The Screaming Pen

Providing Global Insight, Context, and Perspective

When Words Matter

Darfur Genocide & Intervention

Until Raphael Lemkin invented the term, genocide was “a crime without a name.” A Jewish linguist from Poland who survived the Holocaust, Lemkin was determined to give name to this peerless atrocity in order to distinguish it from all other crimes; without classification its manifestations would be impossible to identify and prevent.

After years of tireless effort, Lemkin succeeded: in 1948 the United Nations passed the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The convention was the first of several developments that appeared to shift the debate from “the right to intervene” to “the responsibility to protect,” and thus transfer the balance of power from murderous regimes shielded by sovereignty to outside powers willing to rescue victims of mass slaughter.

The familiar mantra became “never again.” Never would Hitler’s rampage, which engulfed the entire European continent and led to 100 million deaths, be allowed to repeat itself. Yet hopes were dashed with unspeakable tragedy meted out to entire generations in Cambodia, Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and (some argue) Biafra. For over 50 years the world averted its eyes and refused to use the word genocide, because doing so would under the Convention trigger “such action…as [U.N. members] consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.” Without significant “national interests” at stake, the entire world was unwilling to take tough measures, spinelessly betraying the intent if not the letter of the convention.

Don’t look Away

This Time Different?

When Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2004 that “genocide has been committed in Darfur,” it was clearly no mean statement. Powell’s calculated and deliberate statement intended to exert pressure on Sudan’s government. Many also saw it as progress in the world’s response to genocide. For the first time a government with power to act called the crime for it was, while it was going on, and one could be forgiven for thinking substantial action would follow.

Yet two years on, and more than three since the forced relocation, rape, and extermination of Darfuris – mainly black Africans – by Arab militias known as the janjaweed, much talk has been followed by only a small African Union force incapable of preventing the catastrophe. Somewhat promisingly though, May 5th saw the signing of a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the largest rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Army. In this, Sudan agreed to admit a U.N. force, and hopes are that even if the agreement doesn’t hold up – due to obstruction from smaller Darfuri rebel groups or incorrigible janjaweed militias difficult to rein in – peacekeepers can be inserted anyway.

While this is clearly a cheerful development, it is far from a panacea. Past U.N. peacekeeping operations have shown that their presence hardly guarantees an end to the slaughter. U.N. soldiers literally watched and then withdrew after the loss of ten of their own, leaving a million (mostly) Tutsis to be exterminated through Hutu rage in Rwanda in 1994. To be fair, the U.N. force failed to act because of a weak mandate from pusillanimous member countries. U.N. action is nothing more than the sum of its members’ will; the organization cannot independently solve the world’s most intractable problems and thus shouldn’t bear any blame alone.

Nor should any country be expected to respond to humanitarian crises unilaterally, as unseen dangers often arise and such costs must be distributed among nations. Political cover must also be shared to prevent engendering animosity toward the occupying force, which naturally becomes a catchall for complaints. Instead, cooperation is needed from all: America, the European Union, China, Russia, the Arab League, and the African Union. A robust mandate should be given to a U.N. force, and if this proves inadequate a NATO contingent should take the lead. Only then can the world justly proclaim “never again.”


 2006. All rights reserved.

Note: For a thorough examination of genocide in the 20th century see Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.” Information in the first half of this article was drawn from the book.


May 19, 2006 - Posted by | Africa, Author: DML, Darfur, Human Rights, Intervention, Politics, Sudan, United States

1 Comment »

  1. Good stuff.

    Comment by Joe | May 19, 2006 | Reply

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