The "Save Darfur" movement is one of the largest American activist movements in recent history.
It emerged in the summer of 2004 in reaction to an issue that had little impact on the lives of average Americans: a year-old civil war in Darfur. Horrific stories of rape, murder, and genocide began to appear in US newspapers and define Darfur. Millions were moved by these accounts and organized a movement to stop the violence.
In the next five years, however, the war in Darfur became one of the most misunderstood conflicts in recent history.
That's because the activist campaigns mischaracterized and sensationalized it in order to grow the movement. Such distortion helped the PR effort, but it arguably hurt the very people who needed help.
Activists inflated casualty rates, often claiming that hundreds of thousands of Darfurians have been "killed." What they tended to leave out was that the majority of the casualties occurred as a result of disease and malnutrition ( stemming from war).
Differentiating between those may seem insignificant in the shadow of the horrific acts of war crimes in Darfur, but ignoring these categorizations has led many activists to put pressure on the US government to fund violence-prevention plans and international peacekeeping troops, often in lieu of providing humanitarian aid and funds for peacemaking.
The Save Darfur Coalition has been particularly effective in using its scores of followers to pressure policymakers. They have hired lobbyists in Washington to draft legislation and pressure politicians to focus their efforts on violence prevention and UN troop deployment.
Before these lobbyists were hired, the US had sent a total of $1.01 billion dollars to Darfur. Of this, $839 million (83 percent) was allocated to refugee camps and humanitarian assistance, while $175 million (17 percent) was directed to fund peacekeeping activities. These numbers show that Washington was initially more focused on providing humanitarian aid than peacekeeping.
From 2006 until 2008, when the Save Darfur Coalition and many other groups began to pressure the government, the allocation of US funds shifted dramatically from humanitarian aid to peacekeeping, presumably due to the influence of the lobbyists and public pressure campaigns.
Of the $2.01 billion that was spent, $1.03 billion (51.3 percent) was spent on humanitarian aid, while $980 million (48.7 percent) was spent on funding peacekeeping missions, a significant shift toward peacekeeping.
In the end, these proportional changes were problematic because, as many casualty surveys show, the number of people who were "killed" in Darfur declined significantly after the April 8 cease-fire of 2004, while the rate of those who were dying of disease and malnutrition remained high.
Had the Darfur activists not advocated for a reallocation of funds, more lives would probably have been saved.
Many activists have also mischaracterized the nature of the violence in Darfur, intimating that the government of Sudan and rogue Arab tribes have been responsible for most, if not all, of the bloodshed. "Save Darfur" advertisements, newsletters, and websites frequently use the term "ongoing genocide" to describe the conflict.
The term "genocide" was originally used to provide a sense of gravity so that international governments and institutions would respond more rapidly to the conflict.
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.
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.