The article “The New Humanitarian Order” by Mahmood Mamdani is excerpted from the conclusion of his yet to be released book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror. This was a fantastic piece that discussed the politicization of the Darfur conflict, the concept of humanitarian intervention, subverting the language of genocide, the International Criminal Court (ICC), law and politics in transitional societies, and survivors justice. I will briefly review each of these discussions followed by some general thoughts on this topic.
Mamadani begins by rightly pointing out that the conflict in Darfur has become unnecessarily politicized and is widely misunderstood in the West. He notes that the conflict in Darfur began as a civil war in 1987-89. He notes that the two key sides of the conflict—the Fur people and the Arabs—both committed crimes against each other. However, when the ICC began to consider this conflict it put the onus of blame on the Arabs. It falsely argued that this was a racialized conflict stoked by the Arabs. In fact, the problems in Darfur were related to resource conflicts and had little to do with ethnic tensions. The three points that drove this conflict were: 1) the colonial system which reorganized Darfur into a series of tribal homelands that designated the largest areas for settled peasant tribes and none for nomadic tribes. 2) Environmental degradation has seen the Sahara Desert expand by 100 kilometers in four decades and reached a critical point in the mid-1980s in that it pushed all tribes of North Darfur—Arab and non-Arab—further south in search of more fertile land. 3) The brutal counterinsurgency by the Bashir regime in 2003-04 in response to an insurgency backed by peasant tribes. Essentially the Darfur conflict stems from a series of internal problems which have pitted some members of society against the state. Even when there was a rise in the death rate of noncombatants from 2003-04 the World Health Organization traced 80 percent of deaths to drought-related diarrhea and only 20 percent to direct violence. So for the ICC to indict President Bashir for being behind this violence is not only the wrong approach but it also doesn’t address the real problems in this conflict. For the ICC to take a politicized action undermines it as an institution and hurts the cause of peace in Darfur.
Mamdani continues by discussing the concept of humanitarian intervention. He rightly notes that the international system that was set up after World War II made state sovereignty essentially inviolable. Humanitarian intervention does not abide by the rule of law and undermines the concept of state sovereignty. Furthermore, which conflicts are dealt with through this venue (e.g. Iraq, Darfur, etc.) often have ulterior motives that are more important than any concern for protection of civilian lives. Humanitarian intervention is a breach to state sovereignty and undermines our Westphalian system. State sovereignty has traditionally been sacrosanct and it is a political concept that is almost universally accepted. Humanitarian intervention does not care for state sovereignty.
So Defenders of humanitarian intervention argue that it is an apolitical concept since the protection of a protection of an innocent “other” is paramount. Furthermore, the concept of humanitarian intervention has been used throughout history to justify intervention to protect vulnerable peoples. For example, Western powers used to intervene in areas under the control of the Ottoman Empire under the guise of protecting minority religious groups. Similar concepts of protection of innocents were used by all the eighteenth and nineteenth century powers to justify their imperial ambitions. Our time is no different. It seems that the generalized “West” would like the right to intervene in other countries whenever the “West” considers a minority group to be in trouble (and is shouldn’t be surprising that resources often make these innocent civilians more important). The cries of “genocide” have been used to galvanize support for humanitarian intervention. However, these calls are almost always politicized and thus undermine the gravity of genocide.
Genocide is defined by extreme violence that targets for annihilation a civilian population that is marked off as different "on grounds of race, ethnicity or religion" from the dominant population. Now genocide has become a term used as a political tool to describe something that has become so reprehensible that action must be taken to stop its continuation. All modern wars are total wars and these wars are typically one of either an insurgency (liberation war), counterinsurgency (suppression of civil war or of rebel/revolutionary movements), or an inter-state war. Many civilians necessarily die in these conflicts and there are numerous crimes committed by all sides in modern conflicts. However, raising the specter of genocide in a particular country is used to justify the other type of war, i.e. humanitarian intervention. With the onset of the War on Terror, the concept of intervention as a positive idea to prevent genocide has gained traction even though indiscriminate bombings have been a hallmark of this war that has left thousands of civilians dead. So the term genocide is used to rationalize the illegal violation of state sovereignty. But to use the term genocide to describe the conflict in Darfur is not only incorrect but it also obfuscates the facts on the ground. This is unacceptable and the ICC has reinforced this misperception.
The ICC has become a politicized organization that indicts some individuals (such as Bashir) and ignores others (such as President Bush) that commit crimes. The ICC appears to be going after targets that are of interest to Western powers but does not pass judgment uniformly. This will ultimately undermine this institution and make it increasingly irrelevant.
The right approach to resolving difficult conflicts is through principled diplomacy and the flexible application of law in transitional societies. Justice for victims has to be put in context within the reconstitution of the society. Human rights abuses need to be dealt with but not necessarily through punitive justice. The example of South African and its Truth and Reconciliation movement is an excellent case in point. By absolving perpetrators of their crimes by demanding an open detailing of their crimes was an excellent way to resolve Apartheid-era injustices. This flexible model of justice brought stability and reconciliation to South Africa, not continued violence and retribution. As Mamdani noted, “Nuremberg may have been the paradigm for victors’ justice but South Africa’s post-apartheid transition is the paradigm for survivors’ justice.
Overall this is an excellent article worth considering and I’m looking forward to reading the book. Distinguishing between crimes against humanity and genocide is important and conflict prevention should be employed at all levels to prevent war. The issue of genocide is grave and innocent civilians need protection. However, dropping bombs and indictments often hurts civilians more than it protects them.