A World on its Knees

Conflict, genocide, and crimes against humanity

Tag: Sudan

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.


More About #BringBackOurGirls, #SaveMeriam, and #BringBackOurBoys

“The people!  United!  Will never be divided!  The people!  United!  Will never be defeated!”

When I was in high school, I loved a good protest.  You got to get out into the community, chant inspiring things, and feel like you were making a difference.  Of course, sometimes the protest was very small and the cause was not as good as I thought it was.  I had not learned to analyze the causes I fought for yet.  I had righteous indignation without the experience to apply nuanced critical thinking.  The activist community sometimes fails at nuanced critical thinking in victory as well as in defeat.

What does victory look like?  In the case of the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, it looked like getting attention to the matter, and it looked like help from and for the Nigerian government.  The U.S. and many European countries, including the UK, have sent surveillance equipment and soldiers, sent money, and generally given support.  Thousands of people have tweeted, facebooked, hashtagged the World Cup games, and talked to their friends about the situation.  So do we declare victory?  Can we declare victory when the girls are most likely in Cameroon, and will likely never be returned to their parents?  Boko Haram has kidnapped 60 more girls and is terrorizing people who are watching the World Cup.  Is that victory?  After all, the campaign has achieved many of its goals. 

What is the lesson here?  The people, united, can be defeated – even when backed by the great economic and military powers.

Meriam Ibrahim, meanwhile, was imprisoned, promised release, kept in prison, released, re-arrested, and the US is working to have her released again.  I will breathe easy when she is out of Sudan, and not before.  As in Nigeria, this case was championed and led by local people (yes, many of them Muslims) who were outraged by the Trousers Woman case and have been agitating for better treatment of women and religious minorities in Sudan.  Unfortunately, they are led by a power-hungry genocidal war criminal who asserts himself at every turn.  If she gets out of Sudan, as I confidently believe she will within 48 hours, it will be because of international pressure, but even more because of internal pressure.
Finally, we come to the case of the three Israeli boys kidnapped two weeks ago.  International concern is high, and it is fair to say it has not been equally high for Palestinian children caught up in the ongoing mess there in the United States.  Israeli forces, including Bedouin Israelis, are searching for them.  What, then, is the aim of the campaign to find these boys and bring them home to their families?  In part, it must be to highlight the insecurity that Israelis and Palestinians live in every single day.  It is always, always a problem when children (yes, teenagers are children) are targeted in a war – yet it is not infrequent.  This case is not special, but it is not less important for that.  In this case, it’s clear that attention will not be enough to bring these kids back, nor will it solve this ongoing imbalanced conflict that directly involves four and a half countries.

With all these international campaigns, it is easy to get lost and wonder what international attention is worth.  But to me, part of the point is attention, and paying attention.  The risk is that we pay attention without applying nuanced critical thinking, or that we pay attention until our attention is taken by something else – the latest game, whatever the Kardashians are doing, a scandal involving a clown, a blowtorch, and a Bible, or just our everyday lives.  Attention is in short supply.

It’s also very easy to get burned out if you think that your country’s involvement will magically solve the problem.  The problematic Kony 2012 campaign led to ever-increasing US involvement in trying to arrest Joseph Kony, but he is still at large.  The Obama Administration has spent resources in an attempt to find the kidnapped Nigerian girls, in vain.  Don’t get me wrong: we have to try.  There is no going back in time; we are involved in world affairs, whatever country we live in, and every country must take responsibility for its place in the world.  That means giving aid when required, accepting help, and bringing criminal governments and individuals to justice.  But sometimes the countries, united, are as vulnerable to defeat as the people, united.  Sometimes the outcome is not what we wish it to be.  That’s not a reason to give up.  It’s a reason to learn some lessons and keep working at it.

Save Meriam Ibrahim’s Life and Family

It’s a sad story: a baby is born in Sudan to a Christian mother and a Muslim father.  Six years later, the father abandons the family.  The baby, a girl, is raised Christian.  She later marries a Christian man with disabilities who is a U.S. citizen.  They have a son together, and she is pregnant with their second child when the government in Khartoum (a criminal government) arrests her for apostasy based on a complaint filed by her brother.  You see, religion follows the father, not the mother, so she was a Muslim (a contention not supported by the majority of Muslims, by the way, who believe that saying the shahada is essential) and has strayed.  

She is given three days to renounce Christianity and embrace Islam, admitting too that her marriage is invalid, as Muslim men may marry Christian or Jewish women, but Muslim women may not marry out of Islam.  She refuses.

Today, she is in jail with her 20-month-old son, who is an American citizen, because Christian men are not permitted custody of their sons in these situations.  She is sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery after she gives birth, and then death for apostasy.

Americans, without any ambiguity, must act in aid of their fellow-citizens.  If you are a U.S. citizen, contact the Department of State immediately.  The American husband, Mr. Daniel Wani, has been trying without success to obtain a visa for his wife, Ms. Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, and their son Martin.  The visa must be granted immediately.  Ms. Ibrahim is nine months pregnant, so even though an appeal has been filed that will postpone the sentence somewhat, the danger to her is imminent.

Whoever you are: Here are some petitions you can sign.

Whether or not you are a U.S. citizen, send an email to the Sudanese government protesting this action.  You and your friends and family may save a life and a family.

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.

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.


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.