Is the Darfur Advocacy Community’s “Raison d’être to be Sought in the War on Terror”? No.

by Jun 30, 2009All Articles

posted by Chad Hazlett
My aim in this piece is to focus on Mamdani’s major thesis, examining several of his supporting arguments in turn. I will thus try to avoid contesting Mamdani’s facts unto themselves (as many other contributors have already done this already), except where they are immediately relevant to his broader arguments or his research methods.

Professor Mamdani began replying to several of these issues in his second rebuttal, however there remains much that I believe has not yet been said. The thesis of Mamdani’s I will focus on is the claim raised most significantly in the beginning and end of the book: that the Save Darfur movement is swept up in, “partakes of”, and is “best understood through the lens of” the War on Terror. Unfortunately, due to the space constraints and my very limited computer access (I am currently in eastern Chad on research), I cannot address this issue as fully as I’d like, much less address what I understood to be the related second major thesis of the book – that the use of the “Responsibility to Protect” or humanitarian interventionism by the West, and particularly the imposing of justice through Security Council referrals to the ICC, amounts to a “recolonization of Africa” as Mamdani so boldy puts it in the book’s closing sentence.

The following are two clusters of arguments Mamdani makes in support of his thesis linking Darfur advocacy and the War on Terror. They are not exhaustive, but I hope I’ve been fair in interpreting them and that I am not making “straw men” of these points. They are:

Claim A. That the disproportionate degree of attention that Darfur has received relative to mortality rates (at least since 2005) is suggestive of its relationship to the War on Terror. Moreover, Mamdani claims that the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC) strongly promoted a “racialized” narrative “ of the conflict, as it needed to demonize “Arabs” as a race and to thus benefit from (and become part of) the scheme of the US War on Terror.

Claim B. That, further aligning with the War on Terror, SDC called for military intervention (or “occupation” as stated at least once), particularly by a Western force, as the only way to “save Darfur”.

Claim A – The Disproportionate Attention to Darfur and racialization of the conflict as indicative of the War on Terror

Mamdani is correct that the degree of attention paid to Darfur is disproportionate to the civilian casualty rates, at least in 2005 and after. The question is, why?

First, it is important to note that levels of public and media attention out of proportion with fatality rates is not a phenomenon limited to Darfur – it is the norm, particularly if we consider indirect mortality. Alex de Waal and others have posted here about how the timing of Darfur advocacy was out of step with mortality rates. To an even greater extent, public and media attention is also poorly linked to levels of violence across conflicts at a given time. Over 6,500 civilians have likely been directly killed in Sri Lanka’s war in the first four months of 2009. This is several times greater than the known, direct fatality rates due to fighting in Darfur for all of 2008. In just two months (December 2008-Jan 2009), the Lord’s Resistance Army killed more civilians in northeastern DR Congo than all other parties to that conflict for the entirety of 2008 (and more than the known direct civilian fatality rate in Darfur for 2008). Yet no aspect of the DR Congo conflict (much less the recent Lord’s Resistance Army attacks in particular) gets much coverage in the US press, and Sri Lanka is perhaps only beginning to.

Directly relevant to Mamdani’s War on Terror thesis, on this limited metric of direct, reported civilian fatalities, Darfur was also most likely surpassed in 2008 by Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia. Surely, if overlap with the War on Terror explains which conflicts are branded “genocide” in an effort to justify Western intervention, Pakistan and Somalia seem better candidates. Much more than Darfur, these are places where an agenda of occupying a country as part of the War on Terror could easily be cloaked in humanitarian language, and where schemas established by the War on Terror could be leveraged by human rights advocates. Pakistan is particularly “appealing” in this sense, as much of the most brutal and deliberate killing of civilians is committed by Taliban militants who the American public could be easily convinced to blame for the September 11th attacks. That should be where a humanitarian movement “partakes of the logic of the War on Terror,” not Darfur, where there is (evidently) no pressing US security interest, or at least none that are taken seriously.

But the deeper issue is with the Mamdani’s level of empirical rigor in examining the Darfur advocacy movement. As Bec Hamilton has noted, he did not apparently undertake systematic interviews with members of the movement. In Mamdani’s response to this criticism, he details a chronology of his contact with three different people. This “full account” of his contact focuses on interactions with staff of the Save Darfur Coalition (the organization), not the wider Darfur Advocacy movement that he claims to be analyzing, and it focuses almost entirely on communication with one person in particular. This would constitute a vastly insufficient (and irresponsible) level of rigor for even a short article on the topic, much less a book. Indeed, far more principled and rigorous research has been done for far smaller projects. It is even more shocking that Mamdani appears to believe that contact with three people over email and a lunch constitutes a sufficient defense of his research methods.

Perhaps more problematic than this, however, is that he did not make any apparent effort to carefully and comprehensively determine what major groups within the movement were saying and advocating for at different times, which statements were more common or relatively rare, etc. Such an analysis, which I’ll refer to as a content analysis, would only tell us what the rhetoric was, not the intent. But this alone would provide a degree of falsifiability that may reject or support a number of Mamdani’s (and others’) claims. Beyond this book, such an analysis is sorely needed as a starting point for analyses of the movement.

For example, while Mamdani has claimed in this book and in his London Review of Books article that “Out of Iraq, into Darfur” is a “common slogan” of the Save Darfur movement, even a simple Google search reveals that it is difficult to actually find it in use by the movement (one quickly sees that is was instead used principally by the media and pundits as a characterization of the movement, while actual uses of the phrase are difficult to find). A content analysis would be far more rigorous, and would help clarify exactly how important this and other messages were to the movement and its constituency. Given Mamdani’s excellent reputation as a research and thinker, many readers take his observations as fact, which makes the lack of any careful investigation to arrive at those observations particularly irresponsible.

Without having such an analysis in hand, I also cannot make strong counter-claims to Mamdani’s at this point. I can only offer that there may be more alternative explanations for the strength and philosophy of the Darfur movement than a symbiosis with the War on Terror, realized through their common demonization of Arabs and focus on military occupation. I present such an alternative here, though it too should be tested against a content analysis once done.

Mamdani himself points to an excellent alternative explanation for Darfur’s unusual advocacy response – that Darfur has been understood, at least for a time, as a repetition of the same phenomenon as the “Rwandan” genocide, from which the Darfur movement has taken its lessons. On this observation, I believe Mamdani is absolutely correct, and that the very phrases used to critique public and governmental inaction in Rwanda appear frequently throughout messaging of the Darfur advocacy movement. For the (US) government, this meant not dithering over use of the term “genocide.” For the public this meant not failing to “make noise” in order to put Darfur on the policy making agenda or perhaps even force action. While this has led to numerous errors – particularly false comparisons between two very different situations and misjudging the applicability of military intervention – learning from our mistakes and endeavoring to not repeat our worst moral failings is perhaps not such a bad starting point.

The Rwanda (and Holocaust) analogies were possible in the US in large part because this conflict in Darfur was called genocide by the US government. But it is here where the common understanding of genocide differs from its academic use, and where the intentions of activists are therefore likely to be misread by scholars who understand the term in its legal (and political) context. Most activists have not read the Genocide Convention, and care little for legal details. For some activists, the genocide label compels them to understand the conflict as one where a particular identity group is targeted for extermination based on “who they are,” whether this is an ethnic, racial, or other distinction (and whether or not it is a permanent identity or a constructed one completely incomprehensible to outsiders).

Moreover, for many activists, whether legally appropriate or not, the term genocide functioned primarily to label the Darfur conflict as one that is not just another messy war, but a one-sided slaughter of one or more civilian identity groups, whoever they are and for whatever reason, by the government of Sudan and its proxies. On this point, activists have been correct, and their attention well placed on Darfur (though perhaps too late). Regardless of the causes of the conflict and the underlying motive (i.e. counterinsurgency), it is true that large numbers of civilians were deliberately and systematically targeted, not “just” accidentally killed in crossfire. That some killings have occurred at the hands of rebel movements (though far fewer – as we know from increasingly good quantitative data) has not been well addressed by the movement, which is part of a problematic lack of scrutiny of the rebels, to be sure. Nevertheless, the genocide label made the conflict in Darfur one that was seen as the one-sided slaughter of civilians, akin in some moral sense to Rwanda or the Holocaust, thus making it a moment for acute and intense attention – a moment in which we would later be judged for the quality and energy of our response.

This explanation, and Mamdani’s, are to some degree testable hypotheses. The claim I would submit to test against a content analysis described above is that the narrative(s) communicated by Darfur advocacy groups bear little resemblance to the “racializing” narrative Mamdani claims was promoted so as to demonize Arabs and join forces with the War on Terror. The use of African and Arab labels for groups was sometimes or often-times employed. However, in a content analysis, the explanation/description of the conflict I predict will turn out to be the one principally used by the movement was that of a brutal counterinsurgency targeting civilians (especially “African” groups, an with a focus on some of the bigger ones – Fur, Zaghawa, and Massalit).

Sometimes, the “Arab” and “African” paradigm was included as a means of describing “which side is which” in this counterinsurgency and targeting of civilians – and on the whole, activists should have been more nuanced in this usage and more careful to explain its exceptions. But this use of the Arab and African labels as part of the “brutal counterinsurgency” explanation, while too broad, is entirely distinct from Mamdani’s claim that the advocacy movement wanted the public to believe that Arab vs. African distinction itself was causal, and that Arabs can be broadly demonized.

One final note on this point – I would strongly expect that a content analysis of media coverage (as opposed to activists communiques) on Darfur would reveal a more consistent use of the hyper-simplified “Arab vs. African” explanation. This was a simplification that annoyed many activists – and perhaps is part of the reason that Mamdani and others think that activists must have a purely racialized view of the conflict.

Claim B – Military Intervention

On page 47, Mamdani claims: “SDC is determined that there is only one way to save Darfur – that is, to occupy it through a military intervention. Its raison d’être is to be sought in the War on Terror.”

To be sure, Mamdani is correct that the movement focused on intervention, perhaps too much of the time (and with flexibility/confusion over points such as who the force should be and what level of consent it requires from the Government of Sudan). However, it was not nearly as exclusive or ideological a focus as he and other critics of the movement have claimed. I would again submit my prediction that a full analysis of the statements and advocacy positions by major organizations in the movement would show that the energy given to military intervention was only a portion of the total energy given to the broader portfolio of policy “asks.”

The movement certainly saw solutions outside of military intervention and called for them, as it continues to. Due to the nature of diplomacy, advocacy movements have not always found good opportunities to support the diplomatic process directly, though at least two large organizations considered looking for opportunities to support “Track II” diplomacy for communities within Darfur or to help unify the armed movements. Advocate also called strongly (and early and frequently) for the appointment of a Special Envoy, and repeated this call when the Obama administration entered office. A quick review of action alerts reveals that filling the Special Envoy post was a frequent demand, part of a belief that full-time, well-coordinated diplomacy would help solve the conflict (as activists believed it had with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement). How then can Mamdani claim that the movement saw military occupation as the only solution?

To make the point plainer still, sanctions were a common part of activist demands as well, out of the hope that imposing a greater cost for committing atrocities would help to change the calculus of those who would use violence against civilians to pursue their interests, particularly in the government. (Sanctions on rebels had often been considered, but few sanctions instruments seemed likely to have any impact on rebels commanders). It is worth noting that this indicates a very “non-racial” understanding of the conflict – one that requires activists to presume that members of the government of Sudan were rational actors, not that they were somehow inclined to violence due to their race.

Divestment is perhaps the best example of this – an enormous effort was made, resulting in over 50 universities and 27 states divesting their holdings in certain companies doing businesses in Sudan, specifically those that most directly support the government’s finances without being very helpful to the civilian population more generally. Adam Sterling has described this instrument, and its placement within a broader framework of shareholder engagement, on this blog. A large portion of the Darfur movement was dedicated to this strategy – which isn’t at all about military intervention, much less “occupying” Sudan. It is, as Mamdani might reply, about punishing the government of Sudan. Not because they are presumably “Arab”, and not because they sell their oil to China (it would be easier to drop sanctions against US oil operators if the Darfur movement disappeared, actually). Instead, it is because the government is largely responsible for the deliberate and systematic killing, rape and other crimes against massive numbers of civilians, and perhaps a change in the financial costs of such actions might influence their decisions.

Mamdani also claims that the Darfur advocacy movement pushed to remove the African Union (AU) force in favor of a Western force, and that this is somehow evidence that the War on Terror is an important underlying motive for Darfur advocacy. Far from pushing out the AU, the Genocide Intervention Network (GI-NET) sought to use a portion of its funds in support of the AU’s efforts to protect civilians. (It attempted to find ways of working directly with the AU on this, and then at their suggestion, worked through a non-governmental partner in Darfur on efforts relating to the AU’s work). Here again a content analysis of advocacy communiques would be ideal. Without such an analysis, a quick scan of action alerts issued by GI-NET nevertheless sheds some light on an alternative history to Mamdani’s. Mamdani claims that the advocacy movement, and by extension the US Government, wanted to push out the African Union (AU) force in favor of a (Western) UN force. However the record shows intense efforts to mobilize members to call their representatives to get the US to appropriate the promised $50 million for AU Mission in Sudan (AMIS). Moreover, while the $50 million did not come (which Mamdani attributes to US malevolence towards the AU), soon after advocates supported a campaign which led to the appropriation of $173 million to AMIS instead – an allotment Mamdani fails to mention at all..

While many activists did believe the UN could be more effective than the AU and pushed for such a “rehatting”, this does not prove a link to the War on Terror, only that activists imagined that the UN would come with greater experience and resources and a tougher mandate. In fact, it was widely felt that the War on Terror and specifically the war in Iraq made direct Western involvement almost impossible. Because Darfur was not at all a part of the War on Terror, it was argued, advocates couldn’t expect “boots on the ground”, and instead came to focus on what they believed the US and other Western powers could provide – airlift and other logistical support, training, and other contributions involving few personnel. Darfur advocacy did not therefore partake of the logic of the War on Terror, rather it was left constrained by it.

Concluding this point, both that the Darfur Advocacy movement, and Save Darfur itself, did not and does not believe that military intervention is the only solution for Darfur – even now after political processes how so long failed to achieve sustainable results. Moreover, even if it had asked only for intervention, it would want an intervention as far as possible from “occupation”, and for reasons of protecting civilians, not killing or capturing terrorists who are a threat to the U.S.

In closing, there are some criticisms Mamdani and others offer of the Darfur advocacy movement with which I agree: it got involved after much of the violence had occurred and was too slow in adapting to and communicating changes in the nature of violence; it may have focused too much on military solutions to protection, and has been too easy on the rebel movements, risking the perception that it (and the US government) will support the movements unconditionally. That said, Mamdani’s analysis is deeply problematic, particularly concerning its lack of investigation into what the Darfur advocacy movement actually said and asked for, and the sometime egregious errors this leads to. While I make specific counterarguments to Mamdani’s regarding what the movements did, a proper content analysis is needed to provide a starting point for such critiques. I do hope I have not misrepresented Mamdani’s argument and claims here, and where I have, I look forward to being corrected. At bottom, Mamdani’s thesis may be an easy sell in a time when the War on Terror is the target of much scrutiny, but his lack of careful research into what the advocacy movement actually asked for is irresponsible given that many readers will assume his beginning observations are valid ones. The movement did not primarily cast the Darfur conflict as a racial one that demonizes Arabs, and it did not ask solely for military intervention. Instead, it conveyed the conflict principally as an overly brutal counterinsurgency that targeted the civilians of several ethnic groups, and called for diplomatic resources and sanctions in addition to a protection force.

Chad Hazlett is Director of Protection at the Genocide Intervention Network. This piece reflects his personal views only and does not reflect the positions or policies of the Genocide Intervention Network.

Responses to “Is the Darfur Advocacy Community’s “Raison d’être to be Sought in the War on Terror”? No.”
Neha Erasmus:
May 19th, 2009 at 11:31 am
Dear Mr. Hazlett,

“Most activists have not read the Genocide Convention, and care little for legal details.”

As genocide is primarily a legal term, do you see a problem with this? Or if we expand the statement to: “Most activists.. care little for details”, would you think this an accurate description of the activism promoted by Save Darfur and your network and would you consider this problematic activism?

“Moreover, for many activists, whether legally appropriate or not, the term genocide functioned primarily to label the Darfur conflict as one that is not just another messy war, but a one-sided slaughter of one or more civilian identity groups, whoever they are and for whatever reason, by the government of Sudan and its proxies. On this point, activists have been correct, and their attention well placed on Darfur.”

Considering the complex, historical and long-term nature of the Darfur conflict described bymany writers including Prof Mamdani, how do you see the activists as having been on point? Also do you think that “whoever they are and for whatever reason” has an important bearing on the issue?

Thank you.


May 19th, 2009 at 12:46 pm
First off, in the interest of full disclosure, don’t you think you should mention that you work for GINet, and that the head of your organization is on the board of SDC? Just so readers can put your opinions in perspective?

Secondly, while I understand that “Sometimes, the ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ paradigm was included as a means of describing ‘which side is which’ in this counterinsurgency,” the truth of the matter is that many potential activists don’t understand that! They see “Arab” and they think of Osama.

Lastly, the movment has not just use the “Arab” and “African” labels as an abstract paradigm to make the conflict easier to understand. I’ve commented on some materials they’ve published and many seem to purposefully use race to “sell” the conflict.

Marc Gustafson:
May 20th, 2009 at 6:00 am
You wrote: “Moreover, for many activists, whether legally appropriate or not, the term genocide functioned primarily to label the Darfur conflict as one that is not just another messy war, but a one-sided slaughter of one or more civilian identity groups, whoever they are and for whatever reason, by the government of Sudan and its proxies.”

I not sure how you can call the conflict in Darfur a “one-sided slaughter,” when, as Alex De Waal pointed out in his first book about the Darfur conflict, the rebel groups won 32 out of the first 34 battles with the government in 2003. I also question the casualty statistics you refer to when stressing this one-sided dimension. If you are referring to the CRED report, the most comprehensive collection of casualty surveys on Darfur, there is no distinction between the identities of the casualties. How do we know if the disparities are great enough to call this a one-sided projection of violence, especially considering how well funded and equipped the rebel groups have been?

If you are referring to the recent monthly reports from UNAMID or the GI-Net report you provided in this blog months ago, then I still can’t see how you see this as a “one-sided” projection of violence. After reviewing the earlier post from Alex De Waal entitled “Data for Deaths in Darfur” and your own post, I see a lot of agreement over the final tallies, but a lot of inconsistencies in the breakdown of the numbers. First, you mention that 76% of the direct deaths were among civilians, but your data shows a very large number of unidentified casualties, making it impossible to suggest this exact percentage.

Furthermore, Mr. De Waal mentions that there is a civilian casualty range between 359 and 720 (or 27% and 60%) in the GI-NET report, which would make the percentage total range much less than 76%. As far as I can see from the UNAMID reports and the GI-Net reports, there are high proportions of civilian and combat casualties from all sides and a large number of unidentified casualties, making it impossible to say that there is a “one-sided” projection of violence, especially against civilians.

Additionally, if you look at the legal and academic definitions of a “one-sided” conflict, (see the “Correlates of War” index and Nicholas Sambani’s article on “What is a Civil War”) you’ll see that in order for a “one-sided” conflict to exist, the casualty rate on the winning side of the war must be less than 5% of the casualty rate on the losing side of the war. I think we’re all in agreement that the rebels are responsible for over 5% of the total number of casualties (on the GOS side).

More importantly, your perception (and many others’) of this being a “one-sided” conflict highlights the central problem with using the word “genocide”. In using the word, there is an underlying assumption that there is a “one-sided” projection of violence, where one side is the victim (innocent) and one side is the culprit (guilty). Additionally, this misperception, kept alive by the constant use of the word “genocide” within the activist community, is what created what you call the “problematic lack of scrutiny of the rebel groups.”

While activists were calling for military intervention and punishment of the GOS, the rebel groups slipped under the radar committing horrible acts of violence on civilians and receiving funding from Eritrea, Chad and the SPLM, all of whom were/are close allies and aid recipients of the US. This could have been prevented if the conflict had not been viewed within this Manichean framework of “genocide.”

Abd al-Wahab Abdalla:
May 21st, 2009 at 8:54 am
Dear Mr Hazlett, this is really a good piece. I am looking forward to the results of your research into what the Save Darfur campaign actually said and did. I have no doubt that your hypothesis is correct. Then, the question arises, why do we in Sudan have such a different picture of the movement to those of you who are thoughtful members of the movement? The answer is NOT government censorship because we all read Sudan Tribune and the international newspapers online. By some means, the nuanced picture you describe becomes the simplified one we all believe in. We remember the picture of the girl with the “Out of Iraq and into Sudan” banner and forget about all the rest.

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