January 19, 2019

Calgary Herald

Book Review: Fighting for Darfur

Former Canadian Lt-General, and now senator, Romeo Dallaire, once referred to the mass atrocities in Darfur—a territory the size of France in the western part of Sudan (which borders on the African country of Chad)—as a “genocide in slow motion.”

But the full scope of that crime is mind-numbing: over 300,000 Darfuris exterminated (including children) since 2003, countless women brutally raped, thousands of villages burned and mangled bodies dumped into wells, and, if that wasn’t enough, over two million left suffering in unsanitary displacements camps.

Most of this was conducted by the landless Arab militias or Janjaweed against the non-Arab tribes of Darfur—and painstakingly orchestrated by the ruthless Arab rulers in Khartoum.

Rebecca Hamilton, the author of Fighting For Darfur and a special correspondent for the Washington Post in Sudan, takes up the interesting question of citizen advocacy on Darfur (through groups like Save Darfur and the Enough Project) and whether it constitutes one of the “missing pieces of the genocide prevention puzzle.”

Through extensive personal interviews and government documents, Hamilton sets out to answer a series of key questions about the impact of the six-year Darfur advocacy movement, the twists and turns of U.S. policy toward the atrocities in Darfur, and how future acts of genocide and mass atrocity can be thwarted.

In a chronological format, the narrative is divided into four main sections. In part one of the book, Hamilton points out that even though the Bush White House marked the first time that the executive branch of the U.S. government had characterized an ongoing violent conflict as genocide, it did not signal the administration’s deep-seated commitment to stopping the bloodshed. Even as Secretary of State Colin Powell was telling a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing in September 2004 that genocide was indeed taking place in Darfur, he was quick to add that “no new action is dictated by this determination.” But as Hamilton carefully chronicles, civil society groups in the U.S. would have something to say about that.

Part of the reason why hordes of ordinary citizens throughout the U.S. were prepared to transform themselves from bystanders to so-called “upstanders” was actually Powell’s genocide declaration. In the telling words of Hamilton: “The citizens who started to join the growing movement for Darfur believed that the power to make `never again’ meaningful was in their hands, that if they created a loud enough outcry they could generate the political will needed to get their political leaders to save Darfuri lives.” Many of those groups organized mass rallies and divestment efforts, undertook extensive congressional lobbying, and launched a “Million Voices” campaign in 2006 (that involved sending worded postcards directly to President Bush)—all urging the Bush White House to endorse a UN peacekeeping force for Darfur.

While Hamilton is quick to identify the political heft of the movement in part two of the work (in getting a special envoy on Sudan and securing the retention of tough U.S. sanctions against the regime in Khartoum), she doesn’t shy away from criticizing it: for its sometimes exaggerated claims of influence, for failing to recognize the complexity of the crisis and the necessary role of other foreign countries and organizations, for not publicizing the fact that rebel groups in Darfur also committed crimes against humanity, and for not informing supporters of the changing nature of the conflict (from state-sponsored mass murder initially to one of disease-related deaths).

Part three focused on some of the internal or organizational strains of human rights advocacy, the need to concentrate on actors outside of the U.S. (mainly China), and the movement’s support for the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) indictment of Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir in 2008.

The focus of part four is mostly on how the January 2011 independence referendum in the south trumped the humanitarian situation in Darfur and the deep disappointment of both Darfuris and the citizen movement with the tepid actions of the Obama White House on the whole Sudan file.

Hamilton’s concluding pages contain some of the book’s most important insights and observations, especially for civil society groups going forward in times of humanitarian crises. Besides singling out the importance of a domestic public outcry, Hamilton stresses the need for a global effort to halt crimes of genocide. Moreover, if activist movements want to achieve more good instead of harm, she offered this admonishment: “Connecting with people on the ground to be accountable to is the best way to safeguard against this pitfall, and it is an element that has been undervalued by most of the mass movement to date.”

Clearly, for anyone interested in human rights and human dignity, this is an important read. Not only is it engaging, informative and highly analytical, but it is also instructional for citizen activists and NGOs alike. My major criticism, if I could call it that, is a desire to see a fuller explanation of certain critical areas: such as the role that securing counterterrorism cooperation from the Sudanese government played in softening U.S. policy, the problems of having the U.S. government lead a charge against genocide given its historical baggage in terms of blindly intervening in a host of developing countries, and, finally, how Washington actually used or co-opted the Darfur advocacy movement in the U.S. for its own purposes.

Still, Fighting For Darfur makes a significant contribution to the international human rights literature. And in her final few paragraphs, Hamilton leaves us with this fundamental point: if we continue to operate under the guiding principle that “the comfort and well-being of people `here’ matter more than life or death `there,’” then a future world without genocide and mass atrocity is mostly a pipe dream.

Peter McKenna is professor of political studies at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

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