April 2014: The Twentieth Anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide: What has been learned? (Part 2)

Eric Reeves, 6 April 2014 (in two parts; “PART ONE: Darfur, ten years later” may be found at: http://wp.me/p45rOG-1bj)

PART TWO: Darfur, the early responses

[This section will be of primary interest to those who wish to know how it is possible that the Darfur genocide could have continued for more than a decade, and offers a retrospective on some of the early years of violence, at a time when the international community might still have averted the impending catastrophe, a catastrophe which has now come to a hideous fruition—ER]

What were the early international responses to evidence of genocide in Darfur? What did we know and when did we know it? On the basis of ample evidence from humanitarian organizations, human rights groups, and journalists on the ground throughout 2003, I argued in February 2004 that there could no longer be any reasonable skepticism about whether or not genocide was occurring, concluding my piece in the Washington Post:

There can be no reasonable skepticism about Khartoum’s use of these militias to “destroy, in whole or in part, ethnic or racial groups”—in short, to commit genocide. Khartoum has so far refused to rein in its Arab militias; has refused to enter into meaningful peace talks with the insurgency groups; and, most disturbingly, has refused to grant unrestricted humanitarian access. The international community has been slow to react to Darfur’s catastrophe and has yet to move with sufficient urgency and commitment. A credible peace forum must be rapidly created. Immediate plans for humanitarian intervention should begin. The alternative is to allow tens of thousands of civilians to die in the weeks and months ahead in what will be continuing genocidal destruction. (Washington Post, February 25, 2004)

Ten years later all this remains true, particularly the lack of a “credible peace forum.” The international community has acquiesced in the so-called “Doha (Qatar) peace process” and the “Doha Document for Peace in Darfur” (July 2011). Arguing that it is better than nothing, those justifying this acquiescence in the face of diplomatic failure have only emboldened Khartoum, which pushes the DDPD as providing the only negotiating auspices for peace talks precisely because it knows the “Doha Process” will fail. For the Doha Document has been overwhelming rejected by Darfuri civil society and the major rebel groups. Even the very small, factitious splinter groups that signed the group are in dismayed disarray as they have watched Khartoum renege on all meaningful terms of the agreement.

In March 2004 Mukesh Kapila, chief UN humanitarian official for Sudan, gave a powerfully revealing interview to the BBC, ensuring the end of his UN career, but bringing to international attention realities that he had seen first hand. His remarks then have a particular significance, given what has happened over the past decade:

“The only difference between Rwanda and Darfur now is the numbers involved” [said Kapila]…. This is more than just a conflict, it is an organised attempt to do away with a group of people.” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, March 22, 2004)

And of course “the numbers involved” have grown hideously in the past decade. Kapila has repeatedly said that he refused to preside over the “first genocide of the 21st century.” His assessment was widely echoed by human rights and humanitarian organizations speaking out at the same time. In a March 2004 briefing shortly after Kapila spoke out, “concerned humanitarian workers in Darfur” declared in the clearest of terms:

[The Janjaweed Arab militia] make it clear that [Khartoum] has now given them a mandate to make these areas “Zurga free” (Zurga is a derogatory term for Black) and that they represent [Khartoum] in the area [Darfur]. Violence is systematically reported, people killed (especially males), goods including cattle looted, and houses burned. If people do not move immediately, a second more deadly attack is launched, and civilians are left with no option but to move away to the nearest “safe haven,” which is usually also attacked within the next few days. (“A Briefing Paper on the Darfur Crisis: Ethnic Cleansing,” March 25, 2004, “presented to UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator to bring this to the attention of the international community”)

Given the massive human destruction that has relentlessly accompanied, indeed defined human displacement, “ethnic cleansing” has always seemed to me an inadequate term. The phrase is typically defined as the forceful, sometimes violent clearing of an ethnic group from specific areas to make room for another ethnic group. But the people of Darfur have not simply been forced from their villages, which were indeed comprehensively destroyed, making return impossible. They were deliberately slaughtered en masse within those villages, often by Khartoum’s regular military forces (the SAF) and the Janjaweed working in concert. Many times aerial military aircraft, including helicopter gunships, were part of the attacks, killing many within villages and hunting down those who fled. Massacres of large numbers of people were commonplace, as the examples of Fur men and boys in Wadi Saleh and Mukjar should have made clear (see Human Rights Watch report noted above). Murder was occurring on a huge scale; it was systematic, widespread, and ethnically-targeted. Millions did flee, but hundreds of thousands died from violence or the consequences of fleeing without resources. A great many have died from dehydration following violent displacement, especially in more arid regions with few water sources. In the main, those who fled have ended up in camps for the internally displaced, often in appalling, indeed life-threatening conditions. This is genocide, not ethnic cleansing.

But does even such a powerful conclusion mean anything? The response of the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs at this time—often described as the second most powerful figure in UN headquarters—is illuminating. Interviewed shortly after UN approval of the “responsibility to protect,” which was in many ways a highly belated response to genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans, Kieran Prendergast said:

“We don’t mean it when we say we’re not going to accept other Rwandas, further Rwandas, but I never thought we did mean it. That’s a very sad conclusion, but I don’t think there is any evidence to support the view that we did mean it. We may have meant it as a kind of generalized level of indignation. But when it comes to accepting the consequences of that, we don’t.” (Frontline, “On Our Watch,” November 21, 2011; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/darfur/?campaign=pbshomefeatures...).

If this cynical view is true, if there is no international willingness to confront even the most brutal genocidal assaults on innocent civilians, then we are indeed lost, morally and politically. Moreover, we might wonder why, amidst such unbounded moral and political nihilism, there should be such an office as UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs. Is his salary commensurate with his cynicism? How, given his ruthless and debased Realpolitik, do we measure his contribution to world affairs?

The UN does have another face, and that is the humanitarian side of the world body; predictably, tensions between the political and humanitarian sides can be fierce. Thus in the same documentary, questioned about the lack of an early response to the Darfur genocide, Prendergast bristles, declaring:

“I don’t accept that I or my [political] department were tardy in that respect [responding to the crisis in Darfur]. And I think that if the humanitarians had felt as strongly as they appear to now—that this was a political crisis requiring political actions—they would actually have taken some form of bureaucratic action to act on that [the widespread political and humanitarian crisis in Darfur].”

This claimed ignorance is of course nonsense on its face. But when subsequently questioned about the dire and urgent memoranda that Mukesh Kapila, UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, had been sending to UN headquarters and to his immediate superior Jan Egeland, Prendergast testily replies that,

“I have no idea what memos he [Kapila] was writing to Jan Egeland because I didn’t receive them.”

But this claim turns out to be importantly false: researchers for the “On Our Watch” documentary subsequently found memos from Kapila that were addressed directly to Prendergast, including a December 2003 report “Political and Security Update on Darfur, Sudan.” That revealing report was addressed to both Egeland and Prendergast as primary recipients. Another memo with the striking title of “Ethnic Cleansing in Darfur” (March 2004) was sent to UN headquarters and copied to Prendergast. The copied individuals are included in the video footage showing the document, and there, conspicuously, is Kieran Prendergast’s name, along with those several other very senior UN officials. Can Prendergast credibly say that neither he nor his political office saw these deeply important memoranda? Or is it simply convenient not to remember? To my knowledge, Prendergast has never clarified his understanding of the matter publicly, and we are thus left with the impression of a man both deeply cynical and ethically disingenuous at best. Echoes of the Rwandan “genocide fax” are ominous.

The UN did have a heroic voice for Darfur in the person of Jan Egeland, head of UN humanitarian operations globally. Though more restrained than Kapila, he was equally defined by moral passion and the deepest concern for the people of Darfur—and he also made the strongest case possible from within the UN. He used the term “ethnic cleansing” repeatedly in spring 2004—first in April 2004 and then on May 27, 2004, referring to a “scorched-earth campaign of ethnic cleansing” in Darfur (Reuters, May 27, 2004). Again, it must be noted that the language, while strong for a UN official, doesn’t fully acknowledge the vast scale of violent ethnic slaughter, or the consequences—very often fatal—for those who attempted to flee the “scorching.”

Despite the courage of Egeland’s words, it is important to note that his assessment was effectively erased from UN pronouncements on Darfur, and Kofi Annan—bearing so much responsibility for what occurred in Rwanda—again figures prominently as Secretary-General in this erasure.

Notably, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary commemoration of the Rwandan genocide (April 2004), Annan explicitly invoked Darfur and spoke in ways suggesting he would not allow Darfur to become another Rwanda, indeed clearly invoking the possibility of military intervention if the genocide did not end. But this would soon change, and evidently on the advice of the UN political side, he declared on June 17, 2004: “Based on reports that I have received, I cannot at this stage call [the human destructions and atrocities in Darfur] genocide. There are massive violations of international humanitarian law, but I am not ready to describe it as genocide or ethnic cleansing yet” (Voice of America, June 17, 2004). He is thus implicitly claiming that he had not heard the repeated characterizations of Darfur as the site of “ethnic cleansing” made by his own Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, or read any of the many detailed reports from Mukesh Kapila, head of UN humanitarian operations in Sudan, making unambiguously clear what was occurring on the ground in Darfur. Yet again, at a critical moment, Annan chose to ignore the evidence of genocide in evident hopes that the problem would simply slowly die out or go away. Ten years later, such a choice makes Annan as complicit as any member of the international community in sustaining the horrors we see today.

The following month (July 2004) the U.S. Congress, in a unanimous, bipartisan, and bicameral vote, declared that genocide was occurring in Darfur. The executive branch spoke through the voice of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who issued his genocide determination before the U.S Senate Foreign Relations Committee (September 2004). His findings were based on extensive research by the Coalition for International Justice, commissioned by the U.S. State Department (August/September 2004). This research consisted chiefly of some 1,200 carefully randomized and collated interviews conducted under controlled circumstances with Darfuri survivors who made it to eastern Chad. I have been told by one member of this large team of experts in various relevant fields that every single person surveying the evidence reached an unambiguous conclusion: what they had heard was the clearest possible evidence of genocide.

Powell’s follow-up to his genocide determination, however, is the more important part of his testimony: “No new action is dictated by this determination” (Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2004). And indeed, the Bush administration, despite occasional bluster, was as good as Powell’s words on the score of “action” on behalf of the victims of the Darfur “genocide.”

On other fronts the response has been just as feckless and more dishonest. The African Union, along with the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference, has never described realities in Darfur as either genocide or ethnic cleansing. Indeed, there has been no useful characterization of the violence that makes clear its ethnic dimension. It is difficult not to surmise that this is out of deference to Khartoum, a deference that has long been in evidence, particularly with the ascendency of Thabo Mbeki to be chief AU negotiator for all issues in greater Sudan. To be sure, his abject failure in Darfur makes a continuing mockery of the name of his diplomatic road show, which generally is cited by its acronym: AUHIP. But the full name is the “African Union High-Level Implementation Panel.” And what was to have been “implemented? Mbeki’s own wholly derivative “road map for peace in Darfur,” a document almost completely ignored and gaining no traction in any quarter. There is quite simply nothing for Mbeki and his cohort to “implement,” but the acronym lives on.

Other early African Union commentary on Darfur has been either appallingly ignorant or arrogantly confident, often by way of suggesting that the situation was under control. A large AU force of thousands of troops was promised by President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria in September 2004, to be assembled that October. Obasanjo stressed that this was not in response to genocide because he’d seen to evidence that such was in progress in Darfur (New York Times, September 24, 2004). This force materialized much later, as the hopelessly inadequate African Union Mission for Sudan (AMIS), a substantial supplement to the 300 or so observers and protection forces, but inherently incapable of halting what Obasanjo would later (2006) describe as “near genocide.” It had been prevented from becoming a “full genocide” only by virtue of the “intervention of the AU forces.” This was the beginning of a long train of African Union members and officials trumpeting their successes in Darfur even as the killing and displacement raged on and humanitarian conditions and security deteriorated. Most recently, former UNAMID chief Ibrahim Gambari, also from Nigeria, declared on the occasion of his September 2012 retirement party, “‘I am gratified to note that barely 31 months on, all the objectives I set out to meet [in Darfur] have largely been met” (PANA, September 11, 2012). Obasanjo never indulged in such fulsome self-congratulation, but his words of 2006 are worth noting carefully:

“It is not in the interest of Sudan nor in the interest of Africa, nor indeed in the interest of the world, for us all to stand by, fold our hands and see genocide in Darfur,” Obasanjo said. The United States and some relief agencies have described the three-year-old conflict in Darfur as “genocide” before, but the pan-African body has always avoided using the word to describe the ongoing violence in the western Sudanese region. The term has also been rejected by the Sudanese government. “We have seen near genocide before the intervention of the AU forces; we should not allow a full genocide to develop,” Obasanjo repeated later at a joint news conference with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. “If nothing is done and AU forces have to withdraw, we do not know what can develop in Darfur,” he insisted. “We should not allow that.” (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks [Addis Ababa], October 11, 2006)

It would be another fifteen months before UNAMID would officially replace AMIS as the international protection force in Darfur; but that deployment, given its hybrid (AU and UN) nature, the often poor quality of troops and equipment, and Khartoum’s continuing dictation of the terms of composition and what military equipment could be used ensured that Obasanjo’s worry remained all too relevant: “If nothing is done and AU forces have to withdraw, we do not know what can develop in Darfur.” In fact, even with the deployment of UNAMID, few could have imagined the number of years Obasanjo’s “near genocide” would continue, or that 2 million more civilians would be violently forced from their homes or places of refuge as UNAMID proved wholly inadequate to its protection mandate.

Much of the problem derived from an arrogant over-estimation of what the AU could accomplish, or even deploy militarily. Thabo Mbeki, in a prelude to his later demonstration of ignorance about how to manage peace negotiations for Darfur, is cited in a report from late 2005 declaring: “‘We have not asked for anybody outside of the African continent to deploy troops in Darfur. It’s an African responsibility, and we can do it’” (Refugees International, “No Power to Protect: The African Union Mission in Sudan [Darfur],” November 2005, page 1; http://www.refugeesinternational.org/content/publication). The consequences of such arrogance can only be surmised, but they are ghastly indeed when we survey Darfur then and now.

The Brookings Institution issued a report at the same time, and was equally scathing in its criticisms of African Union capabilities in Darfur. And it also cited a now infamous memorandum from Musa Hilal, the brutal Janjaweed leader who is once again in the news for civilian destruction in Darfur, though apparently not in collusion with Khartoum (indeed, attacks by his militia forces on civilians, especially north of el-Fasher, may be a way to extract political concessions from Khartoum):

The [Khartoum] government’s objective in this [military] campaign is clear. A document seized from a Janjaweed official [Musa Hilal] that appears to be genuine orders all commanders and security officers in Darfur to: “Change the demography of Darfur and make it void of African tribes.” The document goes on to encourage “killing, burning villages, farms, terrorizing people, confiscating property from members of African tribes and forcing them from Darfur.” (“The Protecting of Two Million Internally Displaced: The Successes and Shortcomings of the African Union in Darfur,” November 2005, at http://www.brookings.edu/fp/projects/idp/200511_au_darfur.pdf)

The document is cited as authentic by many others, including Julie Flint and Alex de Waal in their 2005 book, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War. I for one cannot imagine a document more suggestive of “genocidal intent,” the key term that has befuddled those attempting to understand the legal issues of genocide in Darfur. What greater evidence of “intent” could there possibly be? Only the actions that followed this script all too completely.

Other African Union assessments were simply terrifying in their arrogance. Jean-Baptiste Natama, a senior AU political official, declared:

“If the situation is getting worse, we are not going to pack our luggage and leave Darfur…. We are going to have a robust mandate to make sure we are not here for nothing. We should be able to bring peace, or impose peace.” (New York Times, November 29, 2004; cited in the Brookings Institution report, page 16)

The enormous risks of such presumption were contemporaneously recognized by Jan Egeland, even if he could speak only indirectly by virtue of the constraints upon his office in the UN:

“My warning is the following: if [insecurity] continues to escalate, if it continues to be so dangerous on humanitarian work, we may not be able to sustain our operation for 2.5 million people requiring lifesaving assistance,” said Jan Egeland, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “It could all end tomorrow—it’s as serious as that.” (Associated Press, September 28, 2005)

The Europeans evidently judged Egeland to be somewhat hysterical, and certainly there was no concerted push to provide the security for humanitarians in Darfur he was essentially begging for (many of these relief workers were of course Europeans).

Nor did Egeland’s warning provide occasion for then President Bush to fashion a multilateral plan, outside UN auspices if necessary, to protect endangered civilians and humanitarians. Nor has the equivalent threat that exists today given President Obama sufficient reason to re-assess the administration’s Sudan policies, and Darfur policies in particular. Darfur has been effectively “de-coupled” from broader U.S. Sudan policy—indeed, the phrase “de-coupling Darfur” was used by a “senior Obama administration official,” according to a State Department transcript (November 2010).

Reflecting the views of the administration he served—though certainly without adequate knowledge of Sudan or Darfur to make the judgment on his own—former special envoy Scott Gration declared in 2009 that there were only “remnants of genocide,” this at a time when large numbers of African civilians were being targeted—killed, raped, or displaced from their lands into wretched camps. This—”there are only remnants of genocide”—would seem to have been Obama’s means of retreat from his now infamous “stain on our soul” declaration. But in fact, since the beginning of the Obama administration in January 2009, UN data indicate that more than1.5 million human beings have been newly displaced, humanitarian conditions have deteriorated badly, chiefly by design on Khartoum’s part, and killings have been a constant in the life of those in the camps and rural areas—altogether a rather large “remnant.”

And violence now is all too comparable with that of the most violent years of the genocide, 2003 – 2005, a time-frame that is frequently and expediently compressed to 2003 – 2004; this is apparently to suggest that in Darfur the genocide was largely over before the world awoke to what was occurring in remote western Sudan. For one of countless examples of why this generalization is seriously in error, see Ambassador Kingibe’s account above, from October 2005, detailing the slaughter of civilians in IDP camps and areas in the vicinity of Tawilla (North Darfur) by the Janjaweed and regular Sudan Armed Forces. There are hundreds of similar accounts, a great many of them archived here.

Why a Rwanda or Darfur genocide commemoration?

If there is any value to commemorating the Rwanda genocide, it should be to reflect on both the scale and consequences on our past failures, and to resolve to address ongoing, widespread, and systematic ethnic destruction in Darfur. Tragically, in Darfur the tipping point has likely been passed; violent chaos seems destined to grow wider and humanitarian access is so perilous that there may be a shutdown of the entire operation as an international endeavor at any time. Presently only three percent of those working for humanitarian organizations in Darfur are expatriates, and they are largely hunkered down in the major towns, which have themselves become increasingly violent.

We have only to look at a few of the recent dispatches from Radio Dabanga, confirmed by the Satellite Sentinel Project in many cases, to gain a sense of how extraordinarily violent and dangerous a place Darfur remains for civilians. Any shred of a claim to be upholding the “responsibility to protect” vulnerable civilians has long since been swept away by this continuing avalanche of violence.

Appendix One:

See Philip Gourevitch’s brilliant reporting on Annan’s appalling response to an infamous fax of January 11, 1994—from General Roméo Dallaire, UN force commander in Rwanda. The fax warned Annan of impending “extermination” of the Tutsis, and the “ordering of the registering of all Tutsis” in Kigali, capital of Rwanda (“The Genocide Fax,” The New Yorker, May 11, 1998). Gourevitch received the fax anonymously, but clearly someone within the UN was appalled at the implications of such warning going unheeded. It is an astonishingly powerful piece of journalism.

Appendix Two:

Concerning the performance of the UN Commission of Inquiry for Darfur under Cassese, see (included below) Sam Totten, “US Investigation into the Determination of Genocide in the Darfur Crisis an its determination of genocide,” Genocide Studies and Prevention, 2006, Footnote 50:

Footnote 50: Debb Bodkin, a police officer based in Canada and the only person who served as an investigator for both the ADP and the COI, told this author that the data collected by the COI was unsystematic and not as focused as the ADP’s. More specifically, in recent correspondence with the author, Bodkin commented as follows: “During our briefing [about the COI] in Geneva, we were given no format or indication as to how the investigation and interviews were to be conducted. As a result every investigator conducted his/her investigation and interviews in whatever fashion he/she preferred. I cannot believe that with the vast difference in expertise of each investigator there would be any semblance of consistency in regard to the gathering of evidence…. The UN investigation did not have any laid out parameters whatsoever and as a result an untrained interviewer could easily ask questions in a manner that would elicit whatever response the interview hoped to obtain…. [Also,] each investigator was open to choose who they interviewed and how…. As far as the soundness of the COI, when I compare it to any of the sexual assault or homicide investigations which I was part of during my police service in Waterloo, Ontario, it would not [have gone forward] due to the low probability of a conviction, mainly because of the fact that the investigators did not meet the required adequacy standards to be conducting interviews and did not have the knowledge, skills or ability to be doing so…” (email sent to the author, April 15, 2006).

Furthermore, Bodkin asserted that while the COI team was in Geneva, prior to entering the field, Antonio Cassese, who oversaw the COI, inferred that the COI would not result in a finding of genocide. More specifically, Bodkin, in recent correspondence with the author, conveyed the following: “Commissioner Antonio Cassese, who had traveled to Khartoum and some parts of Darfur for a few days and had conducted some interviews, stated that he felt that we would find that there were two elements of genocide missing: (1) target group (victims are from mixed tribes) and (b) mens rea (intent). He talked for a while and my personal opinion was that he was telling us that the outcome of the investigation would show that it was not genocide which was occurring. He did not specify how long he had visited nor how many interviews he had conducted but I don’t believe either were extensive. I felt it was very inappropriate for him to plant this opinion in the investigators’ minds prior to starting the investigation and other investigators felt uncomfortable about it as well. The female Commissioner [Ms. Hina Jilani from Pakistan] stated: ‘Go with an open mind.’ During the briefing I got the distinct impression that there was some tension between Commissioner Cassese and Commissioner Jilani as their comments often conflicted with one another and he was expressing what he thought our findings would be whereas she always made comments about us doing our job open-mindedly” (email received by the author on April 15, 2006).