A World on its Knees

Conflict, genocide, and crimes against humanity

Tag: Central African Republic

Isn’t That Over Already?

Back in 2004, when I was in graduate school, Washington, DC was peppered with signs reading, “Save Darfur.*”  The Secretary of State talked about it.  It was the Kony 2012 of 2004.

Well, the LRA is still operating around Central Africa, and Darfur remains unsaved.  It is far from over.  In fact, in recent days and weeks, mass atrocities have been gathering steam in Darfur (and the Nuba, and anywhere else Omar al-Bashir has decided to terrorize in “his” country).

Surprised?  You shouldn’t be.  International energy and attention has waned for Darfur in part because the international community refuses to address underlying problems that fuel crimes against humanity and genocide.  There are many, many reasons for this.  Here are just a few.

  • Those who benefit from impunity are those who are in power.

There is no impunity for ordinary people.  A man who goes on a shooting spree in Kalamazoo, Michigan is arrested almost immediately.  Black boys who play in parks and Black men who sell cigarettes are summarily executed, apparently for existing in public, and those who kill them are almost never imprisoned.  But world leaders are reluctant to put other world leaders in prison or take any other measures against them, in part from fear that such measures could be used against them as well and in part from a misguided concern for sovereignty.  Ultimately, world leaders know that criminal justice is not just (whatever they may say in public) and take measures to avoid any possibility of being called to account.

  • There is a lack of empathy for, and thus a lack of political will to help, people who differ visibly from oneself.

Should the US bar all Muslims from entering, as Donald Trump suggests?  The idea has certainly caught on, just like the idea of building (another) wall between the US and Mexico has.  Humans often look at people who differ from themselves as potential risks, rather than thinking of the real human suffering behind the movement of children out of Central America (the US Government is now giving the Mexican Government money to stop them before they reach American shores) or of large numbers of refugees out of Syria into Europe.  People feel insecure about their own lives and are happy not to have to deal with another person’s suffering.  It’s much easier not to.  It’s much easier to vilify political leaders when they show empathy than to sacrifice tax dollars or other resources to help.

That goes triple for a mainly Muslim Black African population.

  • Strategies to end mass atrocities can also destabilize regions.

Omar al-Bashir is everyone’s favourite kind of villain: an absolute dictator who has been in power for almost 30 years.  Because he has been in power so long, arresting him will necessarily cause a power vacuum in Sudan.  Sudan has had violent conflict more or less constantly from the time of its independence in 1956.  Dislodging al-Bashir would bring an escalation in the conflict and also further destabilize South Sudan, Egypt, Chad, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Central African Republic, and possibly Uganda.  It would disrupt trade and development in these areas at a bare minimum.  However, Chad is already dealing with Sudanese refugees.  South Sudan is in a state of civil war, and Egypt is not terribly far from it.  Ethiopia and Eritrea continue to struggle with each other and Ethiopia faces internal unrest.  The main effect is likely to be on the power elites within Sudan itself.  War is terrible and destructive, but is targeting civilian populations truly a lesser evil?  Something is wrong with a calculation that says that we must continue to tolerate systematic atrocities because what follows may be open war and political uncertainty.


Omar al-Bashir is an indicted criminal.  It is long past time for him to come to justice.  The US gives more than any other country to humanitarian aid toward Darfur.  It is not enough.  We must be willing to demand that Sudan be suspended from the WTO, the UN, and other intergovernmental organizations until al-Bashir is arrested.  He must not be allowed to travel internationally.

Most importantly, on a human level, we must work to foster empathy in ourselves and to fight the impulse to push others to the margins of humanity.

*Save Darfur website here.


You, Too, Can Stop Genocide!

My friend Martha Boshnick of the Darfur Interfaith Network has been giving me a lot of information, and since this is Genocide Awareness Month, I’d like to pass some of it along to you.  There is so much to learn, do, and see!

First, I have to say that I have more than my share of civic pride.  I am a native-born Angelena, daughter of native-born Angelenos, and granddaughter and great-granddaughter of native-born Angelenos.  Well, as it turns out, our pride in our city is not entirely misplaced.  Los Angeles is a leader in fighting genocide, and the new mayor seems to think that this trend needs to continue.  Thank you, Angelenos!  You spoke and demanded government action, and you got it!

Speaking out works.  There are lots of great organizations that organize action against genocide.  Here are a few things you can do right now.

Facebook campaigns work.  The situation in CAR is desperate.  If you have a facebook account, click “demand” and let UNICEF publish publicly on your wall.  Bring attention to the genocide, start a conversation, and show world leaders that there is as much support for ending genocide as there is for Betty White to host SNL.

Have a few dollars?  $68 will pay a primary school teacher in South Sudan for a month.  You can do that.

Are you in DC or Tel Aviv?  Attend a Refugee Seder and bring attention to the plight of refugees around the world.

Watch and share this video about Sudan.  Then sign this petition.  Use the hashtag #StandforSudan and spread the word.

This all seems big, overwhelming, and hopeless much of the time.  It’s big, all right.  But it’s only hopeless if we act like the pawns of the government, rather than its owner.  Own the government.  End genocide.


Have We Forgotten the Central African Republic?

My good friend Sherif asked, not long ago, why people aren’t paying attention to Central African Republic.  In a previous post, I outlined why we tend to stop paying attention to genocide, or never start paying attention at all.

Ukraine is in a state of political transition, and state assets and territory are being appropriated by Russia. A plane went missing between Malaysia and China. The world seems to be coming to pieces. So is the crisis in the Central African Republic over? Is it contained? It certainly hasn’t been in mainstream news lately.

This is an excellent example of expectations amnesia. Expectations amnesia is when we come to expect certain behavior and so, after the first shock, ignore or forget about it.

The Central African Republic is an African nation. In the eyes of many Americans and Europeans who are not specialists in African affairs, this lumps the country in with other failed or very weak states such as Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We expect violence, mayhem, and danger from these countries. No matter how stable the country is, when one of us goes to an African country, we’re confronted by family and friends who worry that we will be caught in the crossfire of some “tribal” war, that we will not have access to aspirin or clean water, and that the people we meet will be in some sense “primitive” – on the political left, full of country lore and wisdom, steeped in tradition, and unpolluted by modern life (most Americans would be shocked at how popular Tupac is in Mauritania); on the political right, dirty, barbaric, dangerous, and savage.

We don’t see African conflict because we see Africans as victims and perpetrators, not people. We don’t see it because we see Africans as foreign and exotic. We don’t see it because we see them as uniform, undifferentiated, monolithic. Africa has become the world’s blind spot; an invisible bloc of more than 50 countries. We don’t even recognize more familiar African countries, such as Morocco or Egypt, as African at all.

Our blindness with regard to the CAR is exacerbated by the popular view of Islam in the United States. When Muslims are systematically targeted and slaughtered, we say that this is “warfare” or “conflict” rather than genocide. This is because (in the United States, anyhow) we expect Muslims to be the aggressors. We accept explanations that the people who are being killed are the ones who orchestrated a coup d’etat last year – and we’re kind of OK with that. We tend to see Muslims (at best) as a group of cruel, repressive men and powerless women or (at worst) as terrorists, period. We don’t differentiate between children and adults, so why should Christians in the CAR?

Convulsions continue to wrack the CAR. Ordinary people have been infected by the political machinations in Bangui. They are consumed by a political mythos that makes enemies out of neighbors and keeps the populace nicely busy while those who are well-placed in Bangui fight for as much of the resource and power pie as they can get. CAR is an incredibly resource-rich country, strategically placed to be an excellent transit point for all sorts of materials. Keeping it lawless frees those materials of customs and other pesky government inspections, and aids kleptocrats large and small in profiting maximally from materials both originating in CAR and in transit. Why don’t we see this genocide going on? Sadly, Sherif, I think our expectations have made us incapable of seeing it. And as long as this is the case, the UN Mission is going to have to continue to ship as many people as possible out of the country for their own safety, and they are going to continue to fail as household after household falls victim to murderous people once thought of as friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

We cannot afford to forget anyone who is being targeted for extermination. We must demand whatever information can be found. Giving up is the option we most often choose, but clearly, it doesn’t make things any better.

Slava Ukraini?

There is so much going on right now.

Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Mali have ongoing complex situations, including genocide and mutilation of cultural monuments.  Syria and CAR have been having sporadic, not very successful peace talks (just a note: peace talks are never, ever, ever successful at creating the kind of peace you want to see; they work piecemeal, and hope to move things forward a little at a time).

And Russia invaded Ukraine.

Well, Russia was going to invade Ukraine.  Nationalist rhetoric has been building in Russia for a very long time, but it’s accelerated in the past two years.  The Olympic Games were a good chance to simultaneously crack down even harder on dissent, look good to the world, and fuel the average Russian’s nationalism.  While the games were going on, Vladimir Putin was treating Ukraine as a puppet state, leading to the deaths of nearly a hundred Ukrainians (mainly protestors, but police as well).  Now he has very skillfully let it be known that the government in Kyiv was put in place by fascist sympathizers who are committing atrocities against Russian speakers.  He reminds people that the Maidan cry, “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine!) has been used by fascists in the past.  This is true, and it lends a lot of credibility to what he is saying in the eyes of the Western press.

Luckily, there is someone in Ukraine with the standing to contradict these statements outright.  A group of Jewish leaders and thinkers in Ukraine has written an open letter to Vladimir Putin.  Read it.  It’s seldom I get to talk about good news here.  This is very good news.  It seems that, after all, we can say ,”Slava Ukraini!”

Central African Republic: Genocide is about Politics

The alarms have been sounded.  This week, the BBC released an article stating that the Central African Republic may soon see sectarian conflict that amounts to genocide.  This seems like typical British understatement in light of ongoing massacres by Muslims against Christians, Christians against Muslims, and Christians of Group A against Christians of Group B.  These killings are ruthless and thorough.  It’s clear that the religious pluralism of the CAR is tearing the country apart.  Or is it?

If sectarian difference in itself accounted for genocide, New York, Los Angeles, and London would be bloodbaths, while Rwanda and Sudan would never see violence.  Central African Republic has relatively few Muslims, and only a few separate religious groups overall.  Genocide is expressed as ethnic, religious, racial, or political groups attempting to create more homogenous societies.  But that is the end activity, rather than the cause.

The origin of today’s conflict in the Central African Republic is political, and genocide is one expression of ongoing political struggle.  The Failed States Index produced annually by the Fund for Peace (full disclosure: I have worked at the Fund for Peace) has had CAR in the top 20 countries in the world at risk for state failure since 2005.  It entered the top 10 in 2008, and has stayed there ever since.  The Failed States Index does not indicate actual state failure; rather, it uses public information to measure risk factors for state failures.  In 2013, grievance levels actually decreased as a factor in CAR’s slow-motion state failure, but public services have worsened and there have been large movements of people throughout the region.

This year’s big news in the Central African Republic has been a large, dramatic power struggle.  Seleka, an armed faction, took control of the government in March.  The current president, Michel Djotodia, is expected to step down in the next several hours to two days, under pressure from the Economic Community of Central African States.  This is government by the strongest faction, and it drives genocide.  Stoking and encouraging grievance against one’s neighbors accomplishes two goals for a faction seeking power.  First, it quells disagreement.  Second, it serves as both a cause and a distraction, making civilian populations easier to control.  Failing and failed states are fertile ground for genocide because genocide is a way of gaining and keeping political power.  Likewise, in Rwanda, the genocide was precipitated by Hutu factions who took advantage of the plane crash (likely not accidental) that killed several government officials, including the President.  It served as a method for Hutu leaders in Kigali to consolidate their power.

Given the risks, should other countries intervene when states begin to fail or fall into civil war?  Perhaps they should.  The bigger question, however, is what interventions would be effective in a given situation, and which countries could intervene without further fanning the flames of conflict.  This is a delicate operation, and in general, countries choose to do nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing.  The likelihood of doing the wrong thing is so high that it may never be possible to find an effective way to protect civilians from atrocities in complex conflicts.