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Opinion

The 'genocide' in Darfur isn't what it seems

Activist hype, though well-intentioned may have misdirected funds that could have saved lives.

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Despite the good intentions of activists, the popularity of the word "genocide" posed many unanticipated problems and it distorted the balance of culpability and innocence.

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Using the term "genocide" implies that there is a unidirectional crime taking place. To be clear, horrible crimes have been committed, but the perpetrators aren't as clear-cut as the term would make it seem.

The government of Sudan has killed many people and is responsible for war crimes in Darfur, but the rebel insurgents bear some responsibility, too. When the United Nations conducted its International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, it found that many of the rebel groups engaged in "serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law."

By using the word "genocide," and attaching the term to only one side of the conflict, the opposite side is easily ignored.

In Darfur, the use of the term "genocide" has allowed the rebel groups to slip under the radar and commit crimes against humanity without the rest of the world taking notice. Had "genocide" not been the focus, activist campaigns might have challenged the rebel groups and checked their criminal acts.

For example, Eritrea, Chad, and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement were the principal funders of the rebel groups in Darfur. They were and are also allies and aid recipients of the US government, which means they could have easily been pressured to cut their lifelines to the rebel groups.

Today, the situation in Darfur continues to be mischaracterized. Most of the ongoing violence can be attributed to banditry, lawlessness, and fighting between rebel groups. According to the latest United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) report, 16 fatalities were recorded for the month of June and none of them was linked to the conflict between Sudanese forces and the rebel groups.

The conflict in Darfur has not met the 1,000 casualties per year threshold that most political scientists consider necessary for a conflict to be categorized as a "civil war" since last year.

Despite these changes, many continue to argue that the government of Sudan is waging a large-scale assault on Darfur. The terms "ongoing genocide" and "war in Darfur" are still used frequently in activist literature and advertisements, which has left the American people believing that not much has changed in Darfur.

President Obama himself has recently used the word "genocide" to refer to the current situation. Similarly, the State Department and the US ambassador to the UN distanced themselves from the US presidential envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, who dared to suggest that the genocide in Darfur was over.

If they wish to help ameliorate the conflict, officials in Washington and activists alike must recognize that there have been big changes in the scale and nature of the violence in Darfur.

Instead of focusing on military intervention or the punishment of only one participant in the conflict (the Sudanese government), efforts should be directed toward funding the peacemaking process and the safe return of more than 2 million displaced refugees.

Marc Gustafson is a Marshall Scholar and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford. He is currently writing his dissertation on political trends in Sudan.

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