Saturday, March 04, 2006


Darfur is an area about which much is said, mostly by people who seem to have no real knowledge about what is going on. Darfur has entered our lexicon as a synonym for “genocide” but most who talk about Darfur would be hard-pressed to describe who is being exterminated by whom. Both presidential candidates in the last US presidential election “agreed that was was happening Darfur was genocide.” (Wikipedia) If Darfur is “genocide,” this would certainly fit into the “clash of civilizations” thesis, but this would imply that the conflict is something more than an “impasse” that is amenable to negotiation techniques. On the other hand, if Darfur is genuinely a conflict that has reached impasse, this would make the killings and village destructions that have occurred extreme manifestations of negotiating tactics. The sides are saying “we are serious about our position, and are willing to kill to show it.” It is necessary to define the conflict in order to analyze whether Mayer’s impasse resolution tactics would be successful.

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines “genocide” as: Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. (Jacobson) The amount of killing is irrelevant but rather, the motivation of the killers: “The specificity of genocide does not arise from the extent of their killings nor their savagery nor resulting infamy, but solely from their intention: the destruction of a group.” (Destexhe pg4)

In Darfur, it is not clear that any of the actions or the motivations of the actors meet Destexhe’s definition of genocide. The UN itself looked at the very question of whether the situation in Darfur is genocide and concluded that what is going on there is not genocide. In the words of the Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the Secretary-General of the UN: “Generally speaking the policy of attacking, killing and forcibly displacing members of some tribes does not evince a specific intent to annihilate, in whole or in part, a group distinguished on racial, ethnic, national or religious grounds. Rather, it would seem that those who planned and organized attacks on villages pursued the intent to drive the victims from their homes, primarily for purposes of counter-insurgency warfare.” (Report of the International Commission, pg2) Leave aside for a moment the thorny question of the UN’s objectivity, after all, if the UN declares the situation to be genocide, they will be on the hook to do something about it. Or, in the words of Mark Steyn:

“After months of expressing deep, grave concern over whether the graves were deep enough, Kofi Annan managed to persuade the UN to set up a committee to look into what’s going on in Darfur. Eventually, they reported back that it’s not genocide.

That’s great news, isn’t it? Because if it had been genocide, that would have been very, very serious. As yet another Kofi Annan-appointed UN committee boldly declared a year ago: “Genocide anywhere is a threat to the security of all and should never be tolerated.” So thank goodness what’s going on in Sudan isn’t genocide. Instead, it’s just 100,000 corpses who all happen to be from the same ethnic group—which means the UN can go on tolerating it until everyone’s dead, and none of the multilateral compassion types have to worry their pretty heads about it.” (Steyn)

Given the accuracy of the UN’s assessment, that the situation in Darfur is a “counter-insurgency” and that the sides are at an impasse, it is necessary to get to the issues in contention. A UN study published in 2002 identified clashes over transhumance (the transfer of livestock from one grazing ground to another, as from lowlands to highlands, with the changing of seasons) as the root of the conflict. Further, the report identified 9 “causes of route conflicts” which included:

5. POOR LOCAL CAPACITIES. Official understanding of the pastoral production system and its complexities and requirements is limited
7. GREIVENCY (sic): Lack of representation of pastoralists in crop damage estimation committees and the exaggeration of the value of that damage by the farmers is usually a cause of serious tension and confrontations between the farmers and the pastoralists.
8. LACK OF CONSULTATION: Farmers in Abu Zeraiga in El Fashir province claim that they were not consulted when the routes were marked. As a result, some villages and agricultural lands were included in the route area.
9. ESTABLISHMENT OF PASTORAL ENCLOSURES. (United Nations Development Programme)

Some of these points of contention are clearly outside the limits of what can be effected by negotiation. Drought and environmental degradation can certainly introduce stress into relations between groups of people but cannot be changed by negotiation. However, the other seven causes certainly seem amenable to negotiation. Several attempts at negotiation over a 13 year period were pursued, but ultimately failed for four reasons identified in the report:

1. Decisions & recommendations were not followed up and thus remained unattended in the offices of the senior officials and, therefore, rarely reached the grass roots levels who are the main stakeholders. This was partly due to the weaknesses of the state media and the poor and distorted representation of the communities.

2. The third party to conflict (those working behind the scene and fueling conflict) has its own interests (armed robbery, weapons trading..etc.). Such party is rarel considered.

3. Apparent weaknesses of the native administration system in the area in terms of effective representation, acceptance, legitimacy, legal recognition, authority and economic and financial capacities.

4. Poor and weak supervision and implementation mechanisms at the state level. (United Nations Development Programme)

Perhaps the most crucial one of these reasons for failure was the interest of third parties. The local contestants in the Darfur are largely indistinguishable from one another. In the words of an academic from Darfur:

The labels “African” and “Arab” weren’t always as pronounced as they are today. The problem started as a competition over resources—land and water. But then people started revising their world views according to their ethnic identities. Visually, Africans and Arabs in Darfur look the same. It’s only when somebody tells you, “I’m Arab,” or from another tribe, that you know how a person identifies himself. During this conflict, identity has become a label that people use to pursue their claims for land or water. (Renwick)

Given that the contesting parties are largely indistinguishable outside their own self identification, it is hard to conclude that the conflict in the Darfur is about anything other than economic competition. However, the factions squabbling over transhumance and water appealed to outside groups in what Mayer has called association power. These larger groups, Pan Arabist organizations, al Qeida, the Sudanese government, the Chadian governments and others have all weighed in on one side or the other. During the Cold War, the term for this types of conflicts was war by proxy. Douglas Johnson has identified a similar phenomenon at work in Darfur:

Often times, appeals to Islam and Pan Arabism have been used by Khartoum Government to overcome the discontent of marginality elsewhere in the North. These appeals are not only to home grown support but increasingly about access to external powerful allies. The power of Pan Arabist ideology, however fictitious its actual base, can connect local groups to a wider international community and offers them opportunity to mobilize support for internal conflicts. We have noted: the alliance of Arab tribes in Darfur appealing to Libya outside Sudan and the UMMA and NIF parties inside Sudan; Sadiq rallying Arab North to retake Kurmuk from SPLA forces, the successive governments were appealing to wealthy Muslim States for military hardware in the face of Anti-Arab insurgency in the South. (Johnson, pg 141)

The upshot of this appeal to outside power is that the local groups lose their autonomy to make deals of mutual, local benefit because these local groups are beholden to murky, larger forces with more expansive agendas. So, attempting to negotiate at a local level will prove ineffective so long as the larger powers continue to use the Darfur as a battle by proxy. Connell believes that Darfur can only be solved as part of a larger, regional peace: “The only two possible solutions under these circumstances are to fold Darfur and other regional conflicts (including that in the northeast) into the north-south peace talks taking place in Naivasha, Kenya, and deal with the nation as a whole, or to give up on the notion of a unified Sudanese state.” (Connell)

Given that the UN does not consider refugees to be victims of genocide, and with the realities of the violent impasse in the Sudan, the facts on the ground may present negotiators with only one realistic choice. Negotiate new, international boundaries along a defensible frontier for the aggrieved Darfurians, and appeal to the international community to respect and defend those borders. Absent this type of regional negotiated break in the impasse, there is a much larger chance Darfur will turn into the genocide all fear.

BBC. “Analysis: Defining genocide” 1 Feb 2005.
Connell, Dan. “Sudan: The Politics of Slaughter.” Grassroots
Online. ( 14 October 2004.

Destexhe, Alan. Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century.
Pluto Press: (London) 1995.
International Commission of Inquiry. Report of the International
Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the Secretary-General:
Pursuant to Security Council resolution 1564 (2004) of 18 September 2004. United Nations: (New York) 1 Feb 05

Jacobson, Mary. “Balkan Glossary of Terms.” FACSNET:
( 18 Jan 2000.

Johnson, Douglas H. The Root Causes of Sudan's Civil Wars.
Indiana University Press: (Bloomington, Indiana) 2003.

Renwick, Lucille. “Darfur: Roots of Conflict.” Ford Foundation
Report. Spring-Summer 2005.

Steyn, Mark. “America and the United Nations” Imprimis Magazine.
February, 2006.

United Nations Development Programme. Research on Roots of Conflict and Traditional: Conflict Transformation Mechanisms. TRANSHUMANCE ROUTES IN NORTH DARFUR. ( September 2002.