Darfur: damned by pity

There is no civil war so bad that it cannot be made worse by the intervention of Western liberals.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Last week I was asked to sign a letter calling for UN intervention in Darfur, which was published in the Guardian on Saturday.

Signatories included the Observer columnist Nick Cohen and Muslim Council of Britain representative Inayat Bunglawala (better known for bickering with each other over foreign policy rather than agreeing on it), as well as Bush-supporting US blogger Glenn Reynolds alongside British radical queer rights activist Peter Tatchell, among others. The letter said ‘all of us agree’ that the ‘United Nations must be supported in every way possible to bring [the Darfur crisis] to an end and to reconstruct the region’. It also called on people to attend the ‘Day for Darfur’ march in London, which took place on Sunday, and which called on the New Labour government to put pressure on the Sudanese government and ‘protect the civilians’ of Darfur (1).

I didn’t sign. Why not? It isn’t because I am part of some nasty ‘do nothing’ brigade, that fairly imaginary collection of Tories, lefties and others who are so often slammed by pro-interventionists for just not caring about people in far-flung corners of the globe. Nor is it because I want the Darfur crisis to continue; of course I don’t. On the contrary, it is precisely because I am concerned, as a humanist, about the lives and liberties of people in Sudan, the rest of Africa and elsewhere that I wanted nothing to do with this letter or the Day for Darfur. Absolutely the worst thing that could have happened to the people of Darfur is that they won the flattery and patronage of liberals and luvvies in America and Europe. Recent history shows us that there is no civil war so bad that it cannot be made worse – prolonged, intensified, made more bloody and intractable – by the intervention of Western liberals.

The American and European campaigning around Darfur follows a familiar pattern in post-Cold War ‘humanitarian interventions’, from Somalia in the early Nineties to Bosnia in the mid-Nineties to Kosovo at the end of the Nineties. First, the campaigners pick one war out of many taking place around the world in order to transform it into an international issue, the most important war in the world, the One War Every Good Person Should Be Concerned About. So even though there have recently been other, depressingly familiar wars in Africa, including in Uganda and the Congo, as well as the potential for open conflict in Somalia and Ethiopia, apparently all eyes should be focused on Darfur and Darfur alone. The US-based Save Darfur Coalition sells green ‘Save Darfur’ wristbands, lawn signs, bumper stickers, and banners that say ‘A call to your conscience: save Darfur’ which it wants displayed in ‘community centres, houses of worships, schools and other institutions’. Its aim is to plaster the green ‘Save Darfur’ logo in as many places as possible – and, via ribbons and wristbands, on as many people as possible – in order to ‘raise awareness about the conflict and motivate others to take action’ (2).

Very often, the starting point of Western campaigning on conflict zones is a selective and inhumane one, where one group of victims – in this case Darfurians – are elevated above all others. This is not so much international solidarity with people who are oppressed or living through war around the world, but rather a case of ‘adopt-a-genocide’ – a localised pity with one group of victims who are seen as being more worthy of our flattery than those peculiar people in the Congo or the complex groups involved in Uganda’s recent civil turmoil. A similar thing happened when the world’s media and humanitarian campaigners focused their attentions on Bosnia from 1992 to 1995: virtually all other conflicts and injustices around the world were simply ignored or downplayed. Around the same time that the civil war in Bosnia started, Armenian forces intensified their actions against Azerbaijan, over the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh – a conflict that dragged on until 1994 and cost an estimated 20,000 lives (3). Be honest, who remembers that war? Not many of us. Those people don’t matter. They weren’t fortunate enough to make it into the hierarchy of humanitarianism.

Second, the pro-Darfur campaigners, like other humanitarian warriors before them, have transformed what is in fact a complex political and social conflict into a simple matter of Good vs Evil. As Guardian columnist Jonathan Steele has argued: ‘The complex grievances that set farmers against nomads was covered with a simplistic template of Arab vs African, even though the region was crisscrossed with tribal and local rivalries that put some villages on the [Sudanese] government’s side and others against it.’ (4) Hollywood actor George Clooney, who is at the forefront of the ‘Save Darfur’ campaign in glamorous circles in America, says of Darfur: ‘It’s not a political issue. There is only right and wrong.’ (5) Here, instead of analysing the complex causes of conflict in Darfur, Western moralisers impose a ready-made black-and-white framework that reduces people’s grievances, aspirations and violent disagreements with others to a kind of Grimm brothers’ fairytale featuring goodies and baddies. They did the same with Bosnia. A grubby war between various factions over influence and territory following the end of the Cold War was described as a war of right (the Bosnian Muslims) against wrong (the Serbs), which showed that ‘good and evil are not abstractions, but active forces in the world’ (6).

If you’re really lucky (or unlucky, more to the point), the humanitarians’ selection and adoption of your war for special Western attention will be confirmed with the label ‘genocide’. Pro-intervention campaigners use the G-word to denote that a certain conflict is special, different; the G-word also puts a stop to pesky political analysis or debate, because we all know that genocides are just evil, full stop. Both Bosnia and Kosovo were described as genocides, and now Darfur is described as a genocide by campaigning journalists and Day for Darfur supporters (even though both the UN and Amnesty International refuse to use the term genocide). Fairly ordinary brutal civil wars are described as genocides in order to drive home the good and evil framework, bolster the case for international intervention, and make the campaigners wearing their green ‘Save Darfur’ wristbands while having a latte in New York or London feel like they are doing something historically profound to stop another Hitler-style outrage.

Third, of course, the campaigners will call for Western intervention. Just as they did over Somalia in 1992, Bosnia from 1992 to 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, the ‘Save Darfur’ campaigners demand that the international community go in there, stop the war and even ‘reconstruct the region’; others are calling for the government in Khartoum to be overthrown and replaced with a more tolerant and respectful regime (7). Perhaps they have in mind the kind of international interventions and ‘reconstruction’ that occurred in Somalia (1,000 Somalis dead in clashes with US troops; no reconstruction), Bosnia (areas destroyed by NATO bombs; reconstruction in the form of a deeply undemocratic state whose politics and policies are effectively dictated by a UN overlord), and Kosovo (600 killed by NATO bombs; immense structural damage in Yugoslavia). Campaigners for humanitarian intervention seem singularly incapable of learning from past mistakes.

If this focus on other people’s wars merely misrepresented what was happening on the ground, that would be bad enough. But it’s far worse than that. Western humanitarians’ adoption of conflicts has a very real and detrimental impact in the warzones themselves, exacerbating tensions and even causing more bloodshed. It happened in Somalia and strikingly in Bosnia and Kosovo, and now we can see it happening again in Darfur.

The pro-interventionist campaigners in the West imbue conflicts with profound moralistic meaning, so that wars over territory or power become transformed into epoch-defining battles between the forces of purity and the forces of evil. This instantly ups the stakes, elevating what are pretty average civil wars into stubborn face-offs over historic values. So Darfurian and Sudanese forces in that poverty-stricken country are no longer merely fighting over land, resources, grazing rights and dwindling water supplies. They apparently are engaged in a war over morals and meaning, where one side has been adopted by liberal Islingtonians as righteous victims while the other – the government in Khartoum and its various alleged militias – have been condemned as backward, archaic, hate-filled fundamentalists (8). Just as we saw in Bosnia, this super-moralisation of civil wars certainly does nothing to encourage compromise or reconciliation; instead it entrenches divisions and inflames both sides to continue fighting.

The reduction of conflicts to battles between good and evil encourages one side (those favoured as ‘good’) to become more belligerent and to hold out against compromise or talks on the basis that they have powerful forces in the West on their side; and it encourages the other side (those labelled as ‘evil’) to become more entrenched and embittered. We can see this happening over Darfur. In May, Darfurian rebel groups initially held back from signing a draft agreement with the Sudanese government, even though the agreement gave the rebels ‘most of what they went to war for’, including: ‘large areas of territory’; a situation where Khartoum-backed militias would have to disarm first; a guarantee of affirmative action so that Darfurians will get public-service jobs; and the right to nominate the governor of one of Darfur’s three states and the deputy governors of the other two (9). Why did they hesitate over the deal? Because, as Jonathan Steele argued, ‘One-sided international media treatment of the crisis may have emboldened the rebels to increase their demands.’ Such Western coverage, said Steele, ‘could be having a pernicious effect and be delaying the chance of ending the killing’ (10). Again, it is a familiar story. The Bosnian Muslims, under advice from the Clinton administration and encouraged by widespread Western support, continually held out for better and better deals in the Bosnian war in 1994 and 1995, which made that bloody conflict drag on for months longer than it needed to.

In a perceptive piece in the New York Times, Alan J Kuperman described it as ‘strategic victimhood in Sudan’, where Darfurian rebels exploited the victim status awarded to them by Western observers in order to get a better deal. Kuperman argues that Westerners’ ‘persistent calls for intervention have actually worsened the violence’: ‘The rebels, much weaker than the government, would logically have sued for peace long ago. Because of the Save Darfur movement, however, the rebels believe that the longer they provoke genocidal reaction, the more the West will pressure Sudan to hand them control of the region.’ (11) It may seem shocking to hear it suggested that rebel armies would knowingly provoke violence against their own people. But again, this is part of the logic of the humanitarian era. By treating certain groups as worthy victims who deserve our protection, Western campaigners encourage them to advertise and even prostitute their victimhood in order to win that protection, the continuing flattery of groups in the West. It is still alleged, for example, that Bosnian Muslim forces attacked their own people with mortars, and blamed it on the Serbs, as a means of winning further Western sympathy. Kosovo Albanian forces are alleged to have staged a massacre, by manoeuvring dead bodies, in order to encourage intervention over Kosovo in 1999. This, too, was ‘strategic victimhood’, a performance for Western humanitarians. Where in earlier eras rebel groups might have fought for independence, today, in the humanitarian era, they often execute stunts for pity.

On the other side, those labelled as ‘evil’ by Western campaigners tend to become more entrenched. For example, one reason why Omar Hassan al-Bashir, president of Sudan, is refusing to allow a UN intervention is because he fears he will be arrested and arraigned before an international war crimes court on charges of ‘crimes against humanity’. Many of the ‘Save Darfur’ campaigners are demanding just such an outcome. Consequently, Khartoum may become more belligerent in its dealings both with the international community and the Darfurian rebels. Putting one side in a war beyond the pale, labelling them as evil incarnate, has the effect of making them more intractable. This occurred within Bosnian Serb circles in the mid-Nineties, too. Massively isolated by world opinion and turned into the ‘White niggers of the New World Order’, as Living Marxism put it, the Serbs had little to lose in violently defending territory and expelling unwelcome sorts.

The consequence of Western liberal campaigning over humanitarian crises is all too often more war, more bloodshed, deeper divisions and less democracy at the end of it. Turning civil wars into international spectacles prolongs them and makes them even more horrendously violent. No doubt those who wear ‘Save Darfur’ ribbons, attend Day for Darfur marches and sign pro-Darfur letters to the Guardian will feel warm and moist and superior in the belief that they are standing up for victims against Evil; but in fact, the people of Darfur and Sudan, like the people of Bosnia before them, will likely pay a heavy price indeed for such Western flattery. You can call me part of the ‘do nothing’ brigade, if you like. I prefer a different motto: first, do no harm.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) Demonstrate for Darfur, Guardian, 15 September 2006

(2) Save Darfur Coalition

(3) See Nagorno-Karabakh War, Wiki, 2006

(4) Sorry George Clooney, but the last thing Darfur needs is western troops, Guardian, 19 September 2006

(5) See The Hollywood Actor’s Burden, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) Speech by Martin Bell, ‘Remember the Past, Learn from the Present, Look to the Future’, Jewish Care Conference, 1 September 1996

(7) A call for solidarity and justice, Peter Tatchell, Comment is Free, 15 September 2006

(8) A call for solidarity and justice, Peter Tatchell, Comment is Free, 15 September 2006

(9) One-sided reporting that is delaying an end to the killing, Jonathan Steele, Guardian, 5 May 2006

(10) One-sided reporting that is delaying an end to the killing, Jonathan Steele, Guardian, 5 May 2006

(11) Strategic victimhood in Sudan, New York Times, 31 May 2006

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Topics Politics


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