Global Policy Forum

An Atrocity That Needs No Exaggeration


By Sam Dealy

New York Times
August 12, 2007

Just last month, the House of Representatives passed the Darfur Accountability and Divestment Act and the United Nations Security Council decided to deploy up to 26,000 peacekeepers to Sudan. Both actions were due in no small way to the work of the Save Darfur Coalition. Through aggressive advertising campaigns, this group has done more than any other to focus world attention on the conflict in the Sudanese region.

But with a ruling Wednesday from Britain's Advertising Standards Authority, Save Darfur now finds itself in the spotlight. Siding with a business group allied with the Sudanese government in Khartoum, the authority ruled that the high death tolls Save Darfur cites in its advertisements breached standards of truthfulness.

The ruling is more than just a minor public relations victory for Khartoum; it exposes a glaring problem in Save Darfur's strategy. While the coalition has done an admirable job of raising awareness, it has also hampered aid-delivery groups, discredited American policy makers and diplomats and harmed efforts to respond to future humanitarian crises.

The trouble began last fall when, in ads placed throughout the United States and Britain, Save Darfur denounced the Sudanese government's scorched-earth campaign against insurgents. "After three years, 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed," the ads said. That claim provoked a complaint to the British ad authority from the European Sudanese Public Affairs Council. After investigating, the authority found that Save Darfur's ad campaign violated codes of objectivity, and it ordered the group to amend its ads to present the high death toll as opinion, not fact.

Serious estimates of the number of dead in Darfur are far lower than 400,000. Last November, the American Government Accountability Office convened a panel of 12 experts to assess the credibility of six prominent mortality estimates for Darfur. Three of these came from the American State Department, the World Health Organization and the W.H.O.-affiliated Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. The other three were independent efforts by activists — including one by John Hagan, a sociologist at Northwestern University, for the defunct Coalition for International Justice. Dr. Hagan's was the highest estimate and the one on which Save Darfur based its claim.

In category after category, the experts overwhelmingly found Dr. Hagan's estimate of 400,000 deficient. Nine of the experts said that his source data was unsound and that he failed to disclose his study's limitations. Ten found his assumptions "unreasonable," and 11 called his extrapolations "inappropriate." In all, 11 experts held "low" or "very low" confidence in the study.

So how many are dead in Darfur? As the G.A.O. study notes, reliable numbers are hard to come by. But the estimate that garnered the highest confidence was the one from the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. From September 2003 until June 2005, the center estimated, there were 158,000 deaths in Darfur. Of those, 131,000 were deemed "excess" — more than normally would occur.

Neither the center nor any other responsible outlet has released a tabulation of the death toll after June 2005, but observations by the United Nations and relief groups register a sharp drop — if for no other reason than much of Darfur's population now resides in the relative safety of aid camps. In 2005, the mortality rate fell below the level that's considered to be an emergency.

But now that the government has resumed bombings and the rebel groups are fighting among themselves as well as against the government, violence has increased. In the last half of 2006, civilian deaths averaged 200 per month. Combining these estimates suggests Darfur's death toll now hovers at 200,000 — just half of what Save Darfur claimed a year ago in its ad and still claims on its Web site.

Of course, whether 200,000 or 400,000 have died, the need to resolve the conflict in Darfur is the same. But Save Darfur's inflated estimate — used even after Dr. Hagan revised his estimate sharply downward — only frustrates peace efforts.

During debate on the House floor last month, for example, Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee claimed that "an estimated 400,000 people have been killed by the government of Sudan and its janjaweed allies." Ms. Jackson-Lee is hardly alone in making that allegation, and catering to the Sudanese government's sensitivities may not seem important. But the repeated error only hardens Khartoum against constructive dialogue. If diplomacy, not war, is the ultimate goal for resolving the conflict in Darfur, the United States must maintain its credibility as an honest broker.

Inaccurate data can also lead to prescriptive blunders. During the worst period of violence, for example, the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster estimated that nearly 70 percent of Darfur's excess deaths were due not to violence but to disease and malnutrition. This suggests that policy makers should look for ways to bolster and protect relief groups — by continuing to demand that the Sudanese government not hamper the delivery of aid, to be sure, but also by putting vigorous public pressure, so far lacking, on the dozen rebel groups that routinely raid convoys.

Exaggerated death tolls also make it difficult for relief organizations to deliver their services. Khartoum considers the inflated numbers to be evidence that all groups that deliver aid to Darfur are actually adjuncts of the activist groups that the regime considers its enemies, and thus finds justification for delaying visas, refusing to allow shipments of supplies and otherwise putting obstacles in the way of aid delivery.

Lastly, mortality one-upmanship by advocacy groups threatens to inure the public to both current and future catastrophes. If 400,000 becomes the de facto benchmark for action, other bloody conflicts around the globe — in Sri Lanka, Colombia, Somalia — seem to pale in comparison. Ultimately, the inflated claims fuel a death race in which aid and action are based not on facts but on which advocacy group yells the loudest.

Two-hundred thousand dead in Darfur is egregious enough. No matter how noble their intentions, there's no need for activists to kill more Darfuris than the conflict itself already has.

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Sudan
More Information on the Credibility and Legitimacy of NGOs
More Information on Humanitarian Intervention
More Information on Peacekeeping


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