Darfur: Naming A Crisis

30 July 2008
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Tragic events take place in Sudan’s western province of Darfur since early 2003. The international community has begun to pay attention to the events in Darfur since mid-2004.  The counterinsurgency war in Darfur region was overlooked by the world press and politicians for a long time.


What is going on in Darfur is still ambiguous and there is a huge disagreement over labeling the crisis. Do we face a civil war, ethnic cleansing or genocide? Meanwhile, civilians, as in every case, are the real victims of this crisis: they were displaced, wounded and killed. Humanitarian relief agencies, to a certain extent, provided basic needs at the early stages of the crisis.  However, as the situation in Darfur worsened the amount of relief provided decreased. Why did it happen so? Why did the international response decreased while it is expected to increase?


In this paper, this is the question I will basically try to answer. I will first depict the situation in Darfur so that we can have a clear picture of what is going on in the region. Second, I will examine how the international community approached the crisis, handled  and reacted to it. In the third section, I will move on to the genocide debate by comparing and contrasting different views. Finally I will examine how defining a crisis as a genocide can complicate and worsen the conditions for humanitarian relief agencies.


Darfur: Eruption of Long-Suppressed Sentiments


First of all, it must be emphasized that the violence in Darfur is not the result of a recent disagreement or a clash. On the contrary, it is the outcome of several factors that contributed to the creation of the problem for over a century. It can be defined as the sum of several factors such as the negligence of the region’s problems and development by the central government, location of the region in terms of geopolitics, interethnic and religious relations among the ethnic groups in the region. From this point of view the roots of the conflict can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century (Collins 2006). In this regard, we can see the current crisis in Darfur as the eruption of a time bomb that was ticking for a century.


Darfur literally means the land of Fur people. It was an independent an independent sultanate from fourteenth century until 1917. After the World War I, Darfur was absorbed into the British Empire. Under the colonial rule the region’s development was neglected.  Only in the late 1940s did the colonial governor begin to consider possibilities for development in Darfur. Before that the region was provided nothing but support to export cattle and gum. For example, there was no maternity clinic before the 1940s and at independence of Sudan in 1956 Darfur had the lowest number of hospital beds (0.57 per thousand) of any Sudanese province (Flint and De Waal 2005:13).


The deliberate negligence of Darfur by the rulers especially after it fell under colonial rule is a major reason behind the Darfurians’ hostility towards Khartoum governments (Collins 2006; Prunier 2007). In other words, being pushed to periphery, Darfur was not integrated into center. Another important reason is that Darfur region is somewhat separated by today’s Sudan by mountains, and it has been regarded by some people as a part of Chad. Throughout the last three centuries neighboring countries struggled for control over the region (Collins 2006). I will suffice by mentioning this since more will be said on this point below.


During pre-colonial years Darfur region was relatively more developed than it is today. This was basically due to its cooler climate and geographical location which was located on the pathway between desert and mountains and convenient for traders. Sound trade relations existed between Sudan and Darfur sultanate even before its integration into Sudan under the British Empire (O’Fahey 1980). This was an advantage for Darfur since the most important trade items of that time were transported through Darfur, such as slaves, ivory tusks and ostrich feathers. But in today’s economic exchange these items were no longer valuable and this resulted in decline in Darfur’s economy which depended on the trade of those items (Prunier 2007). With the imposition of the colonial rule, Darfur lost its importance and consequently was not paid attention by the central governments. This was another factor that damaged the trust of Darfurians to centre.


Ethnic composition of Darfur was not homogenous. Darfur was populated by migratory movements from the West and the East since Darfur’s geographical conditions that are easy to pass (Hasan 1967; Prunier 2007).  Although it is believed that there are many ethnic groups in Darfur, four of them dominated the region: Zaghawa, Fur, Tunjur and Kaitinga. However, ethnic division was flexible, and inter-ethnic marriages occurred. As Flint and De Waal (2005:4-5) argues, to pin down a person’s identity was not easy. People were pragmatic with regard to ethnic identification. Ancestors loom large in the political sphere while people use their language card at the marketplace because more the languages they speak more the business they do. What we should keep in mind for the purpose of this paper is that tensions have always existed among the ethnic groups in the region, and hostilities between the sedentary and nomadic people exist for over a century. In other words, inter-ethnic tension is not a new phenomenon in Darfur (De Waal 2005).


While talking about ethnic composition of Darfur it is wise to highlight the “African” and “Arab” identities since the current atrocities are reflected to the world as a war between these two groups. It must be noted that these two identities are not attached to people due to their biological differences or ancestors but according to a simple dichotomy of rivalry between sedentary and nomadic people. For example, Dinka people are sometimes mentioned as “Arabs” although they never arabized or Islamized. As Prunier (2007:5) puts it “… present crisis operates within the context of a completely re-ordered system of perceptions.” He continues to argue that “… the ‘Arab’ versus ‘African’ distinction took on its present meaning through ideological construction which occurred much later, the middle period of twentieth century.” Therefore the crisis in Darfur should not be perceived as a conflict occurring between two ethnic groups, rather, between two groups, sedentary vs. nomadic people. I will come back to this below when going into the genocide debate. 


These Decades-old problems were some of the factors contributed to the conflict in Darfur. In the words of Collins (2006:27), “the current crisis in Darfur is not some spontaneous eruption against neglect, misgovernment, and racism, but … in the 40 years of tragic conflict for control the great basin of Chad, of which Darfur is an integral part.”  But three somewhat recent developments caused the discomfort in the region to take a violent form: drought, the conflict in the South and the power contest of neighbor countries over the region.


People of the Western Sudan were disappointed with the central governments for overlooking region’s developing. Drought in 1983-84 and its mismanagement by the Khartoum government added fuel to their discontent.   In northern Darfur rainfall measured in 1983 was “down to 83 mm” compared with an average of 380 mm from 1941 to 1980 (Burr and Collins 1995:20). Although the regional and international bodies warned the Numayri government that if no food aid is obtained, a catastrophe was inevitable. Numayri ignored the drought and underestimated its impact on the people.  The international community provided free food but it was not sufficient. Small-scale conflicts broke out among Darfurians who try to survive under severe conditions. This had also exacerbated the historical ethnic tensions between the groups, especially the Baqqara and the Dinka (Burr and Collins 1995:200).  


Autonomy claims and political disagreements between Khartoum and southerners constituted the essence of the conflict that plagued the country into underdevelopment since its early years of independence. SPLA fighters waged a war against the central government for over a couple of decades. When the conflict worsened and became more violent, other problems of the country were neglected since all the focus was on the south. Once again Darfurians saw that they have been kept at periphery and their government did not take care of their problem. During the late 1990s some southern rebel groups moved to western Sudan and some rebels used Darfur region as a base. This had shown the Darfurians that they can fight for their problems as well.


Security of the Western Sudan has been a great concern for the Khartoum governments. Darfur, in fact, is the eastern region of the great basin of Lake Chad and is not part of the larger basin of the Nile valley. Geographically, Darfur belongs to Chad, and in the past its inhabitants were more closely associated with their kinsmen in the west than with riverine Arabs far away to the east in the Nile valley (Collins 2006). From this point of view, Darfur has been regarded by Sudan as a region that has the potential of separation and open to influence from neighboring countries. Sudan had tensions with Chad in the past over Darfur issue. Solution of Sudanese governments was to cooperate with Libya against Chad. In this context, Sudanese governments condoned Libyan armed forces to use Darfur region as a base against their war against Chad. Those who fought the war were not Darfurians but arms were brought into the region and an increase was reported in banditry and small-scale violence. Once again, Darfurians were used as a shield and their lives were endangered to protect the center.


So far, it is obvious that the crisis in Darfur was not a result of a recent phenomenon but an eruption of a century old problems both within and outside the region. Although discontent and hostility existed in the western region of Sudan, a major violence did not occur until early 2000s. The straw that broke the camel's back was an event on 26 February 2002 in which 300 men attacked the small town of Golu, killing nearly 200 soldiers and forcing the garrison to flee. Actually, a certain level of violence in the Western Sudan had been routine, some killings used to occur. But an attack by 300 men and abdication of the garrison was new. The government thought that this attacked was not some personal crime, and therefore thought that people in the west started to organize themselves against the government. From that day on, violence, casualties and misery in Darfur increased.


The Crisis in the International Arena


At first the crisis in Darfur went almost unnoticed by the international community. Sudanese media paid more attention to the conflict in the south and overlooked the crisis in Darfur. In fact, the deterioration of the situation in Darfur was known and reflected to the international arena by special publications such as Africa Confidential or the Indian Ocean Newsletter since the late 1990s. Probably the international community thought of Darfur crisis as a typical African conflict between two ethnic groups. What also contributed to the creation of awareness of the crisis in the world is the factor of Sudanese and African students in the US and Canada. Through their personal contacts they received information and disseminated to the world through the internet and ignited civil movement to call on states to do something. Several faith based organizations and human rights organizations came together to make their voice heard; organized rallies and establishing web sites, such as savedarfur.org.


What sparked the media coverage and withdrew attention of the international community was the interview given by the UN Humang Rights Coordinator for Sudan, Mueksh Kapila, to the UN’s owen IRIN network in March. He declared that Darfur was “the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis” and “the only difference between Rwanda and Darfur is the numbers involved” (quoted in Prunier 2007:127). This was followed by the remarks of the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, on 7 April 2004 in his memorial address for the Rwandan genocide in Geneva. He labeled the crisis in Darfur as ‘ethnic cleansing’ and said that ‘the international community cannot stand idle’ in the face of such widespread human rights violations (Slim 2004:811). Annan’s and the then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visits to Darfur withdrew the attention of international community to the region; international media published pictures from the refugee camps in Chad and sent journalists. Now the world had another serious problem to deal with.


How was the attitude of the world’s biggest international organization? Unfortunately very limited. The UN Security Council did not hold a major discussion on Darfur until 7 July 2004, right after Colin Powell and Kofi Annan came back from Darfur. Nevermore, it is obvious that the UN was aware of all the atrocities going on in Darfur through even its own news network. The UN sent an inquiry commission to Darfur after the debates over what to do.  In January of 2005, the commission announced its report and said that “there are 1.65 million internally displaced persons in Darfur and more than 200,000 refugees in neighboring Chad”. The report confirmed the attacks on civilians and held the government forces and Janjaweeds responsible for those crimes. According to the report the government of Sudan has not pursued a policy of genocide, but what was going in Darfur was named as “war crimes”. However, it seemed to the commission that those who planned and organized attacks on villages pursued the intent to drive the victims from their houses, primarily for purposes of counterinsurgency warfare.


Why did the UN stand still? In fact, the UN also coordinated its concerned organs to provide assistance to the Darfur region. It could not take any political or military action but at the humanitarian level the UN carried over 60% of the financial burden in Darfur crisis. However, taking a political or military action required Security Council resolution which could be vetoed by either the US or China and Russia.


It is strange that the US is the most sensitive country in the whole world to the Darfur crisis. In July 2004, the US congress passed a resolution labeling Darfur genocide. Colin Powell also did not hesitate to use the same label for the crisis in Darfur. Prunier (2007:142) believes that the US is not sincere in providing information and calling on the UN to do something. He says that since the UN did not approve the military operation to Iraq and it had been passed by, in a sense the US wanted to take revenge. The US brought up the issue but the real intention was to corner him by forcing to pronounce “genocide”, thereby forcing him to act, and then fail to give him the necessary financial, military and political means to do so. Another permanent member of the Security Council is China which has close relations with Sudan. In 2006 the Chinese president met with his Sudanese counterpart and is said to have encouraged him to solve the Darfur crisis peacefully. Keith shows how close economic relations China and Sudan have; “in the same visit China forgave some $70 million in Sudanese debt to China and offered an interest-free loan of $12 million to construct a new presidential palace. … China is also Sudan’s biggest trading partner, it purchases 64 percent of Sudan’s oil exports, and its companies have invested billions of dollars in Sudan’s oil industry. (Keith 2007:158 )”


One might wonder that as another alternative the UN could have used the African Union (AU). Since the AU established its own Peace and Security Council in 2004 and urged that they want to solve their problem themselves without foreign intervention, and summarized by saying ‘African solutions to the African problems’. The chairman of the AU Commission, Alpha Konare, went to Darfur in June 2004 on a fact-finding mission. On his return he announced the AU’s view: it was neither genocide nor ethnic cleansing, it was mass murder. The AU decided to send 132 observers to Darfur, and 300 troops whose mandate would be limited to protecting the observers rather than the Darfurians who needed protection more. Above all, the AU does not have the financial capability to undertake any task to stop the crisis. It depends on the funds from the UN and other organization.


Genocide or Not?


The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined genocide in article 2 as “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.”


Looking at these conditions and comparing it with the Darfur case give us a fuzzy picture. Some argue that it is genocide because destruction of a particular ethnic group has been intended. On the other hand, some others used the terms “ethnic cleansing”, “mass murder”, “war crimes” or “massive violation of human rights” depending on the commentator’s perspective.


Those who use the label of genocide argue that the killings are widespread, systematic and targeting a particular ethnic group. They also argue that the Sudanese government definitely intends to destroy the Darfurians because the humanitarian efforts to the victims were constrained. Humanitarian relief providers had difficulties in obtained traveling permits, and even if they did they were not allowed to go out of big towns because the smaller towns could be dangerous.


On the other hand, those who argue that Darfur crisis is not genocide and point out to few points. First, it is argued that Darfurians is not a single ethnic or a religious group. The people are not victimized because of their ethnic or racial traits but because of the location of their land which bears insurgency to the government. Secondly it is argued that direct killing accounts for about 35% of all deaths. The number of displaced people in Darfur is about seventeen times the number directly killed (Straus 2006:43). But as shown before the government could be responsible for the indirect killings as well because of its preventive role. 


Two points make the issue blurry. First is the intention. For example, the UN commission of inquiry did not see the intention of destruction of Darfurians, on the contrary to the Sudanese government did all those violation of human rights in the course of counterinsurgency warfare. The second blurry point is the term “in part” used in the convention. Since it does not set any threshold, it is difficult to label a crisis as genocide according to the number of fatalities. This also depends on the population of the victim group. This is to say that if 100,000 people are killed in a crisis, that amount can constitute 1 percent of a group whose population is 10 million. But if the group’s population is lower, the same number can mean higher percentage. In the case of Darfur, let us take the highest estimate of death toll, 300,000. Since the population of Darfur region is 6 million, it is equal to 5 percent of Darfurians. But in Rwanda case a low estimate of 500,000 Tutsis killed, but that sum equals 75% of all resident Tutsis in Rwanda before the genocide (Straus 2006:43). Therefore, the UN should revise the convention and state a clear threshold for the definition of genocide (Straus 2005).


In short, it is very difficult to say easily whether Darfur crisis is genocide, ethnic cleansing or something else. Those who use genocide have their reasons and so do those who do not use genocide. Straus (2006:51) compared Darfur case with Rwanda genocide and concluded that “the violence in Darfur is not a clear-cut case of international annihilation of an ethnic group.” Is calling the crisis in Darfur as genocide or as something important? Can it affect the works of humanitarian relief agencies and aid flow?




Burr, J. Milliard and Robert O. Collins (1995) Requiem for the Sudan: War, Drought, and Disaster Relief on the Nile, Westview Press Inc.

Collins, Robert O. (2006) The Disaster in Darfur in Historical Perspective, The Journal of Conflict Studies, Winter 2006, pp.25-43

Flint, Julie and Alex De Waal (2005) Darfur: A Short History of A Long War, Zed Books

Hasan, Yusuf Fadl (1967) The Arabs and The Sudan, Edinburgh University Press

International Crisis Group (2006) Getting the UN into Darfur, Policy Briefing, 12 October 2006

International Crisis Group (2007) Darfur’s New Security Reality, Africa Report No.134, 26 November 2007.

Keith, Adam (2007), African Union in Darfur: An African Solution, but Still A Global Problem,  Journal of Public and International Affairs, Vol. 18, Spring 2007

O’Fahey, R. S (1980) State and Society in Darfur, St. Martin’s Press, New York.

Prunier, Gérard (2007) Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Revised and Updated Edition, Cornell University Press.

Slim, Hugo (2004) Dithering over Darfur? A Preliminary review of the international response, International Affairs 80, 5, pp. 811-828

Straus, Scott (2005) Darfur and the Genocide Debate, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005

Straus, Scott (2006) Rwanda and Darfur: A Comparative Analysis, Genocide Studies and Prevention, Vol.1 No.1, Page 41-56 July 2006

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