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The New Humanitarian Order

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BEN CURTIS/ASSOCIATED PRESSRefugees at a makeshift camp in West Darfur, 2004

About the Author

Mahmood Mamdani
Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at Columbia University, was director of the Institute of...

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This article is excerpted from the conclusion to Mahmood Mamdani's book Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, forthcoming from Pantheon in January.

On July 14, after much advance publicity and fanfare, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court applied for an arrest warrant for the president of Sudan, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, on charges that included genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Important questions of fact arise from the application as presented by the prosecutor. But even more important is the light this case sheds on the politics of the "new humanitarian order."

The conflict in Darfur began as a civil war in 1987-89, before Bashir and his group came to power. It was marked by indiscriminate killing and mass slaughter on both sides. The language of genocide was first employed in that conflict. The Fur representative at the May 1989 reconciliation conference in El Fasher pointed to their adversaries and claimed that "the aim is a total holocaust and no less than the complete annihilation of the Fur people and all things Fur." In response the Arab representative traced the origin of the conflict to "the end of the '70s when...the Arabs were depicted as foreigners who should be evicted from this area of Dar Fur."

The ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has uncritically taken on the point of view of one side in this conflict, a side that was speaking of a "holocaust" before Bashir came to power, and he attributes far too much responsibility for the killing to Bashir alone. He goes on to speak of "new settlers" in today's Darfur, suggesting that he has internalized this partisan perspective.

At the same time, the prosecutor speaks in ignorance of history: "AL BASHIR...promoted the idea of a polarization between tribes aligned with him, whom he labeled 'Arabs' and...the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa...derogatory [sic] referred to as 'Zurgas' or 'Africans'." The racialization of identities in Darfur has its roots in the British colonial period. As early as the late 1920s, the British tried to organize two confederations in Darfur: one Arab, the other black (Zurga). Racialized identities were incorporated into the census and provided the frame for government policy. It is not out of the blue that the two sides in the 1987-89 civil war described themselves as Arab and Zurga. If anything, the evidence shows that successive Sudanese governments--Bashir's included--looked down on all Darfuris, non-Arab Zurga as well as Arab nomads.

Having falsely attributed to Bashir the racialization of the conflict, Moreno-Ocampo focuses on two consequences of the conflict in Darfur: ethnic cleansing through land-grabbing and atrocities in the camps. He attributes both to Bashir. He is again wrong. The land-grabbing has been a consequence of three different, if related, causes. The first is the colonial system, which reorganized Darfur as a series of tribal homelands, designating the largest for settled peasant tribes and none for fully nomadic tribes. The second is environmental degradation: according to the United Nations Environment Program, the Sahara expanded by 100 kilometers in four decades; this process reached a critical point in the mid-1980s, pushing all tribes of North Darfur, Arab and non-Arab, farther south, onto more fertile Fur and Masalit lands. This in turn led to a conflict between tribes with homelands and those without them. The imperative of sheer survival explains in part the unprecedented brutality of the violence in every successive war since 1987-89. The third cause came last: the brutal counterinsurgency unleashed by the Bashir regime in 2003-04 in response to an insurgency backed up by peasant tribes.

It is not just the early history of the conflict that the prosecutor is poorly informed about. In his eagerness to build a case, Moreno-Ocampo glosses over recent history as well. He charges Bashir with following up the mass slaughter of 2003-04 with attrition by other means in the camps: "He did not need bullets. He used other weapons: rape, hunger and fear." This claim flies in the face of evidence from UN sources in Darfur, quoted by Julie Flint in the London Independent, that the death rate in the camps came down to around 200 a month from early 2005, less than in South Sudan or in the poor suburbs of Khartoum.

The point of the prosecutor's case is to connect all consequences in Darfur to a single cause: Bashir. Moreno-Ocampo told journalists in The Hague, "What happened in Darfur is a consequence of Bashir's will." The prosecution of Bashir comes across as politicized justice. As such, it will undermine the legitimacy of the ICC and almost certainly will not help solve the crisis in Darfur. It is perhaps understandable that a prosecutor in a rush would gloss over all evidence that might undermine his case. But we must not. A workable solution to the conflict requires that all its causes be understood in their full complexity.

Darfur was the site of mass deaths in 2003-04. World Health Organization sources--still the most reliable available information on mortality levels then--trace these deaths to two major causes: roughly 80 percent to drought-related diarrhea and 20 percent to direct violence. There is no doubt that the perpetrators of violence should be held accountable, but when and how are political decisions that cannot belong to the ICC prosecutor. More than the innocence or guilt of the president of Sudan, it is the relationship between law and politics--including the politicization of the ICC--that poses a wider issue, one of greatest concern to African governments and peoples.

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