June 02, 2006
'Strategic Victimhood' in Darfur: Opportunities Lost and Lessons Learned
'Strategic victimhood', not a term one often hears in relation to Darfur, any remotely realistic and undramatic approach to the issue has been met with accusations of cynicism and apathy towards a 'genocidal' campaign rivalled only by Rwanda and Burundi. Thankfully, some voices of reason have recently managed to dodge the simplistic black or white perspective and treat the issue as something other than a good vs. evil classic morality tale.
This article in the NYT succinctly and sans obnoxiousness summarizes the various threads of the struggle while making in my view a rather tenuous link to American throwback attitudes towards rebellion.
According to the article, the impression of the rebels as some put upon passive and reluctant warriors has come to be revised as the stereotypical ogre in the conflict, i.e., the Sudanese government, accepted an internationally sponsored peace deal (before which many were ready to pounce and engage in all sorts of I told you so posturing re the Sudanese government's rejection of the treaty) and the Darfur rebels, looked up from beneath the big boot of the government as it slowly crushed their skulls and said, come to think of it, now that we are at the table, please sir, can I have some more? In other words,
Put simply, the rebels were willing to let genocide continue against their own people rather than compromise their demand for power.
As the planned trip towards peace derails and the US and international mediators wipe the egg from their faces this is probably a good time to engage in some sanctimonious criticism, it is all one can look forward to when one is blue in the face after years of saying that the reluctance to paint Darfur as a black and white genocide is not actually a nasty and sinister eagerness to perpetuate it but a belief that a poor isolation of the motivations and interlocutors will only ultimately result in a such a situation. One where a peace treaty has been tailored so ill fittingly, that the know it all Darfur campaigners are sent scurrying back, wondering what went wrong and pissing away precious time during which more murders and rapes (ones that the genocide cynics allegedly had no interest in preventing) are perpetrated.
Seemingly bizarre, this rejection of peace by factions claiming to seek it is actually revelatory. It helps explain why violence originally broke out in Darfur, how the Save Darfur movement unintentionally poured fuel on the fire, and what can be done to stanch genocidal violence in Sudan and elsewhere.
Indeed the piece makes the point that the shrieking bleeding heart support for the rebels if anything has harmed the peace process and prolonged the conflict as the insurgents realized that the only way their demands can be met is if genocidal reaction is provoked from the Sudanese government and in turn saps (the article is particularly critical of the Save Darfur movement) are baited into further putting pressure on the Sudanese government. Makes a change when the 'freedom fighters' themselves are accused of being cynical, manipulating international uninformed support and sacrificing their own people in order to promote more personal agendas. To depart from the Darfur conflict for the moment, this raises interesting questions about the challenges to national governments from an increasingly growing vocal community consisting of anything from students without a cause to NGOs and ill informed members of Western administrations who all believe they have the best interests of the PEOPLE in mind and in fact are being used as powerful allies in rebel conflicts that may not be as legitimate they seem, but too convoluted and involved to encourage closer inspection.
The description of the Sudanese government's behavior as 'criminally irresponsible' as opposed to calculatedly genocidal is spot on, if somehow neglectful of the power deficits that exist in the country. It would have been worth mentioning that sometimes knee jerk 'scorched earth' overreactions may have something to do with the fact that the government does not have a popular mandate and is hence insecure. Even though the government is ostensibly no longer a military dictatorship, the sham of an election held a few years ago upon which Omar el Bashir was voted in for a ridiculously long presidential term hardly means that that government has managed to establish itself democratically.
Instead of stating that the rebels have forfeited their right for international protection and assuming that the government should be allowed to practice its sovereign right to protect its territory the writer would have done better to focus on the crisis of so many semi-legitimate and hence almost by definition semi-sovereign regimes throughout the Third World that do not represent effectively their people politically, economically or socially. Maintaining the regime is the ultimate interest of the Sudanese government and weak foundations call for desperate measures. The lack of a civil society, the heritage of colonialism, random borders drawn in the sand, etc, all precipitate conflicts like that in Darfur. Overreacting and assuming the rebel's cause is legitimate is a mistake, but allowing a shaky and amoral government to deal with it 'on the condition that it eschew war crimes' is not a solution either. The Sudanese government has proved that it needs supervision in the form of international troops, drawn more from African partners sponsored by the UN as opposed to purely US forces.
Ultimately, if the rebels refuse, military force will be required to defeat them. But this is no job for United Nations peacekeepers. Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia show that even the United States military cannot stamp out Islamic rebels on their home turf; second-rate international troops would stand even less chance.
In this case the conflation of US and UN troops means that the comparison does not stand as an indication that UN troops will inevitably fail. UN troops headed by South Africa e.g. and drawn from a pool of African countries will be less inflammatory and maybe more ethnically and racially sensitive.
I do agree with the writer that the US should generally intervene less in drawn out conflicts where rebels have provoked the conflict but to assume that 'people power' organizations can arise in almost any environment is rather simplistic. There are some environments where the aggrieved are so poor, ill educated and underrepresented that there is no choice but to resort to brute force. A more thorough examination of the provenance of conflict and a healthy desensitization to emotive scenes of murder and bloodshed is perhaps a more just and productive attitude to take than one that ignores any armed uprising in favor of more organized and peaceful vague incarnation of 'people power'
Finally the writer states that,
America, born in revolution, has a soft spot for rebels who claim to be freedom fighters, including those in Darfur. But to reduce genocidal violence, we must withhold support for the cynical provocations of militants who bear little resemblance to our founders.
I am not quite sure what to make of this, part of me wants to dismiss it as pure unadulterated bollocks but the statement does resonate when one thinks that America does tend to deprive other countries, histories and futures of any inherent value other than one that loosely prescribes to American beliefs of how things are done. Whether lack of resemblance to 'our founders' is an excuse to withdraw completely and treat all scenarios without nuance seems rather self-contradictory as it is generalisations of that very nature that the article is effectively criticising and generalisations of that very nature that resulted in such a poor response to the Darfur conflict in the first place.
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Those who call for nuanced responses to killing are condemned to be forever disappointed. The attitude to war is emotional, and that emotion, whatever it is, is total, without room or patience for nuance. It's very tiring to experience.
One university lecturer I knew dryly remarked that since the working class had disappointed the Left so bad, the anti-capitalist Left has had to cast its love on Third Worlders. Hence the anti-globalist happenings...ah, the irony.
They thought they had a real cause in Dar Fur. Probably the best thing outsiders can do is 'maintain a presence'. Even symbolic gestures matter. It worked decently in Yugoslavia, certainly things would have been worse without the UN there.
Posted by: Klaus at June 2, 2006 11:18 AM
I knew a Sudanese exile in Germany who claimed to know one of the leaders of the Dar Fur rebel movement. According to the first guy, the uprising was cynically provoked by exile groups who wanted to get a good deal like the south had got. He was disgusted with the whole thing.
(I know, I know. Like interviewing your taxidriver.)
Anyway, with that conversation in mind, I've always been skeptical about the black and white version presented in US media and blogs. This article seems closer to what I heard back then.
Posted by: Jackmormon at June 2, 2006 04:03 PM
I agree with your observations. I do think the policy option chosen by the USG leadership over the past two years has been rather irresponsible, which has helped lead to the worsening of the crisis, because the US treated it like a "genocide", alienating the Sudanese regime and pushing it further to the fringes of the int'l community, leaving them more emboldened to make "scorched earth" policies that only act as another dagger in the heart of Sudan's future.
On another level though, the article is dishonest because it seems to think the majority of Save Darfur campaginers are supporting the rebels, when in reality they're supporting the refugees. I don't know a reasonable breakdown of refugee membership in the rebel organizations, but I would think this is a vicious cycle, where some pissed off refugees join rebel groups after conditions in the camps become steadily worse due to aid agencies being forced to leave because of the poor security situation.
Blaming the refugees for the rebels is just as black and white as portarying the Sudanese regime as "Arab Hitlers" and the refugee/rebels as saints. The third party in this terrible tragedy are the refugees, and they suffer far more for the sins of both the government and the rebels.
NATO nations and China need to infuse a lot of money into the AU effort to pay for the current AU troops and additional AU expansion in the near future. Secure the camps from both rebels (who recruit) and Janjaweed. Start funneling cash into a long-term Dar Fur development fund that can be used in the near future for the next 15-20 years to help all tribes recover from the effects of war and desertification. The AU could administer the region and the Sudanese government would be given assurances that rebel groups would not be tolerated within Dar Fur.
On a deeper level, I think the idea of a sizeable reconstruction "fund" for each war-torn nation such as Sudan, East Timor and Liberia, would be a great idea to help empower locals (by providing funds for local projects to rebuild homes and a way of life) and promote a recouncillation project along the lines of successful efforts in South Africa and Mozambique.
Posted by: Eddie at June 2, 2006 04:14 PM
Re: Jackmormon's post.
This is probably the leading reason, which makes me worry about the rebellion in the East if the Dar Fur rebels also eventually get a good or even decent deal out of this mess.
Posted by: Eddie at June 2, 2006 04:43 PM
The Abuja treaty is, I think, as good as gets. It would revert the situation to what it was before 94, when the government enacted a set of reforms that broke the traditional hegemony of the African (or, 'African') tribes in their home areas, in favour of allied Arab (or, 'Arab') nomads. (Well, that's assuming the African/rebel tribes win a referendum, but they will.) It also preserves traditional land rights, again to the benefit of the rebel tribes (who are landowners) and the detriment of those Arab tribes participating in the 'Janjawid' (who are not). Added to this are financial and political incentives intended to buy off the leadership and fighters of both rebels & pro-gov militias, who are by now a power, and thus a problem, in their own right, quite apart from the original tribal hostilities.
So, it's basically a pro-rebel treaty, even if it also, wisely, puts in place a number of conflict-solving mechanisms, partly to address Arab complaints and partly to promote reconciliation.
The main problem it has, is that there are so many 'if's left, so many weak links where the intent is great, but everything hinges on all parties cooperating. Such as now: if they can't even get everyone to sign, it's useless. That situation will be repeated time and again in the coming years, over power-sharing issues, appointment of interim posts and much else. Also, the war has left the main rebel tribes (Fur, Massalit, Zaghawa) and probably many of the 'Janjawid' tribes and clans too, with a new, political/military leadership, in parallell to normal tribal hierarchies -- this creates a new form of in-tribal friction, that will have to be dealt with. There's really no way to avoid these things, and I don't know how the treaty could do it differently, and still be acceptable to all sides. But people in the West need to recognize that if the treaty is signed, that's not the end of the story. There remains many years of monitoring, pushing and bribing, by the international community, to successfully follow through and stabilize the situation, so Darfur can stand alone without reverting to hostilities.
What really should be tried at this point, in addition to heavy pressure on the rebels (and on the gov over UN troops), is to bring financial incentives outside of the Abuja framework, i.e. to get aid donors to buy off rebel tribes, and peel off support from the rebel holdouts. That wouldn't compromise the integrity of the treaty itself, but could still save the situation -- although it does, in a way, reward further hostilities, as Kuperman warns. Be that as it may; his suggestion to let the Sudanese army deal with leftover rebels (which right now includes the main Fur faction, meaning half the pro-rebel population) seems totally unrealistic.
Posted by: alle at June 2, 2006 06:18 PM
I suppose I'm probably beating an old hat to smithereens to note that this is exactly the repeat of everything that's happened in former Yugoslavia: the "evil" Serbs always conceded. The "victims," be it Kosovar Albanians or Bosnian Muslism generally did not, and often attacked the proffered agreements as fundamentally flawed. I'm not trying to take sides and I realize I'm going outside the region, but I'd been always puzzled by this phenomenon which no one else even seemed to notice. Will anyone notice this in Sudan, now that the Sudanese "Arabs" have been as villified as our previous evildoers du jour have been?
Posted by: kao_hsien_chih at June 2, 2006 08:15 PM
Blaming the refugees for the rebels is just as black and white as portarying the Sudanese regime as "Arab Hitlers" and the refugee/rebels as saints. The third party in this terrible tragedy are the refugees, and they suffer far more for the sins of both the government and the rebels
Spot on, in the article, there is a distnct ack of attention paid to the most important protagnoists, i.e, the refugees and the victims.
Be that as it may; his suggestion to let the Sudanese army deal with leftover rebels (which right now includes the main Fur faction, meaning half the pro-rebel population) seems totally unrealistic.
Flaming looney more like
the "evil" Serbs always conceded. The "victims," be it Kosovar Albanians or Bosnian Muslism generally did not, and often attacked the proffered agreements as fundamentally flawed.
Rejection of a treaty by victims because it does not guarantee ;legitimate rights and enshrine future values and rules of engagement is in some cases the difficult responsibility of negotiators, trying to make the best of a bad situation but when aspects of the conflict have been deliberately provoked in order to raise alarm is a different matter.
Posted by: Meph at June 3, 2006 07:47 AM
Since the subject of Kosovo was mentioned, there were many cases when the KLA tried to intensify the conflict in order to provoke a foreign intervention. Milosevic had actually at one point withdrawn Yugoslav troops from the province, but the KLA just moved in and so the troops were called back in. While Milosevic was leading the conflict in a particularly brutal way, it was nowhere close to the genocide that was being shouted in the West. In fact most of tha atrocities happened after the "humanitarian" bombing started. People tend to forget that conflicts are usually two sided and very complex.
Similar processes, although in a different way, probably worked the Western portrayal of the conflict in Darfur. For example JEM, one of the rebel groups, actually arose from people who were part of the Sudanese government, but were kicked out in 1999. Also the portrayal of it as some genocidal conflict of "Arabs" versus "Black Africans", or even a Jihad or whatever, is very misleading. While the Janjaweed militias are extremely brutal, they are mostly composed of members of some of the smaller pastoralist Arab tribes. Most of the bigger Arab tribes in the area are farmers and do not participate in the conflict.
Posted by: showtime17 at June 3, 2006 10:22 AM
Some conflicts are simple, though clever people often have problems with simple things: In the search for the obscure, they miss or discard the immediately apparent. Are you willing to look at the Czechnya wars as a two-sided and very complex conflict? Japan invading China before WWII? The Indian Wars (in USA)?
Some things are grey, and some are black and white. To assume everything is grey is as misguided as assuming everything is black and white.
Posted by: Klaus at June 3, 2006 11:53 AM
Both Milosevic and successive Sudanese governments had been essentially responsible for what was described by some as genocide but what certainly was mass murder prior to Kosovo and Dar Fur in Bosnia and Southern Sudan.
So it is hard to feel sympathy for them in their reactions to further insurgencies, i.e. Kosovo and Dar Fur.
I am certain that there are tribes on the side of the Janjaweed and the Sudanese gov't who are not benefiting very much from this current bout of madness, hence the need for a framework to buy the tribes off and get them to work together for to save their imperiled futures.
Posted by: Eddie at June 3, 2006 01:22 PM
Not to hijack this thread and turn it into a Kosovo debate, but we also have to remember that the issues in Kosovo was what actually led Milosevic to rise to power. Back in the late 1980s some Albanians were beating up Serbs and there was general unrest. The Yugoslav government sent Milosevic (who was then only a minor official) down to investigate. From hence came the famous scene where Milosevic is talking to an old Serb and saying: "No one will beat you again." Milosevic then used it for his own purposes and all hell broke loose after.
As for issues, yes some issues are close to black and white, but most aren't. I don't think Chechnya is a black and white issue. While Russia has been conducting its campaign there pretty brutally, that does not mean that it's automatically the bad guy. The small force of rebels it is fighting is very dangerous and includes many foreign Islamic mujahedeen. It would be very dangerous for the Russians just to leave that region. (something which most Chechens don't even want) That would create a huge potential for spillover of these rebels into neighboring regions like Ingushetia, which they have already done on several occassions. (Beslan?)
OK back to Sudan. The two remaining rebel groups in Darfur (including JEM) have not agreed to the peace deal, so there might still be trouble there.
Posted by: showtime17 at June 3, 2006 02:39 PM
JEM is not very important. They've had a negligible military impact (so far), but they outdo their competitors in connecting with the media. What is important is the main SLA faction under Abd al-Wahid Muhammad al-Nur, which represents the Fur, the biggest tribe/people of Darfur. Some hopeful signs here.
On Chechnya, "pretty brutally" should be "as brutally, if not worse than, the Sudanese government in Darfur, but with virtually no international protest". And for that reason, I guess most Chechens are most of all interested in being alive, even if they would ultimately prefer independence -- presently, it seems, they can't have both.
Posted by: alle at June 3, 2006 03:22 PM
Well another danger for Darfur and the region is that a similar conflict is in the early stages of development in Chad. And this is coupled with the general instability of the government in the country. So even if the agreement is signed, there is a potential of a reverse spillover from Chad.
Posted by: showtime at June 3, 2006 08:43 PM