Facing Genocide: The Humanitarian Crisis in Sudan

By Elsea, Zachary | Harvard International Review, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Facing Genocide: The Humanitarian Crisis in Sudan


Elsea, Zachary, Harvard International Review


The intricacies of international laws designed to preserve peace and human life can become self-defeating when emphasis is shifted from expediently enforcing the spirit of the law to debating its technicalities. This has been the case with the global community's sluggish response to the crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan, described by British Development Secretary Hilary Benn as "the world's worst humanitarian emergency." Humanitarian aid agencies, major newspaper staffs, and concerned diplomats have in the past months warned of coming genocide in Sudan and begged the United Nations to take action to prevent the situation from becoming "another Rwanda." The comparison of the situation brewing in Africa's largest country to the 1994 mass murder that killed 800,000 ethnic Tutsis is neither disproportionate nor melodramatic.

Arab militias called janjaweed have, with the Sudanese government's support, carried out a campaign against the ethnically black African minority in the predominantly Muslim Darfur region that has killed 30,000 outright and left more than one million homeless. Janjaweed have stolen livestock, raided villages, and pillaged the surrounding lands, making them unlivable and displacing hundreds of thousands of ethnically black Sudanese. According to UN estimates, 300,000 of those displaced may perish due to starvation and disease if the situation is not remedied before the seasonal rains worsen conditions for those seeking shelter and make the delivery of outside humanitarian aid impossible.

The slow response by the international community is not due to a lack of media exposure or investigation. Major newspapers around the world have been covering the worsening crisis for months, and the United Nations, 120 African Union monitors on the ground, and the US State Department have all been observing the extent of the crisis through refugee interviews and other means. The bottleneck in discourse about a solution to the Darfur crisis has been caused by an overemphasis on the simple letter of the law, rather than on appeals to what should be done to solve the situation.

While the UN Security Council passed resolutions criticized by many as toothless, the US State Department squandered months trying to decide whether the events in Darfur were, in fact, a genocide as defined by international law. The definition of genocide, as accepted by the United Nations, is "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

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