A World on its Knees

Conflict, genocide, and crimes against humanity

Tag: Darfur

Celebrating Slow Progress Against Impunity

Genocide, conflict, and crimes against humanity are not the most cheerful topics.  Today, though, we have a little good news.

Radovan Karadzic, a mastermind of the Bosnian genocide, former President of the troubled Republika Srpska, has been convicted on ten counts of war crimes during the 1991-1995 war, including a count of genocide.

He was acquitted on one count of genocide.

He spent 11 years on the run and eight years defending himself at the Hague.  It has been 21 years since the Srebrenica massacre, the most notorious crime in Europe since World War II.  Karadzic has long been lionized as a religious and cultural hero.

Karadzic has been sentenced to 40 years.  He will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Is it enough?  No.  Justice, in this case, was slow and incomplete.  There is no “enough,” because nothing will ever bring back those killed, or undo the pain and trauma of those who survive.  It is, however, progress – a step toward a more just world.  Coming so quickly on the heels of the seventh anniversary of Omar Al-Bashir’s indictment, coming just days after South African courts reaffirmed that their government’s release of Bashir was illegal, coming in the midst of the ongoing genocide crisis in Jebel Marra, the timing of this conviction could not be better.  Personally, I think that makes it worth celebrating.

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.


One Side to This Story

Proverbs are lovely, aren’t they?  The wisdom of the ages is encapsulated in a few short, memorable words.  They’re seductively digestible and seem to apply to so many things in life.  “There are two sides to every story,” your grandmother might have told you, or your dad might regretfully have informed you that, “It takes two to tango.”

These platitudes are so tempting that we often mistake “telling it from both sides” for objectivity.  But though both sides often have something to say, it would be silly to believe that both sides should be given equal weight, equal time, or equal consideration.  Some “somethings” to say aren’t really anything at all.

Imagine a textbook about geography that had to give equal time to the notion that the Earth is flat.  Why would you make such a text book?  Well, some people believe that the Earth is flat, and after all, don’t they deserve a voice?

No, they really don’t.  Giving their voice weight confuses the facts pretty seriously.  It’s less objective than ignoring them altogether.  Their belief has no place in a geography textbook because it simply isn’t true.

Today, journalists often confuse objectivity and giving both sides of the story.  In part, I think, this is because they are in the public eye and often accused of bias (and let’s face it: no human is without bias).  In part, it is a certain kind of laziness: instead of doing fact-finding (hard work, and sometimes dangerous), just take a shortcut and present both opinions as though they have merit or validity.

This becomes particularly disastrous when we consider crimes against humanity and genocide.  Are there two sides to the Holocaust or the Rwanda genocide?  Are there two sides to the events at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center, and rural Pennsylvania on 9/11/2001?  Are there really?

We see the serious distortions caused by two-side-ism all the time.  Calling events in Darfur a “conflict” and the victims of genocide “rebels” gives credibility to the government in Khartoum and enables mass killing.  After all, they must “fight” the “rebels” in this “conflict!”  Likewise, using historical precedence and Russian allegations to claim that anti-Semitism is rampant in Ukraine muddies the waters considerably, gives Putin credibility, and confuses the average non-Russian/non-Ukrainian as to what exactly is going on.

Alleging that “There are two sides to every story” is comforting and homely.  It also silences people who are being oppressed and turns victims into perpetrators.  It distorts truth in a way that is truly unacceptable.  The bottom line is this: There are two sides to some stories.  Others just have one.

Why Don’t We Just Send Peacekeepers?

On June 13, seven peacekeepers were killed and 17 were injured in Darfur.  Yesterday (August 27), four more peacekeepers were reported missing while delivering food, swept away in a flood.  So is UNAMID (with about 16,000 peacekeepers in Darfur) just having a run of bad luck?

In the developed world, we put a lot of faith and almost no resources in peacekeeping missions.  We push for peacekeepers because we do not know what else to do in the midst of crises.  It sounds like a good idea to have a wall of armed soldiers between civilians and danger, a purely defensive force dedicated to the protection of lives.  It sounds like police, only nicer and less corrupt.

And sometimes it is.  There is a way to do peacekeeping right.  You need highly trained soldiers, a clear mandate, and a modicum of flexibility for the officers on the ground.  The United Nations can’t bring this level of competence consistently, and it’s not because the U.S. or France or the U.K. or Canada or Belgium lacks good will (though France and Belgium were not blameless in the Rwanda genocide).  The African Union can’t bring it, either, nor can ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States).  In fact, the only intergovernmental organization that has been successful in the majority of its interventions is NATO.  Why can’t the UN be more like NATO?

Because it can’t.  NATO is made up of a relatively small number of states.  It is first and foremost a military alliance, so NATO soldiers are trained, have a clear chain of command, and are directed by people who “speak military” because they are military.  The United Nations is focused on international cooperation.  It does not have military resources or structure of its own.  UN peacekeeper mandates have to be agreed to at a bare minimum by the Security Council – and trying to get Russia, the U.S., and China to agree at any given moment is quite a task.  This robs peacekeepers of the agility they need to respond to developing and complex situations.  It makes it difficult to say who is in charge.

Interoperability is another challenge to UN peacekeeping missions.  Different countries have different levels of training, chains of command, and set responses to situations.  When two, three, or four countries’ forces are put together, they often have to take some time to learn to work together.  This slows them down considerably.  The quality of the soldiers is also uneven; some come from more corrupt systems, in which promotions might be based on family relationships, ethnicity, or bribes.  They bring these attitudes with them wherever they go.  UN peacekeepers have themselves been implicated in atrocities from time to time, from Srebrenica to Congo.  ECOMOG, the ECOWAS peacekeeping force, was nicknamed “Every Car or Moving Object Gone” for their kleptocratic approach to their job.  At the same time, peacekeepers are a big target wherever they go.  The UNAMID troops are in a particularly tricky position, with Khartoum periodically throwing all foreign observers out of Darfur and supporting groups that target civilians.

There is an answer to our problems, but “throw peacekeepers at it” isn’t the right one – even appropriately trained peacekeepers can’t solve the problems.  The best peacekeepers are a placeholder, protecting civilians while other means are used to resolve the situation.  Peacekeeping missions need to be pared down, well-trained, and responsive.  It is in the nature of the United Nations, and for that matter any primarily economic or political alliance, that it will never be able to do these things well.  Individual nations and military alliances will always be better at it.

Each situation requires its own mix of solutions.  Peacekeepers need to be part of the mix, not a one-size-fits-all solution.  They need to be used strategically, given specific goals, and empowered to achieve those goals.

The Genocide Games

            The 2013 CECAFA Kagame Cup (soccer, for those who aren’t sure) is being hosted by Sudan right now.  The games are taking place in Darfur and South Kordofan, where soccer is extremely popular.  Yet Kenya and Tanzania have pulled out of the games, saying that security is a concern.  Like the 1936 Summer Olympics, which were used by Hitler to promote Nazi ideology, there is a possibility that playing in Darfur will give the international community the sense that reports of genocide have been greatly exaggerated.

            International games are seen by governments as a source of revenue, renewal, and civic pride.  Nevertheless, as the protests and riots across Brazil ahead of the World Cup should show, these tournaments can be a mixed blessing, and they are not viewed with wholehearted enthusiasm by the people on the ground.  And who benefits from the games in Sudan?  In all probability, Omar al-Bashir.  He will take credit for the games having come to Sudan, and his regime in Khartoum will reap the benefits, not the people of Kordofan and Darfur.  The benefits here do not outweigh the drawbacks of propping al-Bashir’s regime.

            Russia, meanwhile, is gearing up for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, and the gay community in Russia is urging international viewers to boycott the games.  Two weeks ago, Russia officially passed a law outlawing “gay propaganda,” defined as providing any information at all about LGBT people to anyone under 18.  While this law has been under discussion, politicians and church leaders have urged young people to take the law into their own hands.  Gay activists have been pelted with eggs, urine, and feces.  A national television figure has stated that after death, the hearts of gay people should be burned.  In the last two months, two gay men have been brutally murdered.

            Boycotting the Olympic Games will not change the situation for the LGBT population in Russia, and boycotting the CECAFA Kagame Cup will not stop genocide in Darfur.  Yet when a country turns against a group of people, the world has a moral obligation to speak out, and a boycott is one way to express disapproval.  It is hard to imagine how anyone can watch these games without feeling sick.  That people will continue to be killed is beside the point; in the current international system, sovereignty often gets in the way of effective action.  The real point is this: Do we want our countries to lend further support to regimes that commit atrocities?  If the answer to that question is “no,” then watching or participating in these events makes us complicit as individuals and as societies.

The United Nations, Darfur, and the Yellow Peril

When I started graduate school, I was often amazed by the responses of my classmates to complex problems.  A professor would ask what tools we could use to resolve a conflict, and inevitably two or three people would come up with “pass a law forbidding it” or “call on the U.N.” 

        In the real world, of course, the U.N. does not have unlimited power and resources.  In the real world, laws are often no more than window dressing, countries don’t agree on a course of action, and it can be hard to tell whether a particular intervention will produce the desired results.  Frequently, use of military or economic instruments will make things worse for the people on the ground in a given country.  Then there is the problem of the U.N.’s mandate in particular situations.  Often, U.N. peacekeepers (unlike NATO troops) observe atrocities and are powerless to stop them.  Sometimes, they are part of the problem, participating in sexual assault or rounding people up for extermination.

            I recently had a meeting at the office of my Congressional representative, Chris Van Hollen.  He is being advised by some very intelligent and thoughtful people.  During the meeting, Ken Cummings asked why more isn’t being done in Darfur.  Indeed, under the Obama administration, things have gone backward.  Part of the problem, of course, is opposition to President Obama.  More important is the reluctance of liberals to fight for what they believe in publicly.  I call this “the nice liberal problem.”  The left becomes so focused on being the good guys that they have trouble standing up for things that they have built their careers on (as Samantha Power and Susan Rice have built their careers on acting against atrocities).

            But Mr. Cummings also seemed to think that China is a big reason we’ve backed off on Darfur.  There is a deep level of cooperation between the government of Omar al-Bashir and China.  Sudan has oil resources which China wants, and China has invested heavily in Sudan.  Russia sells arms to Sudan, and Ukraine is a major supplier of arms and fighter pilots.  Both China and Russia are members of the U.N. Security Council, which is one reason U.N. peacekeepers are toothless.  Why do we naturally focus on China to the exclusion of Russia?

            In the 1980s, Japan was (we were told) poised to take over the world economically.  Today we are told that it is China.  China owns U.S. debt; China is huge; many things are made in China.  Chinese students score better than American students in math and science.  This yellow peril mentality is preventing us from focusing on what needs to get done.  Most of U.S. debt is owned by Americans.  China’s economy is large mainly because there are a lot of people in China.  Their per capita numbers are dismal.  They experience environmental crises that most people living in the U.S., Canada, or Western Europe can hardly imagine.  Manufacturing has moved to China, and this has certainly caused some quality control problems, but it’s part of a larger move of more developed economies away from low-quality manufacturing and into higher-quality manufacturing and service industries.  China is still several steps behind economically.  Finally, cheating is rampant in China.  Getting a poor test grade often results in deep shame for students and their families, and the suicide rate among students is high.  Test grades don’t provide a reliable assessment of China’s educational system.

            The United States can’t blame the United Nations for a failure to act in Darfur.  The U.S. government cannot blame China and Russia, either.  The U.N. was not elected by the American people.  It cannot and does not carry out all American foreign policy.  Instead, we need to look at the reluctance of Congress to hand the Obama administration any victory, even when the victory is less political and more humanitarian.  And we need especially to look at the reluctance of Democrats in general and the Obama administration in particular to prioritize genocide and crimes against humanity.  NATO took out Qaddafi, but Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, is free to rule a nation, travel, and accuse the International Criminal Court of racism over his indictment.  There is a culture of impunity when it comes to genocide, and the United States, with its long opposition to the ICC and reluctance to act in humanitarian interest, upholds it.  The U.S. has been using China and East Asians to symbolize our fears of the outside world since the mid-19th Century, and it’s time to stop.  China is not the reason for U.S. inaction.  The U.S. is the reason.