Saturday, September 18, 2010

Calling it.

Deciding a genocide is a genocide in the 20th and 21st centuries has started to resemble that old canard of blind men groping an elephant.

Everyone's feeling it. We just can't decide what it is.

And there's a reason for that. A 'civilized' world reeling from the shock of the Shoah needed some way to make itself feel that it could ensure that it wouldn't happen again. So, in 1946, the United Nations adopted one of its famous resolutions (that and a dime won't even get you coffee now) calling genocide a crime under international law. However, it wasn't until 1948 that the UN got around to actually defining what genocide is (or what it considered it to be), and as those of you familiar with the UN know, that is practically warp speed.

The UN's Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined genocide as "any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group:

(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.
- Article II of CPPCG"

Right. Okay. That seems fairly straightforward, doesn't it?

So, who exactly is supposed to enforce this Convention?

Well, according to Article VIII:

Article VIII: Any Contracting Party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III.

Mm. Okay. "Competent organs" should be taking appropriate actions. That kind of summons up images of being rescued by a giant kidney. This is appropriately vague, it doesn't really bind anyone to doing anything in particular.

After the Rwandan genocide (never again, remember?) and the genocidal killings in the Balkans, the UN adopted another resolution, Security Resolution 1674, which "reaffirms the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

Right. Great. But the CPPCG and the Resolution 1674 have the same flaw, or convenient loophole, depending on how you look at it.

Simply put, if one delays defining an event as a genocide until it's pretty much over and the need for intervention has passed, you can pretty effectively get out of having to fulfill your 'responsibility to protect populations from genocide.' Which is why, in the early days of the Rwandan genocide, government spokespersons were twisting themselves into semantic pretzels and very carefully avoiding invoking the big G.

Which brings me to, in an extremely circular way, Gerard Prunier's Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide.

About, what, nine months ago, if you lived in a metropolitan area, especially this metropolitan area, you probably saw a lot of twenty-somethings walking around with T-shirts that said "Save Darfur!" on them. There were television fund-raisers and some celebrities got involved, and then all of a sudden everyone kind of noticed, hey, there's this place called Darfur and there appears to be some sort of genocide going on!

At that point it was pretty much over, and intervention, while probably still helpful and maybe even useful to the people living there, was kind of beside the point.

So why did it take so long, and isn't that always the question? Prunier tries to answer it in a flawed but important book.

Prunier argues that one of the reasons that Darfur didn't attract much attention on the world stage is that no one else could figure out what the hell was going on. The papers reported things like Arab-African clashes and murderous horsemen called Janjaweed sweeping down on villages and killing everyone with swords, which conjured up something out of T.S. Lawrence's Arabia.

But the truth was more complicated, and it's kind of hard to decide on a course of action when you don't understand what's going on on the ground, or even who the involved parties are.

To try to untangle it for the Western reader, Prunier goes back to the history of the various conquests of Sudan and the misleading use of the terms "Arab" and "African" by the Western press (a fine example of that linguistic slippage so beloved by English graduate students).

Prunier delves into the formation of the Darfurian sultanate, which sounds like something out of Star Trek but is actually the development of a large area controlled by distant Khartoum. Darfur in particular was ignored and starved of resourced by the governing powers. So, a split evolved, which later became couched in religious and racial terms, which in turn was exploited by whomever was ruling at the time and found it convenient to do so. Hence, the reportage of clashes between 'Arabs' and 'Africans' reported by the press didn't mean what readers thought it did.

The killing in Darfur was that most vexing phenomenon to the Western powers apparently responsible for preventing genocide: genocidal killings taking place within a larger war. This was similar to what let everyone pretend they didn't know what was going on in Rwanda - as long as the Rwandese leaders kept insisting it was a civil war with some regrettable but unavoidable civilian casualties, and as long as the West kept pretending it believed them, they got out of actually having to do anything about it.

So, with Sudan, Chad, and Libya all involved and the UN distracting itself with a protracted, fruitless, and ultimately useless "negotiation" and "peace plan" process in Abuja with the same leaders who were stonewalling anyone trying to get to Darfur to find evidence that genocide was in fact taking place, it was easy enough to claim that it wasn't clear whether or not the killings in Darfur counted or not. The UN busied itself with issuing resolutions calling for disarmament, negotiation, and humanitarian relief, none of which actually made a difference due to the complete lack of any sort of way to enforce them.

So, while Darfur burned, the international community concerned itself with a charade of a 'peace process' that had been dragging on since 2004, becoming increasingly desperate to secure a signature on an empty document, so at least it could point to something it had accomplished.

The result was the Darfur Peace Agreement, or DPA, a 108-page meisterwerk that included such dreams as an immediate ceasefire, the disarmament of the Janjaweed, and a power-sharing arrangement between the rebels and the government. And unicorns. For everyone.

So how does it end? Well, Darfur won't tell you, because it was published in 2007, shortly after the signing of the DPA.

Prunier is an excellent writer - and I say this because I am also reading his seminal Africa's World War, but Darfur is not his finest work. The book's main value lies in explaining Darfurian history for the Western reader, and drawing connections between events today and decades-old decisions in Sudan. It also shows how a lack of knowledge of the historical context led to Western media and the UN misunderstanding the situation on the ground.
Darfur as a book is flawed - the editorship is hasty, and the book gives the overall impression of having been rushed to print, as evidenced by its slapdash ending in the midst of the DPA signatory process. But Prunier can hardly be blamed for this, as the book seems to follow the conflict almost in real-time. The 2007 version is an update of a previously released work, and hopefully Prunier will complete a more thorough historiography and analysis of Sudan, in the vein of his other publications.

As for the end to the Darfurian saga? There is none, it's still continuing.

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