Darfur in 2003: Not Even Save Darfur to Save it?

by Jun 30, 2009All Articles

posted by Jan Coebergh
The debate on Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors, Save Darfur and its advocacy and influence is not asking one of the more important questions of those wanting to understand Western responses to conflicts like Darfur. Large scale violence in Darfur exploded in 2003. Save Darfur was founded on 14 July 2004, after much of the violence had taken place. Although it is interesting to focus and analyze why Darfur received so much attention in the following years it is in my opinion more important to remember the lack of attention Darfur received in 2003. It is easy to point the finger to the almost parallel start of the war in Iraq. The crimes in the Central African Republic that Bemba currently will stand trial for at the Internation Criminal Court also took place early in 2003. Only when the UN resident coordinator Mukesh Kapila spoke out on 13 March 2004 and compared Darfur to Rwanda did Darfur gather attention. IRIN News reported about Darfur from October 2003 which was picked up by Eric Reeves.
However it has also been suggested that the Government of Sudan made the international community focus on the Naivasha talks between the SPLM and the NIF in 2003 and Darfur only complicated this. The Sudan Government simultaneously blocked virtually all access to Darfur for journalists and humanitarian organizations. The rebel movements did not manage to reach the international media at the time. The few humanitarian organizations present in Darfur pre-2003 also did not/could not/did not want to/could not manage to speak out. (Medact in West Darfur and Oxfam in North Darfur were probably the largest ones present in 2003). If one wants to understand how to prevent conflict from becoming more entrenched, casualties and destruction of life not to spiral out of control, this is a much neglected period of how the international community responded to Darfur. This discussion has hardly taken place, but knowing the timeline and scale of violence in Darfur it should be a more important one for future saviors and saints.
Responses to “Darfur in 2003: Not Even Save Darfur to Save it?”
Alex de Waal:

April 27th, 2009 at 10:19 am
In September 2005, the group Bloodhound published a fascinating account of mortality in Darfur including the relationship between deaths and international action including newspaper coverage. It can be found at http://www.bloodhound.se/06_04_26_DARFUR_report.pdf . I urge readers to take a look at the graphs, especially on one page 18 which is compares relative deaths and newspaper coverage. This shows that it was just as the newspaper coverage picked up in April 2004 that the level of killings declined most dramatically. The next decline was in January 2005.

I don’t think this comparison should be read as a critique of media coverage in general. While some specific aspects of the coverage, such as the implication that killings were ongoing at the same levels as before, were misplaced, the fact is that this high level of international scrutiny undoubtedly helped in reducing the violence. There is also considerable anecdotal evidence that the Cassese report and the ICC referral had a deterrent effect. It is harder to investigate why violence didn’t happen than why it did. But ironically, it seems that the greatest successes of the advocacy campaign and the ICC were achieved right at the beginning, through an exposure and deterrent effect, rather than later on. This applies to Eric Reeves as well: his moment of glory was surely at the beginning of 2004, and whatever disagreements we may have subsequently had, his role in drawing attention at that time is indisputable.

Ted Perlmutter:

June 10th, 2009 at 2:50 pm
Alex de Waal’s conclusions that the successes of the advocacy campaign and the ICC were greatest at the beginning is not entirely counter-intuitive. A reading of the history of advocacy and social movements would show that often it is at the initial moment–the point of innovation in tactics and focus–in which the greatest accomplishments are achieved. Afterwards, authorities and opponents have time to respond and to adapt to and to discredit their opponents.

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