide a month ago:

…The report mentions Darfur frequently, both in the context of a nuts and bolts consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of various states and institutions such as the un and the African Union, which have intervened, however unsatisfactorily, over the course of the crisis, and as an example of how the mobilization of civil society can influence policy. “In today’s age of electronic media communication,” the report states, “Americans are increasingly confronted in their living rooms — and even on their cell phones — with information about and images of death and destruction virtually anywhere they occur. . . . The Internet has proven to be a powerful tool for organizing broad-based responses to genocide and mass atrocities, as we have seen in response to the crisis in Darfur.”

The problem is not so much that this statement is false but rather that it begs more questions than it answers, and, more tellingly still, that the report’s authors seem to have no idea of this. There is no question that the rise in 2005 and 2006 of a mass movement calling for an end to mass killing in Darfur (neither the United Nations nor the most important relief groups present on the ground in Darfur agree with the characterization of what took place there as a genocide) was an extraordinarily successful mobilization — perhaps the most successful since the anti-Apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Beginning with the activism of a small group of college students who in June2004 had attended a Darfur Emergency Summit organized by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and addressed by Elie Wiesel, and shortly afterwards founded an organization called Save Darfur, the movement rapidly expanded and, at its height, included the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, right-wing evangelicals, left-leaning campuses activists, mainline human rights activists, and American neoconservatives. But nowhere does the task force report examine whether the policy recommendations of this movement were wise, or, indeed, whether the effect that they had on the U.S. debate was positive or negative. Instead, the report proceeds as if any upsurge in grassroots interest and activism galvanized by catastrophes like Darfur is by definition a positive development.

In reality, the task force’s assumption that any mass movement that supports “more assertive government action in response to genocide and mass atrocities” is to be encouraged is a strangely content-less claim. Surely, before welcoming the rise of a Save Darfur (or its very influential European cousin, SOS Darfour), it is important to think clearly not just about what they are against but what they are for. And here, the example of Save Darfur is as much a cautionary tale as an inspiring one. The report somewhat shortchanges historical analysis, with what little history that does make it in painted with a disturbingly broad brush. Obviously, the task force was well aware of this, which I presume is why its report insists, unwisely in my view, that it was far more important to focus on the present and the future more than on the past. But understanding the history is not marginal, it is central. Put the case that one believes in military intervention in extremis to halt genocide. In that case, intervening in late- 2003 and early-2004, when the killing was at its height, would have been the right thing to do. But Save Darfur really only came into its own in late 2005, that is, well after the bulk of the killing had ended. In other words, the calls for an intervention reached their height after the moral imperative for such an intervention had started to dissipate. An analogy can be made with the human rights justification for the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein. As Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, has pointed out, had this happened during Baghdad’s murderous Anfal campaign against the Kurds in 1988, there would have been a solid justification for military intervention, whether or not Human Rights Watch would have agreed with it. But to intervene fifteen years later because of the massacre was indefensible on human rights grounds (though, obviously, there were other rationales for the war that would not have been affected by such reasoning).

Last year, Alex de Waal, “Recalling the Lessons of Abuja,” looking back on why international mediation in Darfur failed in 2006:

One reason for failure was that the substantive negotiations between the parties were made subordinate to another agenda, in this case the negotiations between Khartoum and Washington DC for the former to permit the transition from the AU to a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur. This created an artificial dynamic to the process, with both government and rebels spending more effort playing to the gallery than talking to one another, because they saw the gallery as the real power.

The DPA was justifiably criticized on the grounds of “no ownership, no peace.” Up against a deadline and frustrated by the lack of serious negotiations by either side, the AU mediation team in Abuja decided to draft its own mediator’s text, and present this to the parties with almost no opportunity for substantive revision. The mediators and the State Department lawyers had a greater sense of ownership over the text than the parties to the conflict. In fact, most of the details on security arrangements and wealth sharing had been agreed by government and rebels, but the central pillars of the power sharing chapter had not been, and this was sufficient to discredit the entire enterprise.

A third shortcoming was the failure to develop the proposals in full consultation with key stakeholders in Darfur. A number of Darfurian civil society delegations came to Abuja during the negotiations and presented their views, but there was no ground-truthing of the main planks of the proposals. On the security side, for example, the mediation team repeatedly proposed that there should be in-the-field discussions with commanders, but this was not done because of shortage of time. The weakness of the power-sharing proposals on local government and the failure of the wealth-sharing text to take account of nomadic migration routes, also reflected this shortcoming.

A fourth failure was the resort to pressure and incentives: the internationals became a party to the negotiations, not a mediator. On the final day of the Abuja talks, the international community, headed by the U.S., made a series of promises and threats. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick handed over letters from President George W. Bush to Minni Minawi and Abdel Wahid al Nur. But the rebels called the internationals’ bluff: the threats and promises remained on paper only. (Comparable promises and threats were made to Khartoum, but in private.) Insofar as the DPA was in reality an agreement between the Government of Sudan and the international community, it turned out to be worthless. It was an agreement parachuted from the sky, without roots.