Global Policy Forum

Darfur ‘Genocide’ Lies Unravelling


By Bruce A. Dixon

July 16, 2009


Stopping genocide is apolitical, purely a matter of conscience and goodwill. At least, that's what the Save Darfur campaign would have us believe, says Bruce A. Dixon. While Save Darfur's good-vs-evil battle has consistently touted a total figure of 400,000 dead in Darfur, sources on the ground indicate that there were actually around 1,500 deaths last year. That people are dying is not to be minimised or downplayed, Dixon contends, but the notion that the US's global might is needed to slay a unified evil is increasingly revealing itself as purely a means to establish domestic consent for military intervention in Africa.

For more than five years, the Save Darfur coalition has used a slick and star-studded multimillion dollar ad campaign to paint a horrific vision of 400,000 dead in a black vs. Arab war of extermination in Sudan. No historic or political causes are offered for this scenario; it's a case of 'genocide' involving good vs. evil and demanding our attention and action. But the big lies underpinning the Save Darfur campaign are coming undone. Reporters, scholars and even US envoys are returning from the region affirming that if there ever was a genocide in Darfur, and there may not have been, there isn't one now. The British government has even ruled that Save Darfur cannot, in that country, use the figure of 400,000 dead which it throws around in all its US advertisements, 'cause it just ain't true.

A hundred years ago, in the 'Souls of Black Folk', W.E.B. DuBois observed that '... the country's appetite for facts on the Negro question has been spoiled by sweets'. If he was around today, DuBois would be able to say the same for America's appetite for facts on Darfur, the rest of Africa, Iraq, and most of the world. Facts are messy things. Facts come with historical contexts and uncertain consequences. Eternal truths, like good vs. evil are sweet like candy, simple and comforting.

Since its founding in 2004, the Save Darfur coalition has spent tens of millions of dollars on a state-of-the-art advertising campaign to paint us a picture that is exactly that. Sweet and simple, easy-to-understand, and most of all, we get to be the good guys. Darfur is, to use Samantha Power's phrase, 'a problem from hell', a piece of pure, unambiguous evil in which the global power of the US can be put to use constructively, because stopping a genocide calls for action, not for politics. Stopping genocide, we are told, is above politics. The lesson of genocide is that great powers must act; people of conscience and goodwill must intervene.

There are several problems with this, both as a general proposition, and specifically as it applies to Darfur. In the first place genocide is defined as the attempt to wipe out a nation or a people. There is so little evidence that mass killings on the scale necessary to be called genocide have occurred in Darfur that back in 2007 Save Darfur's UK operation was prohibited from using the figure of 400,000 dead that routinely appears in its advertisements in the US. Britain has a government truth-in-advertising agency called the Advertisement Standards Authority. They looked at Save Darfur's massive death toll. They took into account a 2006 US General Accounting Office (GAO) report in which the GAO assembled a number of death and casualty estimates, high and low for Darfur, and summoned a panel of experts to determine which were accurate.

The GAO study found the low estimates of 50,000 to 70,000 dead from a variety of causes - including disease and starvation due to desertification on all sides of the conflict - to be more accurate than the high estimates of 200,000 to 400,000 by direct armed violence on one side alone claimed by Save Darfur. The GAO report maintained that the peak death toll occurred in 2004 and early 2005 and had been trending downward since. This was compelling enough evidence for Britain to ban the inflammatory claims that Save Darfur still makes with impunity in the US, which have no truth in advertising laws.

Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani has travelled extensively for many weeks in Sudan and Darfur as part of the African Union's Dialog for Darfur project, interviewing officials, activists and ordinary people on all sides of the conflict. In a talk at Howard University on 20 March 2009 he reported that only days before the general in charge of the African Union's peacekeeping forces in Darfur had pegged the death toll for the entire year in and around the refugee camps at a mere 1,500. While the deaths of 50,000 to 70,000 people several years ago on multiple sides of an armed conflict are a grievous matter - not to be minimised or brushed aside - they don't count as the ongoing genocide of helpless civilians.

Around the same time that several members of the US Congress got themselves arrested at the Sudanese embassy in Washington, DC, Afshin Rattansi - a reporter and broadcaster for Al Jazeera, CNN, The Guardian, Bloomberg News and other outlets - toured Sudan, speaking to Africans as well as the representatives of Western women's organizations in the country who attested that they were able to travel and speak freely and had seen 'no evidence' of genocide.

Even USAF (United States Air Force) General Scott Gration, travelling in the region as a special envoy, returned to Washington last week saying that the situation in Darfur was at worst 'the remnants of genocide', clearly implying that the worst violence had been over for some time. Gration's remarks may have exposed a divide in the administration, since UN Ambassador Susan Rice stoutly maintained only two days before that genocide was 'ongoing' in Darfur. Clearly, the genocide story is becoming less and less tenable.

But Save Darfur is all about advertising, and in the US, advertisers are under no obligation to tell the truth. Save Darfur is in fact not a mass movement but an advertising campaign, headed by the CEO of a public relations company that boasts such clients as Dupont, the company responsible for murdering tens of thousands when one of its chemical plants exploded at Bhopal, India, sending a cloud of poison gas rolling downhill into a city.

As Black Agenda Report revealed in a 2007 story, 'Ten Reasons Why Save Darfur Is A PR Scam to Justify Oil and Resource Wars In Africa', according to a copyrighted Washington Post story in 2007:

'The Save Darfur [coalition] was created in 2005 by two groups concerned about genocide in the African country - the American Jewish World Service and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum...

'The coalition has a staff of 30 with expertise in policy and public relations. Its budget was about $15 million in the most recent fiscal year...

'Save Darfur will not say exactly how much it has spent on its ads, which this week have attempted to shame China, host of the 2008 Olympics, into easing its support for Sudan. But a coalition spokeswoman said the amount is in the millions of dollars.'

Though the 'Save Darfur' PR (public relations) campaign employs viral marketing techniques, reaching out to college students, even to black bloggers, it is not a grassroots affair, as were the movements against apartheid and in support of African liberation movements in South Africa, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique a generation ago. Top heavy with evangelical Christians who preach the coming war for the end of the world, and with elements known for their uncritical support of Israeli rejectionism in the Middle East, the Save Darfur movement is clearly an establishment affair, a propaganda campaign that spends millions of dollars each month to manufacture consent for US military intervention in Africa under the cloak of stopping or preventing genocide.

The construct of genocides, 'problems from hell' popping up around the world in which the US is obliged to intervene, is a very useful one. It appears to be the successor to the so-called 'War on Terror' as the justification for American military adventures around the world. Hear it from the lips of UN Ambassador Susan Rice herself:

'The Responsibility to Protect or, as it has come to be known, R2P represents an important step forward in the long historical struggle to save lives and guard the wellbeing of people endangered by conflict. It holds that states have responsibilities as well as interests and that states have particularly vital duties to shield their own populations from the depraved and the murderous. This approach is bold. It is important. And the United States welcomes it...

'The Responsibility to Protect is rooted in the principle that states have a fundamental responsibility to protect their populations from such atrocities as genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. It holds that other states, in turn, have a corollary responsibility to assist, if a state cannot meet its fundamental responsibility to its citizens or to take collective action, if a state will not meet that fundamental responsibility...'

Like the War on Terror, stopping genocides, real or imagined, is above politics. It's a cause that absolves Americans of any responsibility to understand either their own history or that of the countries they intervene in.

The real Darfur is a complicated place with complicated politics that Save Darfur does not help us understand. What Save Darfur doesn't tell us is that there is a many-sided civil conflict of insurgency and counterinsurgency, not a one-sided slaughter in progress. Save Darfur never mentions how the area was flooded with arms by the US, France and Israel on one side, and by Libya and the Soviet Union during decades of civil war in neighbouring Chad. And in volumes of briefing papers and advertising copy, Save Darfur invariably forgets to tell us that the lines between which Darfuris are 'black' and which are 'Arab' have been fluid for centuries, and as Mahmood Mamdani in his book Saviors and Survivors explains, have more to do with culture and status than with 'race' in Western terms.

The stark and horrific picture painted by the Save Darfur coalition in fact prolongs the civil conflict in that unhappy country, encouraging one faction or another to avoid negotiations for a settlement in the hope that Western intervention will put them on top. The 'responsibility to protect' doctrine espoused by Ambassador Rice ensures that regardless of the facts, Save Darfur will have the ear of policymakers for some time to come as they look to sweeten the public excuses to intervene in other countries, and to spoil America's appetites for unpleasant truths in which it is not always the good guy.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.