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‘‘There may have been no water, but the province was awash with guns’’

Reporting of the conflict in Darfur in the western media reproduces the spurious ethnic categories o

I first went to Sudan in 2003, the year that the insurgency began in the Darfur region of the country. Very quickly, I began to notice something distinctive in the way the western press reported the conflict in the province. I had written a book on the genocide in Rwanda, and academic papers on the conflicts
in eastern Congo and Angola. The global media had treated those events as if they had unfolded in the dark of the night. But not Darfur. Darfur was globalised from the outset and was made the subject of a media blitz.

There was an obvious reason for this. Darfur – unlike Congo, Angola and Rwanda – was the focus of a political campaign in the United States, the Save Darfur movement. But one of the effects of its becoming a domestic issue in the US was a series of distortions of the historical record.

The first concerned just how many people had actually died in Darfur at the height of the conflict in 2003-2004. This is the question that the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an audit agency of the US government, asked in 2006. The GAO got together with the US Academy of Sciences and asked a panel of 12 experts to assess the reliability of six different mortality estimates – from a high of roughly 400,000, from researchers linked to Save Darfur, to a low of between 50,000 and 70,000 by the World Health Organisation. The experts were unanimous that the high-level estimates were the least reliable and the lower figures generally more reliable. A broad consensus identified a WHO-connected research unit in Europe, the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), as the source of the most reliable estimate: 118,142.

The GAO report was sent to the US state department, which endorsed the findings. It then made its way to Congress and on to the GAO’s website. But the public availability of this in­formation had little effect on media reports of mortality rates in Darfur. Nor did it affect or temper in any way the claims made by Save Darfur, relayed in full-page ads in the New York Times and on subway and bus posters, that more than 400,000 people had died in Darfur, and that “the genocide [was] continuing”.

Then there was the question of how people were dying. The media rarely acknowledged that the number of dead in Darfur was not the same as the number killed. This is because there were at least two main causes of death: drought and desertification, on the one hand, and direct violence, on the other. The WHO attributed between 70 and 80 per cent of the deaths to the effects of drought and desertification, mainly infants and children who had died from diarrhoea and dysentery. Between 20 and 30 per cent was ascribed to direct violence.

Anyone who does research on mass mortality knows that there is not an impermeable wall between violence and disease. How many who died from disease could have been saved in the absence of violence? The CRED report talked of 120,000 “excess deaths”. “We estimate,” it read, “the number of violence-related deaths to be plus/minus 35,000.” The report further said that the “‘excess deaths’ can be attributed to violence, diseases and malnutrition because of the conflict during this period”.

Should all the deaths have been attributed to “the conflict during this period”, then? What about the drought and desertification which had preceded the conflict and would most likely outlast it? There was clearly a large margin of uncertainty, though you would never have guessed it from most media reports.

More recently, western outlets have taken to reporting figures from a 2008 speech by John Holmes, under-secretary for humanitarian affairs at the UN. Holmes gave a global figure of 300,000 civilian dead in Darfur since the insurgency began in 2003, which most media repeat without comment. His speech contained two qualifications, both of which have been largely ignored. First, he said that 200,000 had died in Darfur in 2003-2004 from “combined causes”. This could only be a reference, however oblique, to drought and desertification, besides violence. But where did he get the figure of 200,000, as opposed to the 120,000 from CRED? Second, Holmes said that another 100,000 must have died since, “assuming the same trend”. But why assume “the same trend” when ground-level UN reports suggested the opposite?

Darfur Timeline

1899 English and Egyptian forces agree to joint dominion over Sudan. In the following decades, closed districts are established and travel from north to south is restricted

1953-54 A British census deepens the divide, categorising the Sudanese as “Arab” settlers and “Negro” natives

1956 Sudan shrugs off British colonisation and declares independence

1987-89 Civil war erupts in Darfur as nomads and peasant tribes fight over fertile land

2002 Sudanese government and southern rebels sign ceasefire agreement

2003 Rebels in western Darfur claim neglect by the government and launch attack

2004 UN accuses Sudanese government of extensive human rights violations

2005 Power-sharing administration established in Khartoum but fighting continues

2009 International Criminal Court issues arrest warrant for President Bashir (pictured). War trials get under way

Research by Tara Graham

Reporters such as Julie Flint of the Independent who have spoken to UN ground staff in Darfur have reported on a sharp decline in mortality, to levels lower than 200 a month, from January 2005. In April, the UN Security Council received a report from the secretary general’s envoy to Sudan that deaths from violence in Darfur between January 2008 and April 2009 had averaged fewer than 150 a month; this was a “low-intensity conflict”, therefore, and no longer an emergency.

The media have also shown little interest in the historical roots of the conflict. Anyone who has worked in or on Darfur would know that the violence there unfolded in distinct phases, starting with the civil war in 1987-89. Darfuris talk of conflicts prior to 1987 as being mainly localised, arising principally from boundary disputes that were easily resolved at tribunals which agreed compensation for injury.

However, something changed in 1987: the civil war which began that year spread throughout Darfur, and was waged with unparalleled and unprecedented brutality. There were several reasons for this mutation in the nature and scope of the violence. The parcelling up of territory into tribal homelands by the British in the early 20th century into unequal areas of land – which favoured settled tribes and left the camel nomads of northern Darfur without a homeland – was exacerbated by drought and desertification. According to United Nations Education Programme studies, the southern rim of the Sahara expanded nearly 100 kilometres over four decades. The effect of this was to push the northern nomadic tribes southwards in search of better land. The result was an ecological struggle between nomads and peasants over the most productive land. Whoever controlled that land would survive.

The civil war in Chad that began with independence in the 1960s was also a factor. Chad subsequently became a theatre in the Cold War after President Reagan declared Libya a terrorist state in 1981, with the US, France and Israel lining up on one side, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and the Soviet Union on the other. With the government in control of N’Djamena, the Chadian capital, the opposition crossed the border into Darfur, from where it mobilised, retrained, rearmed and launched attacks. This meant when the civil war in Darfur began in 1987, there may have been no water, but the province was awash with guns.

For a year, I was a consultant for the Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation, a unit created by the African Union after the 2004 Abuja ceasefire negotiations. The DDDC carried out some research on the dynamics of the conflict. Its findings showed that the violence had spread over two axes: a north-south axis that pitted nomadic against peasant tribes, and an east-west axis, in the south, that led to two kinds of nomadic tribes – those with homelands and those without – confronting one another.

But Save Darfur, and the media in thrall, focused exclusively on the north-south axis, thus creating a further distortion – that this was a conflict between “Arab” and “African” tribes. In truth, the driving force of the conflict was not ethnic identity, but a search for land in an ecolo­gical crisis. Whoever controlled the land would survive the crisis; the losers would perish.

The racial categorisation of the population of Sudan as “Arab” and “African”, and the historical narrative according to which Arab settlers established mastery over African natives, began in the writing of British colonialists – from Winston Churchill’s journalistic The River War to the administrator-historian Harold MacMichael’s A History of the Arabs in the Sudan. This tradition lives on in the work of Sudanese nationalist historians of the post-independence period, as well as British academics. However, elements of a counter-history can be found in work done by American and British historians and anthropologists on specific locales (the sultanate of the Funj, for instance, or the Baggara of southern Darfur), and also that of Sudanese folklorists, whose focus was the tribal preoccupation with genealogies. What emerges from these alternative sources is that there was no “Arab” invasion of Sudan, and that there is no single history of the Arab presence in Sudan. There is hardly any connection, for instance, between the “Arabs” of riverine Sudan and those of Darfur. Indeed, if the former are associated with privilege and power, the latter are the most wretched of the Darfuri population.

The census carried out by the British colonial power in Sudan in 1953-54 divided the population between “Arab” settlers and “Negro” natives. It had three further categories: tribes, groups of tribes (referring to language groups) and races. Whereas in Rwanda, the basic category of colonial policy had been race, in Sudan – and Darfur – it was tribe. Race did not become an operative classification in Darfur until the civil war of 1987-89. This would later have a significant influence on media reporting of the insurgency and counter-insurgency that began in 2003.

For those trying to think how to resolve any seemingly intractable conflict, there are two paradigms available. The first is the Nuremberg paradigm, underpinned by two main assumptions: first, that justice will follow the emergence of a clear victor in the conflict, and would be administered as a form of victor’s justice; second, that yesterday’s perpetrators and victims should not have to face the challenge of living together in the same country – the survivors should instead acquire a new political identity in a separate state, as was the case with the creation of the state of Israel. There is an alternative, however, based on the recognition that neither of these assumptions holds for most conflicts in Africa. Without a separate state for yesterday’s victims, all must learn to live as survivors.

The attempted transition from apartheid is a good example. How do you convince adversaries that it is in their interest to stop fighting? The answer at the Kempton Park negotiations to end apartheid was clear: you don’t do it by prioritising criminal justice – threatening to take perpetrators to court – because the very people you would take to court are those you will have to rely on to keep the peace.

Kempton Park thus distinguished between political justice and criminal justice, and prioritised political justice for groups over criminal justice for individuals. The decision was taken not to put the leaders of apartheid on trial. The trade-off was a pardon for individual leaders in return for their agreement to a change of rules, a political reform that would give a second chance to the living. This was not victors’ justice, but what one might call survivors’ justice.

The South African experience is not an exception. The civil war in Mozambique, in which the Pretoria-funded Renamo resistance specialised in turning kidnapped children into victim-perpetrators, ended in much the same way. Renamo’s leaders now sit in parliament, not in court or jail. In Southern Sudan, too, criminal justice was set aside in favour of political reform. Why could the same not work in Darfur? Could it be because the area became a global cause célèbre after 11 September 2001?

There is an international dimension to the Darfur crisis, too. Current debates over how to end the conflict in Darfur have focused narrowly on the charges brought by the International Criminal Court against the president of Sudan, on a criminal and legal solution rather a political one. When the ICC judges ruled on the application filed by its prosecutor, throwing out the charge of genocide but not that of crimes against humanity, they were not issuing a verdict on the charges but responding to a different question: if the facts stand as presented, would the accused have a case to answer? The facts are not yet on trial, but they will be if President Omar el-Bashir ever presents himself before the court. In that case, many of the most widely trumpeted claims – of 300,000 dead, of a “continuing” slaughter, and so on – will turn out to be unreliable.

Moreover, it is clear that the question of accountability applies not only to the alleged perpetrators, but also to the putative enforcers of justice. Who is to hold them accountable? In the absence of adequate and effective political accountability, the risk is that the law will be privatised and used to implement a narrow and partial agenda. The UN Security Council, for instance, has the power to refer or defer cases to the ICC. And when the Indian government refused to sign the Rome Convention to join the ICC, its main objection was that the court’s prosecutor was highly unlikely to hold to account the permanent members of the very UN Security Council to which the court itself is formally accountable. Experience in the post-11 September 2001 era suggests that this fear was not groundless.

Global justice is a worthy goal, but it cannot exist without a political system that ensures global accountability. In the absence of accountability, claims made in the name of global justice will, as the philosopher Martin Buber once said of the system of trusteeship put forward by the League of Nations, be little more than cover for the exercise of imperial power.

Mahmood Mamdani is the author of "Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror", published by Verso (£17.99)

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror