A Genocide of Convenience

By Elizabeth Palmberg 12-14-2007

As I do more reading about Darfur, I've had to re-examine some of my assumptions about genocide. I'd tended to think about genocides on the model of the Holocaust, which involved a massive logistical undertaking by a ruthlessly evil state whose armies were strong enough to conquer multiple other nations.

The genocide in Darfur is intentionally caused by a ruthlessly evil state, but that's where the similarities end. Khartoum's strategies in Darfur - as in southern Sudan before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 - are the methods of a government that is not only evil and selfish, but weak.

Faced with insurgencies in Darfur, Khartoum chose a strategy based on weakness - rather than go to the expense of fighting its own wars, the regime recruited ethnically based proxy militias. Rather than go after the actual rebels, those militias, egged on and given air support from Khartoum, have pursued a scorched-earth policy of murdering, raping, and displacing civilians who happen to be of the same ethnic groups as the rebels. (Those would be the ethnic groups which, in an earlier divide-and-conquer move, the government had been economically and politically marginalizing even more than it marginalized the other residents of the desperately poor region.)

For a regime willing to spend provincial citizens' blood like water, genocide simply seems like the cheapest way of holding onto power.

The bad news is that the victims of a genocide of convenience are just as dead or traumatized as they would have been if the crimes' instigators had some different motivation. And, given the upsurge in violence against humanitarian workers, and the government's efforts to drive people from the comparative safety of the camps, there's the potential for a lot more people to die.

The good news is that this will be much, much easier to stop than the Holocaust. Khartoum can be brought to heel by coordinated economic, political, and diplomatic pressure - as was demonstrated just three years ago, when a U.S.-led coalition of countries prodded Khartoum into signing a substantive peace deal with rebels in southern Sudan (and in Darfur, in contrast to southern Sudan, there aren't even any proven oil fields). The first priority should be pushing Khartoum to stop dragging its feet on its agreement to admit U.N./African Union peacekeepers who will defend civilians.

Recently, a committed pacifist I know startled me by grimly joking that we should nuke Khartoum. The gallows humor was understandable, given the horror of the situation. And transforming the international outrage over Darfur into effective international economic and political sanctions will not be easy or simple. But nothing remotely resembling World War II (or any war) is called for to stop this genocide-on-the-cheap.

Elizabeth Palmberg is an assistant editor of Sojourners.

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