Today Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived in Sudan’s western province of Darfur to seek an end to what appears to be the early stages of genocide there. The U.N. Genocide Convention defines genocide as “killing” or “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life” intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” It is the most heinous of all human-rights crimes and, after the Nazi Holocaust, prompted avowals of “never again.” It is morally and legally incumbent on the civilized world to prevent genocide, and the Bush administration is to be commended for taking the lead by elevating the Darfur crisis to an American foreign-policy priority.
According to the U.N.’s delinquent, half-hearted, and inept statistic-gathering on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, 10,000 Muslim villagers of the Fur, Massaleit, and Zaghawa tribes have been killed so far this year in the ethnic-cleansing campaign being waged by Sudan’s government. International relief agencies estimate that the dead actually number three times that. One hard fact comes from NASA satellite images showing that 400 villages with 56,000 tukels
(conical-roofed mud and grass houses) have been destroyed by air assaults and government-allied militias on the ground. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the U.S. State Department’s Agency for International Development (AID), 1.2 million Darfur villagers already have been driven from their homes and hundreds of thousands of these refugees are projected to die within the next nine months from disease and malnutrition. Some aid experts are stating that the human toll in Darfur could surpass the 800,000 killed in Rwanda.
Darfur would be Sudanese President Lt. General Omar Hassan al Bashir’s second genocidal campaign against his countrymen. He waged the first against the Christian and animist people of south and central Sudan, with most of the deaths occurring over a decade beginning in the early ’90s and 2002. As Elie Wiesel wrote about the south, it was “genocide in slow motion.” Over two million eventually perished and five million more were displaced before peace protocols–brokered largely through heroic efforts of the Bush administration–were signed last month.
While the situations in the south and the west have obvious differences–the religious identities of the two groups of victims, the geographic location, the timing of the aggression–they are not unrelated. In fact the similarities and parallels are so striking they outweigh any particularities. It is important to recognize the reoccurring patterns and the lessons learned from the conflict in the south, for they hold the key to understanding and preventing further deaths in Darfur.
In both Darfur and in southern Sudan, the violence started with local rebellions. In the south, as in Darfur, there had been long-standing ethnic and tribal frictions and at first the world misread Khartoum’s response as more of the same. As time passed and the deaths mounted, however, it became clear that the regime was putting down the southern rebellion with genocide against the unarmed civilian population. By that time, millions had died. Typically the world has failed to act to stop genocide while it is in progress.
LESSON: Time is of the essence. The situation in Darfur bears many of the hallmarks of the southern genocide in its incipient stages. U.N. recognition that the Bashir government is adopting genocidal tactics and policies in Darfur is critical. The U.N. secretary general must review and reform that body’s mechanisms for spotting the early warnings signs of genocide.
In both the south and in Darfur, the policies of the regime–which is an Arab Islamist military dictatorship–against ethnic African villagers have had racial and ethnic overtones and involved struggles over resources. But more significantly, the regime has been motivated in both cases by a radical Islamist agenda. Bashir attempted to Islamicize and Arabize the south through the forcible imposition of sharia (Islamic law). He launched, by his own definition, a “jihad” against the south when it resisted.
Though the tribes of Darfur are Muslim, they are not of the hardline Salafist movement favored by Khartoum’s National Islamic Front government, an offshoot of the radical Muslim Brotherhood (now is based in Saudi Arabia after being crushed in Egypt, its birthplace). The Darfur Muslims do not speak Arabic, their women wear colorful African garb, and they do not follow the strict criminal code of Khartoum’s Wahhabi-style sharia, which calls for the flogging of those who drink alcohol, the body-part-amputation of thieves, the stoning of adulterers, and the execution of blasphemers.
For years Khartoum has treated the black, Sufi Muslims of Darfur as second-class citizens, systematically discriminating against them in providing development opportunities, government services, and positions of power. When they rebelled against this policy of extreme marginalization, they became–in the view of a regime that conflates religion with politics–”apostate.” Under Islamist rules, apostates are to be put to death or taken as slaves. In 1992, six pro-government Sudanese imams issued a fatwa making this explicit: “An insurgent who was previously a Muslim is now an apostate and a non-Muslim is a non-believer standing as a bulwark against the spread of Islam, and Islam has granted the freedom of killing both of them.” Though the fatwa was intended at that time for the Muslims of the central Nuba province and the Christians and animists of the south, it equally applies today to the Muslims of Darfur.
LESSON: The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion must be respected for everyone in Sudan; the Bashir government must be understood as one with an extreme Islamist agenda and must be stopped from using force and coercion to impose its extreme religious beliefs.
Under extremist Islam, apostates and unbelievers can also be captured as slaves. Pro-regime militias, the Arab Bagarras, conducted frequent slave raids of southern Dinka, Nuer, and Nuba villages; a U.K.-government-funded survey documented 10,000 names of south Sudanese who had been taken as slaves in recent years (the actual number enslaved is estimated to be much higher). The Washington Post reported last week that survivors of the onslaught in Darfur say that the pro-government Arab Janjaweed militias shouted “abeed,” Arabic for “slaves” before they raped and killed in Darfur. It is likely that slaves have been taken in Darfur.
LESSON: The international community must determine whether anyone (women and children are the most likely targets) from Darfur have been abducted and enslaved by the Janjaweed and, if so, secure their immediate release.
In Darfur, just as in the south, the regime practices deception and tries to cover up its responsibility for ethnic cleansing. The regime attempts to deny what is happening by pointing to the fact that militias from neighboring tribes carry out the most graphic savagery. In both situations, though, it is apparent that the militias are part of the regime’s war strategy–government helicopter gunships and planes provide air cover.
In the southern conflict, the U.N. special rapporteur determined that the regime actively armed and prompted the militias to launch their destruction and were in every practical sense allied with the government. In the mid-’90s, Khartoum’s U.N. delegation threatened the special rapporteur with a fatwa to intimidate him and worked to end his detailed reporting. Comparable acts of intimidation reported by Darfur refugees as they await Secretary Powell’s would therefore seem to be authentic.
In addition, in both situations, the regime promised repeatedly to end the death and destruction but took no immediate action. In the south, U.S. economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and the implicit threat of military action after the Afghanistan invasion, eventually forced Khartoum to honor the ceasefire.
LESSON: Do not rely on the Bashir government’s word or promises. Take survivor testimony seriously and rely on independent monitors and observers. Do not delay sanctions and pressures to test the regime’s “good faith” or limit them only to the Janjaweed militia leaders, as the State Department advocates. Apply sanctions that will have a direct impact on regime leaders.
In the south, deliberate mass starvation was the regime’s most lethal weapon and accounted for most of the two million deaths. After the civilian population was driven from their fields and farms through ethnic-cleansing tactics by the militias and air raids, Khartoum banned the distribution of internationally donated humanitarian relief for varying lengths of time and for certain areas. It banned international aid to the Nuba for nearly a decade, resulting in a crisis that was the first and most glaring example of “genocide” in Sudan. In 1998 it was estimated that the Bashir government brought a staggering 2.5 million southerners to the brink of starvation by such tactics.
Forcible mass starvation was the genocidal tactic that the Bashir regime was most reluctant to give up in the southern conflict. As late as October 2002, the regime was impeding aid delivery by arbitrarily specifying in its routine monthly decrees to international relief agencies that the large capacity “Buffalo” aircraft could not be used by the U.N. World Food Program and that certain locations in Upper Nile and Bahr El Ghazal were “denied” permission to receive aid. The identical tactic of blocking humanitarian aid to the displaced is occurring today in Darfur. Even now USAID is projecting that as many as a million could die as a result.
LESSON: End the U.N. practice of giving the Bashir government veto power over when, where, and how international humanitarian aid can be delivered. Start deliveries of aid, including airdrops if necessary, to the displaced of Darfur with or without the regime’s permission.
Regarding the south, the liberal broadcast media rarely showed footage of the carnage and slavery. The U.N. Security Council never addressed the issue and the EU countries adopted an ineffectual (indifferent?) policy of quiet diplomacy and economic engagement. It took three years of intensive and, for the most part, unilateral action by the Bush administration to bring an end to the genocidal conflict in the south. Many lives were lost because of the rest of the world’s unwillingness to act. In Darfur, this pattern is emerging once again. While U.S. maintains important economic sanctions, France, Sweden, Canada, and China allow their oil companies to join the regime in an oil partnership.
LESSON: Genocide and massive death in Darfur could be averted if the world joins the U.S. in condemning Khartoum for its actions and takes measures that hold its leadership responsible.
–Nina Shea is director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom.