The Twentieth Anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide: What has been learned?


Rwanda at twenty years

Roméo Dallaire offers a number of painful, indeed excruciating observations in his searing account of the Rwandan genocide that claimed the lives of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus beginning on April 7, 1994.  As UNIMAR commander during the months leading up to and during the genocide, Dallaire provides an almost day-by-day account of what he saw, what he heard, what he smelled, and what he was compelled to imagine and dream.  And he was compelled also to confront the almost unimaginable failure of the international community in responding to what was clearly genocide.  Despite the now infamously disingenuous parsings of the word (and acts of) “genocide” by the U.S. State Department, there are very few who then or now dissent from the view that this was clearly genocide.  And yet there was no effort to halt or control the ethnically-targeted mass slaughter—by the UN, by the U.S. or by the European nations that had so solemnly vowed “Never again!”

Perhaps “never again in Europe,” although this requires an explanation of what occurred in the Balkans during the 1990s, atrocity crimes for which the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia convicted a number of individuals on charges of genocide.  Particularly conspicuous in 1994 were the failures of Kofi Annan, then head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and subsequently UN Secretary-General; of President Bill Clinton, who would later admit that his failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide was the greatest of his presidency (he actively worked against an international response); and of the European Union, where the leadership was simply dismal. Annan’s failure is in some ways most telling, as Philip Gourevitch makes clear in his devastating indictment of Annan’s refusal to respond meaningfully to a crisis clearly in the making, certainly as far back as January 1994—the date of the infamous “Genocide Fax” (See Appendix One).

In his Preface to Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Dallaire offers his largest assessment of what he proceeds to recount over the course of more than 500 pages of text:

The following is my story of what happened in Rwanda in 1994.  It’s a story of betrayal, failure, naiveté, indifference, hatred, genocide, war, inhumanity and evil. Although strong relationships were built and moral, ethical, and courageous behavior was often displayed, they were overshadowed by one of the fastest, most efficient, most evident genocides in recent history. In just one hundred days over 800,000 innocent Rwandan men, women, and children were brutally murdered while the developed world, impassive and apparently unperturbed, sat back and watched the unfolding apocalypse or simply changed channels.  Almost fifty years to the day that my father and father-in-law helped to liberate Europe—when the extermination camps were uncovered and when, in one voice, humanity said, “Never again”—we once again sat back and permitted this unspeakable horror to occur.  We could not find the political will or the resources to stop it.  Since then, much has been written, discussed, argued, and filmed on the subject of Rwanda, yet it is my feeling that this recent catastrophe is being forgotten and its lessons submerged in ignorance and apathy.  The genocide in Rwanda was a failure of humanity that could easily happen again.

There is an eerie prescience to Dallaire’s words—published in 2003 but written before what was occurring in Darfur was known to any but a very few—those working in the region or following Sudan very closely.  Dallaire’s book, which won Canada’s highly prestigious Governor General’s Prize for non-fiction, is utterly unsparing, including of Dallaire himself.  It is thus all the more appalling that in their efforts at self-exculpation, so many have sought to lay blame on Dallaire himself.  Most egregiously, the Belgian government determined that Dallaire was responsible for the ten Belgian UN peacekeepers in Kigali who were killed in the opening days of the genocide; this ignores the fact that extremist Hutu elements well understood that such killings would compel the precipitous withdrawal of the 450-man Belgian contingent from Rwanda, essentially crippling Dallaire’s small UNAMIR force.  Attacks on Europeans would have come sooner or later, if only to forestall Western military intervention.  Blaming Dallaire also ignores Belgium’s own significant role in the recent and more distant events in Rwanda’s often grim history.  In its blaming of Dallaire, Belgium is also painfully exclusive in its concern for its own nationals in Rwanda.  Indeed, the extraction of foreign nationals was the only real concern that European nations and the U.S. demonstrated.

After the fact, and in the face of such massive failure, scapegoats are much in need; and no one was in greater need than the Belgians.  Scapegoating, however, can’t take the place of assigning true responsibility.  And the real question is how we have assessed responsibility for some 800,000 lives lost, countless more civilians raped and displaced, and continued instability throughout the region, for which, to be sure, the present government in Kigali bears far too much responsibility.  And there are difficult questions that linger still: what should the UN have done in responding to the massive refugee flight to the Democratic Republic of Congo, knowing that among these Hutu refugees were some of the worst elements of the infamous Interawheme?  knowing that these brutal men continued to be a threat, to those in the camps and possibly—if reconstituted as a force—to Rwanda itself?  Such questions had to be answered in the context of hopelessly inadequate resources and enormous urgency, given the desperate state of those arriving in DRC and their urgent need for “safety.”

We must also bear in mind how little time was available once the genocide began, which makes Annan’s dilatory and disingenuous role as head of UN peacekeeping all the more culpable (again, see Appendix A with its note on Philip Gourevitch’s “The Genocide Fax”).  If warnings from Dallaire, beginning in January 1994, had been taken seriously, if an unaccountably unconcerned Annan had argued passionately for what needed to be done, events might well have been altered or deflected in significantly different ways.  But here we pass into speculation, even as the present day realities of Darfur require a similar assessment of responsibility and of the myriad failures of the international community: the African Union, the Arab League, the UN, the Organization of Islamic Conference, Russia and China, the countries of the EU, and of course the United States.

PART ONE: Darfur, ten years later

If the extraordinary speed with which some 800,000 people were killed in roughly 100 days remains the single most shocking fact of the Rwanda genocide, Darfur presents us with a very different spectacle of international failure, but one equally shocking.  Large-scale, ethnically-inflected violence in the region has now entered its second decade, already having claimed some 500,000 lives (see August 2010 mortality assessment).  More than 2 million people are internally displaced and over 300,000 remain refugees in Chad.  Humanitarian operations can barely continue amidst the violence that the Khartoum regime continues to sanction, indeed encourage; and with the recent mobilization of its newest Janjaweed militia ally, the Rapid Response Force, we are seeing violence of the sort that defined the earlier years of what most observers have judged to be genocide.  Wholesale destruction of the villages of non-Arab or African tribal groups has accelerated over the past two years—but never really ceased.  What we see now is a crescendo of violence directed against increasingly vulnerable civilians, much of it revealed by the Satellite Sentinel Project.  This is how the men of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime have chosen to conduct counter-insurgency war against armed forces rebelling against decades of political marginalization, chronic insecurity, and economic deprivation.

The use of rape and gang-rape as a weapon of war has long been a central element of the Darfur genocide—often revealingly accompanied by hateful racial epithet (see “Rape and Sexual Violence Ongoing in Darfur” by Doctors Without Borders/MSF-Holland, March 2005).  Radio Dabanga continues to report frequently on aerial military forces directing their attacks against civilians or deploying these forces in an utterly indiscriminate manner.  Bombardment has been relentless, and nowhere more than in the Jebel Marra region in the center of Darfur.  There have been more than 600 confirmed aerial attacks on civilians since the beginning of the conflict, continuing a pattern established in the long North/South civil war and now extended to the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan State and Blue Nile State.  The actual number of bombing attacks in Darfur is almost certainly many times the number confirmed (see updated data at  Each such attack is a war crime under international law; in aggregate, they are (according to the terms of the Rome Statute) crimes against humanity (see original analysis of this issue, May 2011, at

In all of the military arenas of greater Sudan, the aircraft of choice for Khartoum is the Russian-built Antonov cargo plane, retrofitted to be a crude “bomber” from which shrapnel-loaded barrel bombs are simply pushed out the cargo bay at very high altitudes and without aid of a bomb-siting mechanism, or indeed any way of ensuring that bombs drop within a radius extending hundreds of meters.  As military weapons they are useless; as a means of attacking the civilians perceived to be supporting the rebel forces in these various areas, they have proved devastatingly effective.  In concert with a total blockade of humanitarian assistance to rebel-held areas of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State, the bombing campaign has crippled food production in the two areas and forced millions to flee, or remain and face the increasing likelihood of starvation.

All this comes at a time when South Sudan is in the throes of convulsive self-destruction following the ominous political events of December 2013, events that have led to widespread ethnic killings, retaliatory killings, and yet further revenge killings, auguring a terrifying cycle of continual inter-ethnic violence that threatens to destroy the new nation.  Millions now face famine, according to the most recent UN assessment, which could not be grimmer.

In a perverse irony, news about South Sudan, which is accessible to intrepid journalists, makes Darfur even more invisible, especially since Khartoum allows neither a news nor human rights reporting presence in its western region.  The UN and African Union “hybrid” force (UNAMID) has been deeply negligent and dishonest in its accounts of what is occurring; so, too, have some UN humanitarian officials, most notoriously George Charpentier (see May 25, 2012 account).  A catalog of the statements by officials from both sides of the UN, as well as successive AU heads of UNAMID, reveals a steady pattern of denial, disingenuousness, concealment of data and reports, and outright mendacity in downplaying the continuing catastrophe in Darfur (see here). We know this chiefly because of hundreds of reports from the ground conveyed through Radio Dabanga, and until recently the reports of courageous humanitarians on the ground who defied both the UN and Khartoum in reporting directly on what they had seen (see, for example, analysis of August 11, 2012).

Like the morally dissolute response to the 100 days of genocide in Rwanda, the international response in Darfur has failed for more than ten years to be remotely adequate to the threats and realities of human destruction—destruction that may well eventually surpass that of Rwanda.  As humanitarian operations and personnel are continually more restricted, both by insecurity and Khartoum’s denial of access, millions of people are at increased risk from malnutrition, disease, and the life-threatening challenges of further displacement.  Clean water is becoming an even scarcer commodity in this arid land.  And despite its various manipulations of the figures for displacement, the UN itself indicates that more than 200,000 people have already been displaced this year.  The UN figure for 2013 was 400,000 newly displaced civilians. And since UNAMID officially deployed (January 1, 2008), more than 2 million people have been newly displaced, staggering evidence of the Mission’s abysmal failure. The last issue of the UN’s “Darfur Humanitarian Profile” (No. 34, representing conditions as of January 1, 2009) reported a figure of 2.7 million displaced in IDP camps.  The current UN estimate of those surviving in tenuous conditions as refugees in eastern Chad is 330,000, also reflecting a recent and sharp uptick in the number of those escaping violence, in this case by crossing an international border.

And yet despite these overwhelming numbers, as recently as August of last year the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was promulgating a figure of “1.4 million displaced” in such fashion that it was used by important news organizations.  The BBC, for example, reported on May 23, 2013 that “As many as 1.4 million remain homeless after the decade-long conflict”) and Agence France-Presse reported “[this newly displaced 300,000 as of May 2013] adds to an existing displaced population of 1.4 million in Darfur.”  The figure of “1.4 million” grossly misrepresents the true total of those who have been driven from their homes, some on multiple occasions, by violence and the threat of violence. OCHA is evidently doing some statistical soul-searching, as there has been no figure for IDPs offered in the weekly Sudan Bulletin for a number of months; instead, an insert appears declaring: “IDPs in Darfur: figures are fluctuating and are being reviewed.”

In recent weeks, villages have been destroyed in startlingly high numbers.  Much of this is captured in Satellite Sentinel Reports of March 27, 2014 and March 28, 2014; given the ongoing and extremely high levels of violence, we may expect that many more such reports will be forthcoming.  Radio Dabanga has also doggedly reported widely on what it hears from its legion of contacts on the ground in Darfur.  The most ominous of recent reports detail the attacks on displaced persons camps, something that has a long history, but which now occurs with terrifying frequency and immensely greater destructiveness.  Here it may be useful to recall a typical incident from September 2005—a date that falls well outside the “2003-2004″ window often used to designate the “real” genocide in Darfur.  The following formal statement comes from Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, at the time Special Representative of the Chairperson of the AU Commission on Darfur (essentially he was the head of an AU observer mission):

On 28 September 2005, just four days ago, some reportedly 400 Janjaweed Arab militia on camels and horseback went on the rampage in Aru Sharo, Acho, and Gozmena villages in West Darfur. Our reports also indicate that the day previous, and indeed on the actual day of the attack, Government of Sudan helicopter gunships were observed overhead. This apparent coordinated land and air assault gives credence to the repeated claim by the rebel movements of collusion between the Government of Sudan forces and the Janjaweed/Arab militia. This incident, which was confirmed not only by our investigators but also by workers of humanitarian agencies and nongovernmental organizations in the area, took a heavy toll resulting in 32 people killed, 4 injured and 7 missing, and about 80 houses/shelters looted and set ablaze.

The following day, a clearly premeditated and well rehearsed combined operation was carried out by the Government of Sudan military and police at approximately 11am in the town of Tawilla and its Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in North Darfur. The Government of Sudan forces used approximately 41 trucks and 7 land cruisers in the operation which resulted in a number of deaths, massive displacement of civilians, and the destruction of several houses in the surrounding areas as well as some tents in the IDP camps. Indeed, the remains of discharged explosive devices were found in the IDP camp. During the attack, thousands from the township and the IDP camp and many humanitarian workers were forced to seek refuge near the AU camp for personal safety and security.  (Transcript of press conference by Ambassador Baba Gana Kingibe, Special Representative of the Chairperson of the AU Commission on Darfur Khartoum, October 1, 2005)

That such attacks have continued for almost a decade without serious interruption should be the occasion for serious reflection by those arguing that the violence in Darfur was largely over by the end of 2004.

To be sure, it must be emphasized that not all the civilian victims are non-Arabs/Africans.  Arab tribal tensions have been markedly increasing in recent years, and inevitably Khartoum chooses sides to create an ally and sustain its “divide and conquer” strategy (an excellent overview from 2010 was provided by Julie Flint for the Small Arms Survey, “The Other War: Inter-Arab Conflict in Darfur”).  Flint sets out to investigate “the background to and the development of the fighting between camel-herding Abbala and cattle-herding Baggara.” The motive for fighting vary: sometimes it is something as specific as competition over access to the gold mines of Jebel Amir in North Darfur (gold exports by the regime have become a critical part of its effort to secure foreign exchange currency (Forex)).  More often fighting is over land that has been abandoned by African populations; and frequently it is an extension of growing competition for the increasingly scarce natural resources of Darfur, mainly water and land that is arable or pasturable.  Much of this fighting has long historical antecedents.

But the overwhelming number of those living in the camps are African; those who have died in the hundreds of thousands are African; the many tens of thousands of girls and women who have been raped and gang-raped are overwhelming African; the targets of aerial bombardment and helicopter gunship attacks have been almost exclusively African.  Ignoring the conspicuous ethnic inflection of conflict over the past eleven years is either a function of ignorance or deliberate misrepresentation of the fundamental character of the violence involving civilians.  Certainly there has been much deliberate misrepresentation by the UN, including the politically, morally, and methodologically corrupt UN Commission of Inquiry on Darfur (UN COI, report issued January 2005).

One investigating member of the UN COI team, Deborah Bodkin, has told me directly that despite claims by Commission chair Antonio Cassese that they were not impeded by the Khartoum regime, the team did not in fact visit or attempt to investigate the claims of mass graves in the Wadi Saleh and Mukjar areas of West Darfur (see my notes of this interview).  Indeed, according to Ms. Bodkin, the forensic specialists with the team did not put a single spade in the ground or do any forensic investigating.  She also makes a series of specific accusations about the incompetence and political corruption of the investigation, reported by Samuel Totten and included here as Appendix Two (my own extensive critique of the contents of the report presented to the Secretary-General appears here). The specific location in Wadi Saleh was in one case identified by a survivor of one of the mass executions who reported the incident to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and to me (by telephone from Nyala, South Darfur; April 2004).

The Human Rights Watch account is painfully blunt in announcing its report on sustained mass executions specifically targeting Fur men and boys (the Fur are the largest non-Arab/African ethnic group in Darfur):

The 22-page [HRW] report, “Targeting the Fur: Mass Killings in Darfur,” documents in detail how the Sudanese government and its allied Janjaweed militias have committed crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur with impunity. These crimes include the round-up, detention and execution in March of more than 200 Fur farmers and community leaders in West Darfur’s Wadi Saleh and Mukjar provinces.  (January 25, 2005 press release; full report )

Targeted mass murder has continued without cessation during the Obama administration, and remains directed overwhelmingly against African tribal populations even as it is sanctioned by the Khartoum regime.

It was with full knowledge of all this that candidate Barack Obama declared, using a politically appealing rhetoric that would be fully abandoned once he was elected President:

“When you see a genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia or in Darfur, that is a stain on all of us, a stain on our souls . . .. We can’t say ‘never again’ and then allow it to happen again, and as a president of the United States I don’t intend to abandon people or turn a blind eye to slaughter.” (Video recording available here)

Despite these strong words, early in his first term Obama appointed as special envoy to Sudan Scott Gration, a former Air Force Major General who had been very helpful to Obama with military people during the presidential campaign.  Gration also had clear designs on the ambassadorship to Nairobi.  Gration had no appropriate qualifications for this extremely difficult assignment, no diplomatic experience, spoke no relevant languages other than a less than fluent English, had no significant knowledge of Sudan—and yet he was rewarded, at a critical moment in Darfur’s history, with a Sudan “stint” that would provide the diplomatic experience to enable him to become ambassador to Kenya, which he did shortly after resigning.  On leaving Gration had—by all non-administration accounts—done irreparable harm to greater Sudan and to U.S. efforts to work effectively for a just peace in Darfur.

It was Gration who failed in March 2009 to develop an adequate U.S. response to Khartoum’s expulsion from Darfur of thirteen of the world’s finest humanitarian organizations, cutting overall relief capacity by roughly 50 percent at a stroke. It was Gration who quickly endorsed Khartoum’s “New Strategy for Darfur” (September 2010), which was little more than a euphemism for forced “returns” of IDPs from the camps, enabling Khartoum to shut down these embarrassing reminders of violence and displacement; this something for which humanitarians had already taken Gration to task when he pushed this ambition for “returns” prematurely. It was Gration who, among other acts of mindless diplomatic gambling, pushed for the “de-coupling” of Darfur from broader U.S. Sudan policy.  And it was Gration who led the charge to push South Sudan into compromising yet further on Abyei, despite the explicit terms of the Abyei Protocol of the CPA and the glaring fact that both Khartoum and Juba had accepted the binding resolution to the Abyei boundary issue issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (July 2009).

Although the very embodiment of diplomatic incompetence, Gration would receive—with jovial Senate confirmation—his appointment as ambassador to Nairobi; he was fired by the State Department within a year for what amounted to incompetence.

Gration’s successor, Princeton Lyman, nominally presided over U.S. policy during the seizure of Abyei and the all too predictable subsequent assaults by Khartoum on South Kordofan and Blue Nile. There was painfully little outrage or even dismay conveyed by Lyman, who also remained perversely skeptical about the realities of what was occurring in South Kordofan beginning June 5, 2011.  Moreover, he was wholly ineffectual in helping to ensure that the African Union plan for humanitarian access to these two regions was accepted by Khartoum.  And he was content to leave Darfur “de-coupled.” In short, Lyman was weak, often disingenuous, but at least revealed the fundamental premise of the Obama administration’s Sudan policy.  In a December 2011 interview with the influential English-language Arabic news outlet Asharq Al-Awsat, Lyman said in response to a question

Frankly, we do not want to see the ouster of the [Sudanese] regime, nor regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures. We want to see freedom and democracy [in Sudan], but not necessarily via the Arab Spring. (December 3, 2011)

It appears not to have mattered to Lyman or the Obama administration that the overwhelming majority of Sudanese—and not just Darfuris—have long wanted regime change, and have grown increasingly explicit in expressing this goal.  Their seriousness can be measured by the increasing willingness to risk their lives and well-being to achieve such change.  More than 300 people were killed during demonstrations calling for regime change in September/October 2013; they died when security forces in Khartoum and elsewhere immediately began firing with what Amnesty International concluded were “shoot to kill” orders. On July 31, 2012 scores of student demonstrators were gunned down in Nyala (South Darfur) by Khartoum’s security forces—ultimately under control of the regime—using automatic rifles.  And there have been many other clear signs of popular support for regime change.  An imploding economy has created shortages and long lines for bread, a food staple for many, and also for cooking fuel; inflation is running at an unsustainable 70+ percent when realistically assessed, and this hits hardest the poorest and most economically vulnerable.

But the expedient and disingenuous declaration that the U.S. wants “to see the regime carry out reform via constitutional democratic measures” is finally so preposterous as to serve only as a measure of how morally bankrupt the Obama administration’s Sudan policy has become.  There is not a shred of historical evidence that the NIF/NCP has the slightest interest in “reform via constitutional measures”—and Lyman and the Obama administration know this full well.  There are all too clearly other considerations in Obama’s Sudan policy, and they hinge in large part on the putative value of counter-terrorism intelligence the regime can provide—this despite the fact that the regime is clearly still in the terrorism business (see analysis of March 7, 2014).  Certainly nothing else explains the massive new U.S. embassy in Khartoum, which when fully completed and equipped as a listening post for northern Africa will have cost the American taxpayers several hundred million dollars.

The U.S. response to Darfur and greater Sudan under President Obama will continue to be a “stain on our souls,” and for this alone he deserves his full measure of opprobrium.


PART TWO: Darfur, the early responses

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; ).

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; ).  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)

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).

Dr. Eric Reeves;  professor of English language and literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts