Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Editor's Introduction - May 2007

“The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency” by Mahmood Mamdani. London Review of Books. 8 March 2007.

An Annotation:

For this month’s focal article, Professor Mahmood Mamdani draws a controversial comparison between two of the world’s most recent international crises: the U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq and the ongoing state-sponsored “genocide” in Darfur. Mamdani argues that a centrally important dispute simmers among the smoldering car wreckage of Baghdad and the razed villages of Western Sudan: how the international community categorizes a conflict dictates what action is taken and there is great power lurking behind this process of labeling. By conflating Iraq and Darfur, Mamdani makes a boldly critical claim about moral responsibility, the viability of international human rights norms, and the dramatic results of action and inaction.

“Morally, there is no doubt about the horrific nature of the violence against civilians in Darfur. The ambiguity lies in the politics of violence….”

How we refer to particular types of violence matters. “Genocide” is a term the international community developed to describe Nazi atrocities, which were indistinguishable from evil incarnate; there is no room to judge the use of the term “genocide” when referring to Hitler’s “final solution.” However, we have run into considerable disagreement when attempting to reapply this category to subsequent tragedies. Because of the unambiguous nature of Allied intervention in World War II, the use of the term genocide compartmentalizes the story by placing it in the context of a just, successful and morally uncomplicated history. Is Darfur a similar situation? Does calling the conflict a “genocide” make it simpler to deal with or does it oversimplify the issue to the extent that it obscures important complexities?

“How could it be that many of those calling for an end to the American and British intervention in Iraq are demanding an intervention in Darfur?”

Mamdani suggests that the circumstances in Iraq and Darfur are similar enough to warrant comparison and is suspicious of those who argue that a military response in Darfur is necessary, while in Iraq it has become an unmitigated disaster. His claim is that the Save Darfur Coalition mistakenly glosses over the facts on-the-ground, ignores atrocities perpetrated by rebel groups and advocates a policy that could be equally dangerous—on par with that in Iraq. Does Mamdani over-generalize the campaign for action in Darfur? Are there other interventionist alternatives that do not rely on arms, such as diplomacy, targeted sanctions, political isolation and financial divestment? Are there lessons the human rights community can learn from Iraq and apply to Darfur in constructing a course of action?

“This voyeuristic approach accompanies a moralistic discourse whose effect is both to obscure the politics of the violence and position the reader as a virtuous, not just a concerned observer.”

While critical self-reflection is necessary in all cases, especially when dealing with situations where massive numbers of innocent lives are at risk, is Mamdani’s argument persuasive or has he gone too far? There is an empirical case to be made that the conflicts in Iraq and Darfur are comparable, as is forcefully proven in the article. However, in the name of bringing politics back in, has Mamdani produced an analysis that further complicates the issue by ignoring particular historical, cultural and factual distinctions? Is it productive to judge conflicts based on raw numbers and non-specific categories? Or does it make more sense to look at each conflict separately in the context of their respective relationship to global powers (e.g., the U.S. or China), each nation’s role in the “war on terror,” or the natural resources each possesses? To be sure, at stake here is a highly practical issue: the names we use carry great weight, are tremendous sources of power, and morally and politically commit us to action.


Politics of Naming and Politics of Responsibility

by Rhoda E. Howard-Hassmann

“The politics of responsibility supersede the politics of naming: the decisions African leaders take have real, often horrific, consequences, regardless of the labels that outsiders give to those consequences.”

Mahmood Mamdani is right to complain that the American—and international—public is unaware of the political complexity of the Darfur conflict. He is also right to point out that selective or inconsistent uses of the terms “genocide,” “civil war,” and “insurgency” can mask covert, or even overt, political agendas. His comparison of Darfur to Iraq is telling. And he is right to point out that even with the best of humanitarian intentions, the presentation of a simplified version of Darfur, in which “Arabs” persecute “Africans,” can play into the “war on terror,” insofar as, in the minds of at least some of the Western public, “terrorist=Muslim=Arab.”

Mamdani criticizes Nicholas Kristof for presenting the Darfur conflict as, in effect, a morality play. It is indeed unfortunate that public attention to severe political conflicts is often determined by who reports on them, and that the public prefers “good guy/bad guy” scenarios over complex analysis. But Mamdani himself, as a scholar writing for a sophisticated readership, does not present the complex analysis one expects from him. He explains the “community-level split inside Darfur,” showing that the terms “Arab” and “African” simplify more complicated relations and identities in Darfur. But we do not learn any details about the “struggle for power within the political class in Sudan,” which might help us make sense of Darfur. Which factions in Khartoum are struggling, over what, and how does Darfur fit into all this?

Mamdani also criticizes those who suggest that armed warfare is the only way to end the Darfur tragedy. He believes that armed intervention would only increase the likelihood of a more general Sudanese civil war. While the public might liken Darfuri “Arabs” to terrorists, the U.S. government knows that the Sudanese government has proclaimed itself an ally of the Americans against al-Qaeda. The real question right now is whether the Sudanese government will permit United Nations troops to enter Darfur to support the African Union troops already there. The Sudanese government is playing a cynical game, pretending to co-operate with the U.N., then continually stalling or reneging on its agreements. Whatever name we give to it, real people—whether 70,000 or 200,000—have been raped, tortured, mutilated and murdered in Darfur. All sides who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity should be punished, be they the Sudanese government, its proxy janjaweed militia, or rebel groups. But in the meantime, the Sudanese government ought to be doing everything in its power to stop the crimes, and it is not.

Mamdani attributes too much responsibility to outside powers, and too little to Africans themselves. Whatever outside powers do about Darfur, whether they are the U.N. or NGOs, Sudanese actors are responsible for what is happening there. Similarly, it is not correct to claim that in Rwanda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front or RPF was a mere “proxy” of the U.S. The U.S. may well have given the RPF the green light: the fastest way other than armed outside intervention to stop the genocide was to let the RPF win the war. But the RPF was acting in its own interests. It was not a proxy army acting in U.S. interests.

Mamdani is correct to draw our attention to the terrible civil/international war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Feeling guilty about the Rwanda genocide, the Western world has allowed Paul Kagame and the RPF-led government of Rwanda free reign in Congo. Uganda, too, is one of the West’s most favored African countries; Yoweri Museveni, its President, “stabilized” Uganda after a period of intense conflict from 1972 to 1985, and he has followed the West’s prescription for economic growth. But, as Mamdani does regarding Sudan, he tells us which outside interests are involved in Congo, but not what the internal politics are. Who are the Hema and the Lendu? Which factions struggling for control of all Congo, or to split Congo into two or more territories, are backed by which outside powers, and in their turn back armed militias within Eastern Congo?

I agree with Mamdani that is it is dangerous—to Africans, if not to Westerners—to pick some leaders as “good guys” and then ignore their internal politics. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda should not have been limited to crimes committed only in 1994, and Carla Del Ponte, its chief prosecutor, should not have been dismissed when she tried to prosecute members of the RPF for crimes against Hutu. Neither the southern Sudanese rebels of the earlier civil war in Sudan, nor Darfur’s rebels today, were or are innocent of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Perhaps if Robert Mugabe had not been allowed to get away with slaughtering 20-25,000 minority Ndebele in the early 1980s, only two years after he took power in Zimbabwe, he would not be so easily persecuting his own people now. The politics of responsibility supersede the politics of naming: the decisions African leaders take have real, often horrific, consequences, regardless of the labels that outsiders give to those consequences.

One final comment on the politics of naming: Mamdani claims that the “Zionist lobby” is part of the Save Darfur Coalition. Presumably, he means the pro-Israel lobby. He then mentions organizations such as the American Jewish World Service and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as part of the coalition. Mamdani is too good a scholar not to be aware that not all Jews are Zionists, and that it is not the purpose of all Jewish organizations to promote Zionism or support Israel. In any case, even if one is a pro-Israel, Zionist Jew, one can also experience empathic feelings toward, and have humanitarian concerns about, people suffering from genocide, ethnic cleansing or war crimes. Jews, like non-Jewish Americans, non-Jewish Africans, Muslims, and everyone else, have complex motives and complex interests.

Rhoda Howard-Hassmann is Canada Research Chair in International Human Rights at Wilfrid Laurier University, where she is affiliated with the Global Studies Program and the Department of Political Science, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. She has published on human rights in Africa and Canada, on women’s rights and gay and lesbian rights, on economic rights, and on various theoretical and methodological aspects of international human rights. Her current research project is on Reparations for Africa. She has also established a website on political apologies and reparations.


The Return of Moral Equivalence

by J. Peter Pham

“...the argument artfully directs attention away from an obvious evil—the catastrophic humanitarian disaster in Darfur...—in order to refocus it on a series of less obvious supposed evils which the author views as a greater threat to his world view...”

During the latter stages of the Cold War, one school of ethical analysis, ultimately labeled as “moral equivalence” by the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, measured Western liberal democracies against utopian standards in a radical critique which redefined the political discourse, erasing distinctions between the Soviet Union and its satellites on the one hand and the United States and its allies on the other. In short, the world was divided into two “morally equivalent” spheres, each led by a superpower which perpetrated equally reprehensible deeds in its struggle for global supremacy (although somehow those of the U.S., by dint of its greater openness as a society, generally received greater scrutiny). As a result, according to those who subscribed to this vision, the “free world” had no moral standing to criticize the abuses occurring behind the “Iron Curtain.”

One would have assumed that the collapse of the “Iron Curtain” had consigned this doctrine to history’s dustbin, but it has enjoyed something of a revival in the 21 st century. This time, the doctrine has been renewed among those who hold romantic notions of “Third Worldism,” represented by any regime which has attracted critical scrutiny of the Western-dominated international system, rather than with the fantasies of scientific Marxism incarnate in the USSR. Thus Professor Mahmood Mamdani, in drawing similarities between Iraq and Darfur, asks:

The estimate of the number of civilians killed over the past three years is roughly similar. The killers are mostly paramilitaries, closely linked to the official military, which is said to be their main source of arms. The victims too are by and by largely identified as members of groups, rather than targeted as individuals. But the violence in the two places is named differently. In Iraq, it is said to be cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency; in Darfur, it is called genocide. Why the difference? Who does the naming? Who is being named? What difference does it make? (§1).

Throughout the essay, the inexorable “logic” of moral equivalence resonates as the argument artfully directs attention away from an obvious evil—the catastrophic humanitarian disaster in Darfur which is intended as such, whether one chooses to call it “genocide” or not—in order to refocus it on a series of less obvious supposed evils which the author views as a greater threat to his world view: America, the West, and the normative worldview of which they are the bearers.

The argument, thus woven, can barely withstand rigorous scrutiny— rhetorical, ethical, or political. Mamdani claims that because of the failure of the United States and Britain to intervene to stop the massive violence during the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they cannot do so in Darfur. But this type of “reasoning” is one which no parent in his or her right mind countenances. To buttress his argument, Mamdani also invokes the “authority” of the president of Nigeria and the former chief prosecutor of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both of whom declined to qualify the violence in the western region of Sudan as “genocide.” While an international tribunal will ultimately decide if the legal standard for genocide applies, the good professor would do well to remember that adage from classical philosophy that the argument from authority is the weakest of all arguments.

While, as I noted last year in my review essay, one ought to be sensitive to “the power relations embedded within the narratives and discourses of global human rights and within the very foundations of international law itself,” one must also acknowledge the growing recognition of the “responsibility to protect” those civilians at risk. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) argued the following in its report to the United Nations:

[I]ntervention for human protection purposes, including military intervention in extreme cases, is supportable when major harm to civilians is occurring or imminently apprehended, and the state in question is unable or unwilling to end the harm, or is itself the perpetrator (ICISS, §2.25).

Without a doubt the war in Iraq has certainly undermined the political credibility of countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and their allies, to invoke the same principle in other theatres like Darfur, much less to construct a consensus for collective action, especially because the war was partially justified as an exercise in humanitarian intervention to free citizens from the abuse they suffered at the hands of a despotic regime. And, of course, the strain on the resources of America and its coalition partners also renders it operationally difficult for them to shoulder any great proportion of the burden for any action should they manage to persuade others of the urgency of the situation. However, these are practical concerns which do not detract from the moral and juridical norm which sanctions the right of third parties to intervene to save strangers. As I noted in another review essay published last year by Human Rights & Human Welfare, this right “ was neither developed in isolation by the high-profile ICISS, nor has it been merely a construct of Western liberalism.” Rather, it can be found in sources as disparate as the Organization of the Islamic Conference’s call for outside intervention in Kosovo, the Constitutive Act of the African Union, and the pronouncements of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The general principle derived from all of this is that the “responsibility to protect” enshrined in the ICISS report ultimately comes down to an empirical determination: is the “state in question” unable or unwilling to protect its own citizens? In the end, the fate of Darfur will, in all likelihood, be determined by whether a sufficient number of powerful states are persuaded both of Sudan’s failure and unwillingness to protect the Darfuris. It is unfortunate that this humanitarian crisis should arise at a historical moment when the credibility of the U.S. and other Western countries is perhaps most diminished, as is their ability to build consensus for robust action against the genocide, mass murder, “complex situation,” or however one wishes to name the mounting casualties and expanding conflict. It is, moreover, downright tragic that still others, whatever their reasons, have chosen to recycle the absurdity of “moral equivalence” in order to avoid holding regimes like the one in Khartoum to account for failing in the responsibility that is, in the final analysis, their only valid raison d’ĂȘtre as members of international society.

J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, served as an international diplomat in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, from 2001 through 2002. His research interest is the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as for religion and global politics. Among other works, Dr. Pham is the author of two recent books on African politics, Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004) and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005), as well as a chapter on “African Constitutionalism: Forging New Models for Multi-ethnic Governance and Self-Determination” in Africa: Mapping New Boundaries in International Law, edited by Jeremy I. Levitt (Hart Publishing, forthcoming 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of Human Rights & Human Welfare.


The Moral Vocabulary of Violence

by David L. G. Rice

“We need a moral vocabulary of violence that enables us to mourn Sudanese, Guatemalan, and Iraqi children just like we mourn Anne Frank.”

What is at stake in labeling a particular incidence of large-scale violence “genocide”? Mahmood Mamdani rightly argues that “genocide” is an insufficient description of the conflict in Darfur. I would suggest that the problematic nature of that terminology goes back to its inception after World War II. Activists have inherited the concept of “genocide” from a particular historical moment. Now, “ genocide” carries unique moral weight in the discourse of international politics. When violence against civilians has been widely accepted as a necessary outcome of the preservation of peace, activists find it necessary to imagine a worse evil than the mere fact of indiscriminate killing. The notion of “genocidal intent” fills that role. But the U.N. Commission’s inability to find “genocidal intent” in the killing of civilians in Darfur demonstrates the limits of that very notion. “Genocide” is considered the worst crime against humanity, but too many massacres and incidents of civilian casualties are not included under its rubric.

The word “genocide” was coined by scholar and holocaust survivor Raphael Lemkin in 1944 to describe the crimes committed by the Nazis against the Jews. Although Lemkin was unsuccessful in his attempt to have the term adopted in the Nuremburg trials, it was enshrined in international law by 1948. “Genocide” began as an ex post facto description of a particular crime in a particular place and time, and subsequent applications of the term look back to Nazi Germany as the defining standard. The label “genocide” essentially says “this tragedy is comparable to the Nazis’ attempts to exterminate the Jews.”

In August 2006, I visited an Anne Frank exhibit in the city of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. The exhibit drew explicit parallels between Anne Frank’s experience and the experiences of thousands of indigenous Guatemalan children who were massacred, orphaned, or disappeared by the army in the 1980s. The moral of the story: “Guatemalan children were victims of genocide, just like Anne Frank.” It seemed strange to me that human rights advocates in Guatemala found it necessary to rely on the moral authority of Anne Frank’s experience to educate Guatemalans about the violence in their own history. It was as though native Guatemalan stories, which are regularly denied or discredited by some elements of that country’s power structure, could be made more credible through a comparison with the well-documented horrors of the Jewish experience in Europe. The trouble is that the definition of genocide does not travel very well from Nazi Germany to Latin America.

Those who deny that “genocide” took place in Guatemala usually do not deny that many unarmed civilians, children included, were killed in the 36-year “dirty war.” Instead, they argue, with the language of the Convention on Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (1951) that, as required by the definition of “genocide,” there was no “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” These apologists point to the ethnic composition of the country and the military, both of which are majority indigenous. The war, they say, was against communism, not against indigenous peoples. It just so happened that the leftist rebels drew most of their support from indigenous Mayans. Mayans were not the targets “as such,” they say. In the same way, apologists for the Young Turk rulers of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War often argue that violence was not directed against Armenians “as such”—it was against Armenians who collaborated with enemies of the Empire.

That the language of “genocide” should invite denial is not surprising; any definition of a crime will spur attempts to deny the crime. The problem is that the defining feature of “genocide,” that it be directed against a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such,” often makes the description inapplicable to real crimes against humanity. Why was such a strict standard included in the definition?

“Genocide” was first applied to Nazi actions, but not to the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was an Armenian “genocide,” we are told, but apparently there was no “genocide” under Stalin or Mao. The French deny that a massacre took place in colonial Algeria. In each of these cases, a major world power is plausibly exempt from the charge of “genocide” because of the strictness of its definition. And to return to the case of Nazi rule, historians are forever reminding us that gays and communists were among the Nazi’s victims, but these non-ethnic victims are quickly forgotten when the language of “genocide” is invoked again. The very notion of “genocide” as a uniquely evil crime enacts its own kind of denial.

Mamdani argues that “genocide has become a label to be stuck on your worst enemy” (§24). In fact, “genocide” has been such a label from the beginning. We need a moral vocabulary of violence that enables us to mourn Sudanese, Guatemalan, and Iraqi children just like we mourn Anne Frank.

David L. G. Rice is a graduate student in political theory at Duke University, where he has worked on campus labor issues with the community organizations Duke Organizing and Durham CAN. He was a volunteer human rights monitor for the Guatemala Accompaniment Project from ’03 -’04, and returned to accompany genocide witnesses and case lawyers in the summer of ’06. His dissertation is on nonviolent and peacemaking practices.


Missing the Point

by Colin Thomas-Jensen

“...the appropriate policy response to mass atrocities must focus not on the intent behind the crimes being committed, but on how to most effectively protect civilians, promote peace, and punish perpetrators.”

“What would happen if we thought of Darfur as we do of Iraq, as a place with a history and politics—a messy politics of insurgency and counterinsurgency?” (§4).

This is the most telling question posed by Professor Mahmood Mamdani in “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency.” The implication is that the growing public demand for strong international action—military or otherwise—to halt the atrocities in Darfur is somehow unwarranted because people have failed to understand that the systematic crimes against humanity committed against civilians in Darfur (and indeed Iraq) are an inevitability of “the messy politics of insurgency and counterinsurgency.”

It is a cynical and detached argument, built largely on frustration with U.S. policy in Iraq and Americans’ failure thus far to mobilize in large numbers against the Iraq war (though the Democratic victory in the 2006 must be viewed as a public rebuke of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy). Yet whatever we call the atrocities that the government of Sudan and its proxy militias have committed and continue to commit against civilians in Darfur—“genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” “crimes against humanity”—the crisis demands a measured and forceful response from the international community.

The commonly held view—and the one espoused by Mamdani—is that the government of Sudan armed and trained the Janjaweed to wage scorched earth counterinsurgency warfare against anti-government rebels in Darfur, by forcibly displacing civilians belonging to the same ethnic groups as the insurgents: ethnic cleansing as a tactic of war.

However, the history of the regime and the well-documented racist ideology of many senior Sudanese officials suggest that a more nuanced and sinister policy is unfolding. The counterinsurgency itself gave a group of Arab supremacists, both inside and outside the government of Sudan, the opportunity to fundamentally alter the demography of Darfur: war as an excuse for ethnic cleansing.

The debate over intent is at the core of Mamdani’s “politics of naming” and serves as a basis for his assertion that an “Iraq-style intervention” is both unwarranted and potentially catastrophic. But the appropriate policy response to mass atrocities must focus not on the intent behind the crimes being committed, but on how to most effectively protect civilians, promote peace, and punish perpetrators.

Moreover, in drawing comparison with Iraq, Mamdani ignores a fundamental difference between the logic behind an intervention there and one in Darfur. In Iraq, the intent of the U.S.-led intervention was regime change; the chaotic aftermath a byproduct of inept military planning and poor political analysis. In Darfur, the U.N. Security Council has approved the deployment of a peacekeeping force to protect civilians and oversee the implementation of a comprehensive ceasefire and peace agreement. The government of Sudan has refused deployment of the force. Non-consensual military intervention would be a last resort should the security situation deteriorate and life saving humanitarian operations collapse. No one has credibly called for regime change in Khartoum.

The international community’s acceptance of its collective role in halting and preventing mass atrocities against civilians is enshrined in the doctrine of “the responsibility to protect.” At the U.N. World Summit in 2005, the world’s heads of state and government agreed that “each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (§138). Further, world leaders agreed “to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner…should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” (§139).

Regardless of the Sudanese government’s intent in Darfur, the situation on the ground requires strong international action to protect civilians. State-sponsored violence has left at least 200,000 people dead and displaced some 2.5 million more. Centuries’ old livelihood systems have collapsed, local administrative structures overturned, and valuable land and livestock redistributed as war booty. Atrocities have spread to neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic, spawning a regional crisis with even more devastating consequences for civilians.

There are many strong arguments for not intervening militarily in Darfur. “The politics of naming” is not one of them.

Colin Thomas-Jensen is taking leave from his International Crisis Group work to serve as a Policy Adviser to ENOUGH. Colin joined Crisis Group from the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID), where he was an information officer on the humanitarian response team for Darfur. Colin has an MA in African Studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), with a concentration in the history of Islam in Africa, African politics, and Islamic family law. He has recently published “Blowing the Horn” in the March/April 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, an article co-authored by John Prendergast.