Experts Appeal for Action to Resolve Darfur Crisis
by Chris Hall
During a panel sponsored by the Conference on Public Service and the Law February 16, experts on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur urged audience members to pay attention to the ethnic cleansing occurring in Sudan and to pressure the U.S. government to better address the situation, The panelists discussed the scope and extent of the humanitarian crisis resulting from the armed conflict between the Sudanese government and rebel groups in Darfur, as well as possible solutions to the crisis.
Since 2003, the Sudanese government has been conducting an aggressive campaign against rebel groups in Darfur, explained moderator Doug Ford, director of the Law School’s Immigration Law Clinic. Ford said the government in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, has not been held accountable by the international community either as the perpetrator of war crimes and crimes against humanity, or as the institutional mechanism to uphold the law and prevent the well-documented atrocities that have occurred.
The International Criminal Court is investigating the war crimes that have been occurring in Darfur, but due to the complicated legal processes of the ICC’s formal investigation, few measures can be taken immediately to help alleviate the current problems in the region, Ford explained.
“What we are clearly faced with … is the lack of effective mechanisms that prevent the abuses and bring some kind of alleviation or stability to the people on the ground,” he said.
The panel included Georgette Gagnon, director of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, an independent nonpartisan NGO that conducts fact-finding missions into the most grievous human rights abuses in approximately 70 countries. Human Rights Watch has conducted hundreds of interviews in Darfur and has published some 15 major reports on the crisis there and three reports on Chad, whose borders were breached by the conflict last year. Gagnon, who was unable to attend the event and spoke to the audience via speaker phone, gave a brief history of the conflict between the Sudanese government and the rebel groups in the Darfur region. Gagnon’s speech was accompanied by a slideshow of photographs, each graphically illustrating the toll the conflict has had on the country and its people. Some of the images were of drawings by children in Darfur, crayon-scrawled renditions of the grisly attacks on their villages.
“The Sudanese government chose to respond to the rebellion not through peaceful means or political dialogue with the rebel groups, but through brutal and overwhelming force, and not only against rebel fighters, but against almost every woman, man, and child in Darfur,” Gagnon explained.
The Sudanese government and the ethnic militias it arms “have destroyed Darfur, through indiscriminately bombing villages and farms by aircraft and helicopter gunships, and ground attacks on civilians,” she said. The Sudanese government is using ethnic cleansing and forced displacement as a counterinsurgency strategy, Gagnon said, resulting in at least 200,000 conflict-related deaths, and displacing more than two million people, who are currently confined to massive refugee camps and are solely dependent on food from international relief organizations.
Panelist Daowd Salih, a refugee from Darfur, is a founding board member and president of the Damanga Coalition for Freedom and Democracy, a group that developed from exiled Darfurian refugees in Cairo. Salih was forced to leave the Sudan because of his advocacy work on behalf of various Darfurian ethnic groups. Salih also co-authored a 1999 open letter to the international community titled “The Hidden Slaughter and Ethnic Cleansing in Western Sudan,” which by many accounts was the first discussion of the earlier abuses by the Sudanese government.
Salih spoke about his background and the cataclysmic events in his life, from the interruption of his schooling to his escape to Egypt in 1999. Salih also pointed out several fellow refugees who had joined the audience during Gagnon’s speech, each one adding a real-life face to the Darfurian crisis.
“We, the Darfurians, did not commit any crimes, just that we are African,” Salih said. “We are very ordinary people, as you can see from the pictures …. Today, genocide is happening, right now while we are speaking, for my people in Darfur.”
Salih attributed the genocide to “Arabic imperialism.” Because the Africans in Sudan adopted Islamic rites and wanted to keep their native languages, the Arab-controlled government responded with aggression, he said. Salih also explained that a small minority of Arabs comprise the power structure in Sudan, and that this Arabic minority is trying to marginalize the African majority for fear of losing influence.
“If you ask me the question ‘why is this thing happening,’ it’s happening because we are Darfurian, not Muslims,” Salih said. “We did not take Islam in the full package, which means assimilation and Arabization .… Second, they want to take the land, because Darfur is a huge area,” he explained. “That’s why all of the Arabic countries are supporting Sudan’s government.” Salih added that the conflict in Sudan is very much the result of Arabic countries attempting to divide Africa and exert Arabic influence over the continent.
“To stop genocide means to stop Arabization, to stop genocide means to stop assimilations, to stop genocide in Darfur means to stop the dividing of Africa.”
Genocide Watch founder Gregory Stanton, the third panelist, first addressed the controversy surrounding the labeling of the Crisis in Darfur as a “genocide.” Stanton pointed out that the events in Darfur meet all of the standards for genocide set forth by the U.N. Genocide Convention. Stanton added that he wished to expunge the term “ethnic cleansing” from the English language, as the phrase was a euphemism used by Slobodan Milosevic to describe the mass killings in the former Yugoslavia.
“The use of these words has a significance because words motivate people to act, and if people don’t get the words right, they don’t act,” he said.
Stanton also spoke at length about the need for motivated ingenuity among lawyers and policymakers in developing methods of dealing with the crisis in Darfur. Stanton emphasized throughout his speech that law students can help investigate the crimes occurring in Darfur. “I think that some of you may feel called to work on this, because that is something that you can do as lawyers,” he said. “You have the intelligence and the creativity to make a difference. You are the people who are going to create the institutions that are going to end genocide someday … You are the answer to this genocide, and to genocides to come, because this won’t be the last one.”