Death in Darfur and a Distracting Debate

Once again, the powers that be flounder in the face of genocide

| February 24, 2005

When Rwanda was being devastated by ethnic violence, the Clinton administration spent a lot of time arguing and wringing their hands over the exact definition of 'genocide.' Meanwhile, an estimated 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were slaughtered.

In her definitive work on how the US has historically responded to genocide, A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power recounts how President George W. Bush, after reading a memo about his predecessor's failure in Rwanda, wrote 'Not on my watch' in capital letters on its margin. It could have read, Not on my watch... will we quibble over the term genocide.

When US leadership and the Bush administration unhesitatingly labeled the atrocities in Sudan's western region of Darfur 'genocide,' human rights activists rejoiced. Since, as Scott Straus recounts in a piece in Foreign Affairs (excerpt), it was assumed that 'genocide' would be the 'magic word that triggers intervention.' Instead, the deadly violence being perpetrated by government-backed militias continues unabated. (It's estimated that at least 70,000 people have already died and about 2 million have been displaced.)

A few political leaders have entertained the idea of intervention, as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton did at the recent Munich Conference on Security Policy. Those voices have been drowned out in recent headlines by a new debate between the United States and the United Nations, however, over where the perpetrators should be tried.

The UN does not deem the situation in Darfur to be worthy of the term genocide. It does believe grave abuses have been committed, though, and recommends that the International Criminal Court (ICC) launch a war-crimes investigation and prosecution. Backers of such action maintain, as Power did in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, that ICC involvement could stem the violence by deterring perpetrators.

The Bush administration -- that court's mortal foe -- has sworn off ICC action, fearing any legitimization of the court's purview. Instead, the administration wants a new ad hoc court formed at the Tanzania tribunal handling Rwandan war crimes cases.

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