Editor's Note: This op-ed authored by Akshaya Kumar originally appeared on Al Jazeera America.
Earlier this month, Sudan’s paramilitary Janjaweed forces razed 127 empty villages in Darfur to the ground. According to reports in local media, this was their second rampage over the same territory in as many months. However, the Khartoum-backed Arab militiamen were not there to kill this time. All the people in the affected villages were long gone. The latest incursion offers evidence of a much more chilling “intent to destroy” those who once lived there.
Coming to terms with this intent — the crux of determining what is or isn’t genocide under the United Nations Genocide Convention — requires understanding the motivation to extinguish sources of survival, even after targeted communities have fled. It demands considering why perpetrators would go back to irreparably damage wells, reservoirs of lifesaving water in an arid landscape. It asks us to imagine what it means for a genocide to continue, not for 100 days as in Rwanda, but for 10 years.
As in Rwanda, where survivors are commemorating the 20th anniversary of that country’s genocide, Darfur conjures images of unspeakable evil. However, almost a decade after the U.S. government labeled events in Darfur “genocide,” a divisive debate around the use of the term continues to undermine efforts to resolve the crisis.
A ferocious debate
In July 2004, the U.S. Congress unanimously passed a resolution designating the situation in Darfur as genocide. Lawmakers called on the White House to “seriously consider multilateral or even unilateral intervention to stop genocide in Darfur.” Shortly thereafter, the politics around the use of that word became a far greater preoccupation than the crisis itself. The Sudanese government insists the violence in Darfur is driven by spontaneous intertribal skirmishes in a lawless area where the state has been forced to wage a counterinsurgency campaign.
Activists continued to characterize the conflict in Darfur as “genocide,” pointing to the systematic nature of the attacks on the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit communities while Arab villages were left intact. In his book “Saviors and Survivors,” Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani stridently indicted the activists for applying moral certainty about the word “genocide” without real knowledge of the historical and political context of the conflict. The backlash against the use of the word in Darfur left many confused as to what was really happening. The ferocity of the debate distracted from the gravity of the atrocities. Ultimately, this paralyzed policymakers and international action under the “responsibility to protect“ framework — a human rights norm mandating that states and the international community protect populations and prevent mass atrocities.
Continue reading the full op-ed on Al Jazeera America.
Photo: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (AP).