USAID versus the UN – Just How Bad a Tragedy is Darfur?

Peter Beaumont, writing for The Observer, accuses US officials, especially USAID’s Andrew Natsios, of “‘hyping’ Darfur genocide fears”. Beaumont’s assertion is based on discussions with the UN World Food Program’s survey team. The quotes in the article are quite a bit more nuanced than the headline:

‘It’s not disastrous,’ said one of those involved in the WFP survey, ‘although it certainly was a disaster earlier this year, and if humanitarian assistance declines, this will have very serious negative consequences.’

One might choose to read that statement as an indication that calls to action earlier this year from Natsios and others had the desired effect – a focus on Sudan that’s helped generate international aid. This points to a balancing act that relief organizations are forced to play when confronting disasters. You’ve got to make noise and get attention to get money… but if you do, there’s a danger that your disaster will prevent people from paying attention to other disasters, as well as a danger that you’ll be seen as “crying wolf” and contributing to the (alleged) phenomenon of compassion fatigue.

Aid workers raise two other concerns in conversations with Beaumont. While Darfur’s gotten a great deal of media attention and response, why haven’t similarly dire situations in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo gotten similar attention? And what are the implications of the US declaring the situation in Darfur a genocide, then not moving to intervene?

The first question is fairly easy to answer. There’s a large community in the US – many of whom identify as evangelical Christians – who have been following Sudan closely for over a decade, documenting abuses against Christians in the country at the hands of the Khartoum government. This community worked hard to ensure that US legislators and press paid attention to reports of atrocities coming out of Darfur. They were joined by an unusual coalition of activists from the left and right who saw the genocide as a situation happening in real-time that could be prevented.

I think the rapid reaction to the situation in Darfur by this coalition has a great deal to do with US guilt over our failure to intervene in Rwanda. While militias were burning villages and government planes dropping barrels of metal shrapnel, it was easy to have the fear that the black population of Darfur might be wiped out in the space of a few months while the world watched and our government failed to act. While the conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government, or the unrest threatening to become civil war again in the DRC have been extremely bloody, they haven’t been as sudden as the conflict in Darfur, and haven’t recieved the same Rwanda comparisons.

(I realize I’m not addressing one of the points of the Beaumont piece – the paranoid speculation that the US is focused on Darfur because the Bush regime wants to overthrow the Khartoum government. It takes little more than a quick glance at the left-wing newspapers, columnists and thinkers who’ve spoken about Darfur in the US to realize that if this is a Bush administration ploy, it’s been an unprecedented success.)

The second question is harder to answer. As an aid worker quoted in the story says:

I have no idea what Colin Powell’s game is, but to call it genocide and then effectively say, “Oh, shucks, but we are not going to do anything about that genocide” undermines the very word “genocide”.

The Clinton administration was very careful not to call the situation in Rwanda “genocide”, because doing so would compel the US – a signatory to the UN Genocide Convention – to act. Clinton spokespeople went to ludicrious lengths, using terms like “the G-word” to avoid characterising Hutu killing of Tutsis in Rwanda as “genocide”.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that an administration which has been so dismissive of the UN and international cooperation is willing to use the term, but duck the associated obligations. As Marisa Katz observes in an excellent piece in the New Republic, “Rather than avoid action by avoiding the term, we can now avoid action by invoking it.” Katz points out that a close reading of the convention suggests a reading that compells a country to act only if the genocide is occurring in its own borders; under this reading, Powell is free to declare Darfur a genocide, pressure the UN to act and ensure that US troops will never set foot on Sudanese soil, while being legally in the right, while morally deep in the wrong.

In the meantime, USAID continues to assert that the worst is yet to come, projecting 200-300,000 deaths this year. The UN offers a figure of 50,000 dead so far this year, a figure USAID officials dismiss as “guesswork”.

Update: Sudan’s ambassador to the UN has challenged the US to send troops to Sudan if they really believe genocide is taking place.

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