John Prendergast, co-founder of the anti-genocide advocacy group the Enough Project, seemed irritated on a recent public coalition conference call in late June. Enough made its mission to “build a permanent constituency to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity,” but Prendergast was “fed up” with people in the Darfur activist movement “not doing their homework.” This accusation was in response to one person’s question of whether the situation in Darfur could still be classified as genocide.
Prendergast went on to give his interpretation of the Genocide Convention, saying that “the use of ethnic militias, rape as a weapon of war, the turning on and off of humanitarian assistance to break the spirits of communities indicates genocidal intent.” Prendergast and the executive director of Enough, John Norris, discussed what they perceive as the ineffective, inattentive policy stance of the Obama administration towards ending genocide in Darfur.
Prendergast, and much of the activist community, continue to call the situation in Darfur genocide, even though the death toll in 2008 fell to about 150 per month. That number is certainly horrific, but it pales in comparison to the almost 400,000 people killed between February 2003 and March 2005, according to estimates by Northwestern University sociologist John Hagan.
Prendergast’s frustration is emblematic of the straits in which the movement to end genocide in Darfur movement finds itself. As the situation on the ground less and less resembles the deliberate mass murders of 2003 and 2004, scholars and even members of the administration are casting doubt on whether the situation in Darfur still constitutes genocide. Such doubt makes it harder for activists to gain the public support necessary to force the Obama administration to take direct and aggressive action against the leadership in Sudan’s capital Khartoum to end the conflict there.
Scott Gration, the former Air Force general who Obama appointed special envoy to Sudan, is perhaps most emblematic of why the Darfur activist movement is so frustrated. At first, anti-genocide activists were excited that Obama appointed a special envoy directly responsible for Sudan; this seemed to indicate that he took Darfur and the North-South peace process seriously. But Gration has since earned the ire of those same activists. In a press conference after his first trip to Sudan as special envoy, he said that the situation in Darfur was not an active genocide. Instead, he said it was “the remnants of genocide” and that “it doesn’t appear that it is a coordinated effort that was similar to what we had in 2003 to 2006."
The Darfur activist community’s response to Gration was quick and harsh. Enough’s Norris said on June’s conference call that Gration “demonstrates a very poor understanding of how you actually determine what constitutes genocide,” and that “Gration didn’t understand what he was talking about.” Norris went on to say that Gration’s comments were “indicative of a shoot-from-the-hip diplomacy that is designed to take the winds out of the sails of activist pressure.”
Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College and one of the Darfur movement’s leading activists, described Gration as “mercurial and off the wall.” In contrast to Gration’s position, both U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Obama himself have described the current situation as genocide.
Alex de Waal, a former aid worker and part-time advisor to Darfurian rebel groups who is considered to be one of the leading scholarly authorities on humanitarian aid and Darfur, asked openly in an online debate hosted by Newsweek with John Prendergast in 2007, if “the stress on genocide—which has continued even after the end of large-scale hostilities in early 2005—misrepresented the situation.” De Waal’s contention, that genocide did not properly describe the humanitarian and refugee crises, as opposed to the direct, mass killing that had occurred earlier, is one that has only gotten more popular in the recent years.
Prendergast responded in the online debate that a “sincere reading of [the Genocide Convention] … leads to a conclusion that the regime in Khartoum is pursuing policies calculated to create conditions that would bring about the destruction, in whole or part, of specific groups of people on the basis of their ethnicity.”
Prendergast’s continued insistence on calling the situation in Sudan genocide reflects that activists in the anti-genocide movement must deal with some complicated issues today. The passionate appeals that began in 2003 in response to the severe mass killings are likely to be less effective when the situation on the ground more closely resembles a humanitarian and refugee crisis. Enough and other anti-genocide groups say that wealthier countries’ erratic funding of humanitarian aid also constitutes a genocidal action as defined by the Genocide Convention, but this is confusing to the public, who associate genocide with mass and deliberate killings.
This debate over the definition of genocide comes at a strange time for the anti-genocide movement. While Prendergast and others say that Gration and Obama are too soft on Khartoum, there is no question that the administration is exceptionally involved in Sudan and sees the entire conflict—the North-South peace and the conflict in Darfur—as deserving of American attention. Many insist that Sudan is still perpetrating genocide in Darfur, but the tone and actions of activist groups do not entirely support that claim. Activists no longer push for armed intervention. Instead, they want more support for the joint United Nation-African Union coalition; groups like Enough have turned their focus to trying to bring about diplomatic outcomes in Sudan that might end the violence and provide aid to the refugees.
The Darfur activist movement is perhaps the largest and most sustained citizen mobilization around a single humanitarian crisis in modern history. But as the movement moves from an oppositional one to one more closely entangled with those who actually exercise power, it will have to change its tactics and messaging, while still maintaining the fervor and emotional appeal that inspired so many to join the movement in the first place.
Editor’s Note: This post notes that Enough believes “erratic funding of humanitarian aid also constitutes a genocidal action” and indicates that Enough once advocated for armed intervention in Darfur. Neither of these statements reflect Enough’s past or present positions.