Sudan: A Year of War (with Comfort Ero)
Sudan: A Year of War (with Comfort Ero)
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Genocide or crime?

Much of the international debate over how to stop the ongoing violent tragedy in Darfur has become needlessly preoccupied with the “g-word”: whether or not the Sudanese government’s brutal campaign against its own citizens in that region constituted genocide. When the long-awaited UN Commission of Inquiry on Darfur returned its report on 1 February -- accusing the government of multiple abuses of international humanitarian law and human rights law but not genocide -- that, to Khartoum’s delight, was the issue that took centre stage.

The EU and the U.S. have been split over terminology for months: Brussels and the EU member states have been unwilling to characterise the situation in Darfur as genocide, while Bush Administration officials and prominent American legislators have repeatedly used the term. Voices in the U.S. have accused the Europeans of avoiding the word in order to dodge taking serious action, but the counter has been easy: America’s willingness to declare “genocide” openly has done nothing to make Washington act any more meaningfully.

The whole debate is misplaced. What matters is not the “g” word but the “a” word – “atrocity crimes”.

In Darfur whether anyone had the specific intent required for genocide, “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such”, will only ever be properly determined once a recognised court fully investigates the issue. What matters is whether anyone at all is going to be held accountable for the atrocity crimes, whatever their proper legal description, that have resulted in tens of thousands dying violently, scores and maybe hundreds of thousands dying of disease and malnutrition, and 2.6 million being forced to flee their homes.

The UN Commission report could not have been clearer on this issue: “Depending upon the circumstances, such international offences as crimes against humanity or large scale war crimes may be no less serious and heinous than genocide. This is exactly what happened in Darfur, where massive atrocities were perpetrated on a very large scale, and have so far gone unpunished.”

In light of these clear findings, the world can hardly afford -- and the people of Darfur can certainly not afford -- to allow a debate over terminology to delay or obstruct concerted international action to stop the slaughter. Europe and America ought to recognise their common ground and take up common cause.

Sadly the Atlantic wedge risks being driven deeper by the UN Commission’s recommendation to refer the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The current administration in Washington considers the ICC anathema, due to fears -- genuinely held no doubt, but misplaced given the protections in the treaty text -- that U.S. soldiers overseas might one day be unjustly caught in its legal grasp. On the UN Security Council, the U.S. says it wants accountability, but through another ad hoc body; France clearly supports a referral, and the UK has ducked and weaved, supportive of the ICC but not wanting to confront the U.S. Russia and China have so far avoided making  clear their positions.

Trans-Atlantic differences are bridgeable if both sides focus on what’s really important -- saving lives in Darfur -- and act accordingly. As an already existing institution, the ICC is able to more quickly respond to the crisis and start investigations without delays than any new or renovated ad hoc court. At the very least the U.S. should abstain on an ICC referral, ensuring that the people of Darfur will see justice much sooner.

But a referral is not enough to end the mass violence against civilians in Darfur. The situation also demands a meaningful arms embargo (ie, one against the government of Sudan, not just their proxy militias), the imposition of a no-fly zone, and much stronger international support for the under-staffed and under-funded African Union force. Some of these measures the U.S. has actively supported, so strong European backing for them may help to counter-balance for Washington a difficult abstention on the referral. And firm Euro-American agreement on a proposed resolution in the Security Council would be hard for China and Russia to reject point blank.

The UN Security Council has passed three woefully inadequate resolutions on Darfur already: not one of them has moved Khartoum to change its calculations. The EU and U.S. must not allow their relatively minor disagreements to scupper a fourth.

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