"Genocide" in the Sudan

By Means, Angelia K. | Tikkun, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview

"Genocide" in the Sudan


Means, Angelia K., Tikkun


[Editor's Note: This essay was completed on July 26. Since the situation in the Sudan is influx, certain figures may be out of dale by the time you read this. Check our website for updates at www.tikkun.org]

In the Darfur region of Western Sudan a war is raging. The Janjaweed, an Arab militia known for fighting on horseback, are attacking and destroying the way of life of the region's non-Arab Black Africans. They are summarily killing men, kidnapping and raping women, and enslaving children. They are poisoning wells to make villages uninhabitable and generally driving the Black African population from the region. This has been going on for the last fifteen months, but until recently it was rarely in the news.

Finally, the world is paying attention. Colin Powell and Kofi Annan recently visited Dafur to tour refugee camps for the internally displaced. There are articles about Sudan (and the refugee camps in Chad) in the paper every day now. At this point, the "facts" are not in dispute. We all know the Sudanese government is lying when its officials deny complicity in the acts of the Janjaweed. (Journalists do not even pretend to be "objective" when interviewing Sudanese officials.) Still, all those with the power to do anything about it have decided to interpret the facts on the ground as "ethnic cleansing" or "appalling atrocity."

They refuse to say out loud the more accurate name for this wanton killing spree: genocide.

"Genocide" versus "Ethnic Cleansing" versus "Atrocity"

Last week, an article in the New York Times, entitled "In Dafur, Appalling Atrocity, but is that Genocide?," cited officials from the African Union, the Bush administration, and leading NGOs who question whether the Sudanese conflict measures up to the rigorous legal standard set by the Genocide Convention. (Senator and presidential candidate John Kerry is cited as one of the few public officials willing to call the conflict a genocide). The writer comments that the Sudan is a controversial case since, as in Rwanda where some Hutu were perpetrators as well as victims, inter-ethnic violence also involves intra-ethnic violence. (The Dorok, one Arab group, have been attacked by the Janjaweed along side Black African victims.) I find this "news" piece fascinating, in part because, as an academic, I am accustomed to a certain postmodern discourse that insists that the roles of "victim"and "perpetrator" can never be rigidly defined. Certainly, the postmoderns are right that the dyadic victim/perpetrator logic fails to capture the everyday experience of complex (intersecting) complicity in various "crimes and misdemeanors." While I accept the analysis of complex complicity, nonetheless, I am deeply troubled by the idea of "postmodern genocide." In the Sudan, as in Rwanda, there are wrongdoers and those who are wronged.

Unfortunately, now that the U.S. media is paying attention to this "appalling atrocity," it is focusing on the (obvious) multivalence of violence in Sudan, instead of serving as the fourth estate and holding government accountable for its Orwellian use of terms (and hence avoidance of the legal duty that use of the word "genocide" would trigger). During the Bosnia genocide, Michael Walzer cautioned us to only intervene in cases of "atrocity" and then only to end the atrocity, not to nation-build. In Walzer's common sense usage, atrocity was synonymous with "crimes against humanity," including torture, slavery, and, chiefly, genocide. In this case, the word "atrocity" translated a juridical term into ordinary usage, and hence into terms more readily accessible (and perhaps more emphatically relatable) to democratic publics. But contrary to this ordinary usage, the term "atrocity" is now used by officials (and even civil society actors) to avoid the awesome moral and legal duties that are triggered when the word "genocide" is uttered in the public sphere.

For those who want to be more specific and capture the moral outrage associated with "genocide" yet still avoid the word itself, the euphemism "ethnic cleansing" has become the favored term. …

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