Darfur: the dangers of celebrity imperialism

From having talks with Blackwater to trying to fly unmanned aerial vehicles over Darfur, the war-hungry celebrities and activists of the Save Darfur lobby have taken leave of their senses.

Philip Hammond

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The campaign to ‘raise awareness’ of the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan has been highly successful. The Save Darfur Coalition has generated huge publicity, particularly in the US, attracting the support of Hollywood celebrities such as George Clooney and endorsements from numerous politicians, including both US presidential candidates. Britain’s Africa minister, Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, has praised the ‘fantastic’ achievements of this ‘exciting new activism’ (1).

Over the last year, however, there has been some criticism of the campaign. Newsweek reported complaints about ‘Save Darfur’s simplistic presentation of the conflict’ and noted concerns that the influence of activists ‘may even have made the crisis worse’ (2). The American writer David Rieff remarked that ‘if, proverbially, the first casualty of war is truth, then the first casualty of activism is complexity’ (3).

The criticism is undoubtedly justified, though the problem is not so much the activist’s perennial need for a clear message, as a broader contemporary tendency to treat complex and distant conflicts as a potential source of moral clarity for Western societies. Not just the campaigners, but also journalists, international lawyers and political leaders have sought to turn the war in Darfur into a simplistic moral parable.

Bloodthirsty hordes vs innocent civilians

Rony Brauman, the former president of Médecins sans Frontières, identifies the key issue when he objects to the increasingly common ‘perception of armed conflicts as “genocides” (the Former Yugoslavia, Sudan, and undoubtedly more to come)’. As Brauman argues: ‘To qualify a war as genocidal is to leave the terrain of politics, of its relations of force, of its compromises and contingencies, in order to situate oneself in some metaphysical beyond in which the only conflict is between Good and Evil: fanatics versus moderates, bloodthirsty hordes versus innocent civilians.’ (4)

Just this sort of simplistic narrative informs Samuel Totten and Eric Markusen’s edited volume, Genocide in Darfur, which refers to the ‘Arab tribes’ of the Janjaweed militia attacking ‘the villages of black Africans’. A chapter by US human rights lawyer Gregory H Stanton compares the Sudanese government to both the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party, claiming it is driven by a ‘racist ideology… that wants to “Arabise” Sudan and drive out black Africans’.

In contrast, the other books under review here emphasise that any straightforward Arab/African division is problematic. Alex de Waal notes in the opening chapter of War in Darfur that ‘Darfur’s historic identity has been both “African” and “Arab” with no sense of contradiction between the two’. In the same book, a chapter by researcher Jérôme Tubiana points up the difficulties of drawing clear distinctions on the basis of skin colour, religion, culture, language (a number of Darfur’s ethnic groups ‘speak Arabic as their native tongue even though they do not see themselves as Arab’), or even on the basis of the division between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers (since there are ‘non-Arab nomads… as well as many Arab farmers’).

Similarly, in Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, Gérard Prunier traces how these identities became polarised only relatively recently, influenced by Libya’s promotion of ‘Arab supremacism’ as a way to recruit local support for its intervention in Sudan and Chad in the 1980s; and David Hoile’s Darfur in Perspective challenges the ‘inflammatory’ depiction of the conflict in Darfur as ‘a racial one in which light-skinned “Arab” tribes have been engaged in “ethnic cleansing” of black “African” tribes’.

No doubt the Sudanese government has exploited and heightened divisions as a way to recruit local irregulars to attack the rebel forces in Darfur. And there can’t be any doubt that the Sudanese military and its local allies have committed terrible atrocities. But rather than a plan to commit ‘genocide’, the violence looks more like what de Waal characterises as ‘counter-insurgency on the cheap’: a confused and brutal attempt to stamp out the rebels and terrorise their supporters (5). After all, the government was responding to an armed insurgency rather than implementing some ideologically driven plan of ‘ethnic cleansing’. Indeed, when the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) launched its rebellion against Khartoum (with an attack in February 2003 that killed around 200 soldiers) the government initially scrambled to react.

The rebels’ attacks on the army and police are particularly emphasised by Hoile. His book is published by his own organisation, the European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, which takes a pro-Khartoum line. This gives rise to simplifications of a different kind: in particular, he tends to downplay the extent of Darfur’s marginalisation and under-development. Instead, Hoile argues that the key cause of the conflict was the split between radical Islamist Hassan el-Turabi and President Omar al-Bashir. Turabi – the ‘guide’ of the Islamist movement which brought Bashir to office in a 1989 coup – was pushed out of power in 1999 (a move which Prunier sees as a bid for greater international respectability).

Turabi is linked with Darfur’s second rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), whose leader, Khalil Ibrahim, is a former regional government minister. Although, as Prunier observes, it would be ‘a mistake to think that Turabi caused the Darfur insurgency’, the fact that some key rebel figures are disgruntled former regime insiders puts the conflict in a different light. Hoile’s account of JEM, though one-sided, is more useful in understanding the rebellion than the ‘essential background information’ provided by historian Robert O Collins in Genocide in Darfur. Collins tells us only that there was ‘little difference’ between the goals of JEM and those of the SLA, except that JEM’s approach was more ‘inclusive’.

Of the books considered here, War in Darfur offers the most cogent counter-explanation for the conflict. De Waal describes Sudan as a ‘turbulent state’, in which two seemingly contradictory trends prevail at the centre of power. Historically, Khartoum has been both ‘hyper-dominant’ in relation to the neglected peripheries, but also chronically weak and unstable as competing elite groups vie with each other but no single faction manages to impose its dominance. Contributors to de Waal’s collection of essays examine the array of local and regional factors which feed into the conflict, while de Waal situates the war as part of this ‘deep historical pattern’, whereby ‘the Sudanese state has a dominant but factionalised core, an inner periphery of relative stability but highly exploitative relations of production, and an outer periphery or frontier marked by extreme violence and disorder’. Bashir’s Islamist government promised a social and political transformation of the country, but was unable to overcome the ‘underlying structural weakness’ of the Sudanese polity. As de Waal observes, ‘successive Sudanese governments have ended up in much the same predicament and charged with much the same abuses’. The current conflict is ‘unprecedented only in the international attention it has gained.’

The big G-word

Writing in War in Darfur, former student activists Rebecca Hamilton and Chad Hazlett acknowledge that ‘the predominant description of a cruel government and its Arab proxy forces slaughtering mostly innocent “black” civilians’ is ‘severely oversimplified and almost ignorant of the rebel movement’. But they see such simplification as justified because it gives ‘an apparent moral clarity to the situation’. Above all, they say, ‘getting the US government to use the “G-word”… was an unimaginable coup’ for the activists, endowing their campaign with real ‘legitimacy’.

It is not that some commentators are simply uninformed and therefore miss the complexities of the situation. Rather, the description of the conflict in Darfur as ‘genocide’ arises less from an understanding of the situation in Sudan than from the political dynamics in the US and other Western countries.

Prunier seems somewhat bemused by the insistence on using the ‘big G-word’. He wonders if it might have to do with ‘the mass-consumption need for brands and labels’, remarking that ‘“genocide” is big because it carries the Nazi label, which sells well’. Prunier wishes to resist this ‘sensationalism and verbal inflation’, but – equally wary of seeming to underestimate the suffering – he hedges around the issue with terms such as ‘quasi-genocide’.

Totten and Marcusen – ‘genocide scholars’ who worked on the US State Department’s 2004 Atrocities Documentation Project (ADP) in Darfur – entertain no such ambiguities, treating genocide as if it were a technical issue which can be measured by survey data. The absurdity of this approach is illustrated in a chapter in Genocide in Darfur by Stephen Kostas, a lawyer at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, who claims that the ADP data ‘undoubtedly helped support’ the State Department’s decision that there was a ‘genocidal intent’ behind the killings in Darfur: ‘Thirty-three per cent of interviewees heard racial epithets during their attack and black Africans were the overwhelming targets of violence while Arab villagers were spared.’ These findings are presented as ‘trusted, internally verified facts’ as if to settle the issue, but surely they simply raise more questions. Would 23 per cent hearing ‘racial epithets’ have qualified, or 13 per cent? What was the ethnic make-up of the victims of rebel attacks – were those ‘genocidal’, too?

Furthermore, as Brauman asks: ‘How is one to understand the fact that two million Darfuris have sought refuge around the principal army garrisons of their province? How is one to understand the fact that one million of them live in Khartoum, where they have never been bothered during the entire course of the war?’ (6)

Activists’ determination to get the US government to label the conflict in Darfur a ‘genocide’ was informed not so much by events in Sudan as by the previous experience of Rwanda. As Deborah Murphy notes in her study of US media coverage of Darfur for de Waal’s collection: ‘In general, Darfur was removed from the Sudanese context… most of the articles reviewed were not really about Darfur itself.’ The most obvious point of comparison for explaining Darfur was the decades-long war in southern Sudan, but this ‘compelling analogy’ was ‘largely ignored’. Instead, parallels were drawn with the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo and, most frequently, Rwanda. The point of the comparisons, as Murphy observes, was ‘to urge US intervention’: journalists, like activists, wrongly assumed that if only the US would name Darfur a genocide, it would then be bound to send in the marines.

Contributors to Totten and Marcusen’s volume express huge self-satisfaction that the ADP’s findings formed the basis of then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s September 2004 declaration that ‘genocide has been committed in Darfur and… may still be occurring’. But Powell’s statement in the next breath that ‘no new action is dictated by this determination’ causes the authors some bewilderment and distress. As de Waal argues: ‘The Congressional and independent activists who campaigned… for the US government to declare Darfur “genocide” did so because they wanted an intervention… Interventionism drove advocacy for the label “genocide” as much as vice-versa”.’ (7)

Losing touch with reality

From the beginning, Western policy and activism have been only tenuously connected to the realities on ground. As de Waal has noted elsewhere, the ‘first international outcry’ over Darfur in 2004 came at a point when the level of violence was falling, but regardless of the changing dynamics of the conflict, the campaigners’ constant refrain has been that ‘things are getting worse’ (8).

In September 2006, for example, George Clooney told the UN Security Council: ‘My job is to come here today and to beg you on behalf of the millions of people who will die – and make no mistake, they will die – for you to take real and effective measures to put an end to this.’ This apocalyptic assessment did not match what was happening in Darfur at the time. As de Waal points out: ‘What actually happened was that the Sudan army dispatched a battalion of recent conscripts, stiffened by a few experienced regulars and some militia, into the middle of rebel-held north Darfur. On 11 September, the Janjaweed vanished and the [rebels] attacked, annihilating the well dug-in but inexperienced army unit. Perhaps 400 soldiers died in less than an hour.’ (9)

Some activists are so distraught at the lack of Western military action in Darfur that they seem to have lost touch with reality altogether. In August this year, for example, celebrity campaigner Mia Farrow held a meeting with the private security firm Blackwater to explore the possibility of a freelance mission to beef up the African Union force in Darfur. Despite what ABC News described as Blackwater’s ‘controversial history and allegations of murdering civilians in Iraq’, Farrow maintained that ‘Blackwater has a much better idea of what an effective peacekeeping mission would look like than Western governments’ (10).

Farrow’s plan may look like the unbalanced fantasy of a rich eccentric, but it reflects the egocentric frustration of the wider campaign. Consider, for instance, the two US student activists who attempted to acquire an unmanned aerial vehicle to fly over Darfur and pinpoint the location of Janjaweed militia forces. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this improbable episode is that the students were widely praised for their efforts: they were lauded in the media, given office space by a liberal Washington think-tank, and endorsed by several members of the US Congress (11).

The antics of the actors and students may sometimes seem absurd, but given the campaign’s relentless push for intervention, humanitarian agencies have begun to worry about its apparent ability to influence policymakers. In response to an advertising campaign calling for tough Western action, the head of the InterAction coalition of aid groups, Sam Worthington, condemned the ‘inability of Save Darfur to be informed by the realities on the ground and to understand the consequences of [its] proposed actions’. According to Worthington, the sort of aggressive intervention demanded by the activists ‘could easily result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of individuals’ (12). Similarly, Action Against Hunger warned that ‘a non-negotiated intervention… could have disastrous consequences that risk triggering a further escalation of violence while jeopardising the provision of vital humanitarian assistance to millions of people’ (13).

US officials also now reportedly ‘complain privately that the [Save Darfur] coalition has hampered aid, gotten in the way of American diplomacy and hurt efforts to find a political solution for Sudan’ (14). Though no doubt deserved, the criticism is a bit rich coming from American officials: US diplomacy has all along been about political expediency and moral grandstanding.

This is drawn out clearly in War in Darfur, which started out as a collection of background papers for the international mediation that produced the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in 2006. A chapter by Laurie Nathan – who, like de Waal, was involved in the DPA mediation – sharply criticises the ‘counterproductive strategy of “deadline diplomacy”’ adopted by the US and other international players, whose ‘constant refrain was that the “patience of the international community is running out”’. What Nathan describes as the ‘simplistic, vacuous and rigid’ strategy of the internationals was more about being seen to get a paper ‘agreement’ than actually brokering a compromise among the parties. Similarly, de Waal argues that the US government’s 2005 proposal to turn peacekeeping operations over to the UN was ‘a piece of political spin’, designed to appease the activists while passing the buck. The US ‘calculated that once a UN force had been approved, any disappointments could be placed at the door of the UN and the troop-contributing countries, not the US’.

Hamilton and Hazlett suggest that ‘the movement’s efforts to pressure the US government may have… forced the administration to place a higher priority on “managing” activists than finding a workable solution for Darfur’. Yet some US politicians have actively encouraged the Save Darfur campaigners to put pressure on them. Barack Obama has called for ‘pressure from ordinary individuals standing together for an extraordinary cause’; elsewhere he has said that ‘we need greater pressure from the American public to tell their senators this is something we are paying attention to’ (15).

Britain’s Lord Malloch-Brown has echoed this peculiar formula of politicians urging the public to urge them to do something, arguing that ‘there’s a limit to what leaders can do if there isn’t a heavy level of concern from the public’ (16). As the New Republic’s Richard Just observes of the ‘National Weekend of Prayer and Reflection for Darfur’, approved by the US Congress, ‘When we reach the point where our leaders are asking us to pray for them to act, something has gone very wrong’ (17).

The activists’ constant complaints that Western governments have not taken tough enough action may sometimes cause some tensions. But in general, their simple morality tale, in which the West is cast in the role of potential saviour of Darfur, is one that political leaders like to hear again and again.

Philip Hammond is reader in media and communications at London South Bank University, and is the author of Media, War and Postmodernity, published by Routledge in 2007 (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Darfur in Perspective, by David Hoile, is published by European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide, by Gérard Prunier, is published by Hurst & Co. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Genocide in Darfur, by Samuel Totten and Eric Markusen (eds), is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

War in Darfur and the Search for Peace, by Alex de Waal, is published by Global Equity Initiative/Justice Africa. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Darfur: a glimmer of hope on horizon, Observer, 16 September 2007

(2) Packaging a Tragedy, Newsweek, 26 October 2007

(3) The Darfur Deception, Los Angeles Times, 7 October 2007

(4) The ICC’s Bashir Indictment: Law Against Peace, World Politics Review, 23 July 2008

(5) Counterinsurgency on the cheap, London Review of Books, 5 August 2004

(6) The ICC’s Bashir Indictment: Law Against Peace, World Politics Review, 23 July 2008

(7) War Games, Index on Censorship, Vol. 36, No. 4, 2007, p8

(8) Darfur Activism: The Debate Continues, Making Sense of Darfur, 8 January 2008

(9) War Games, Index on Censorship, Vol. 36, No. 4, 2007, p9

(10) Breakfast with Blackwater, ABC News, 20 August 2008

(11) Student Aid, The New Republic, 27 March 2006

(12) Darfur Advocacy Group Undergoes a Shake-Up, New York Times, 2 June 2007

(13) Action Against Hunger, A political solution is essential to achieving security in Darfur, 18 May 2007

(14) Packaging a Tragedy, Newsweek, 26 October 2007

(15) Richard Just, The Truth Will Not Set You Free, The New Republic, 27 August 2008

(16) Tracy McVeigh, Darfur: a glimmer of hope on horizon, Observer, 16 September 2007

(17) Richard Just, The Truth Will Not Set You Free, The New Republic, 27 August 2008

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