Africa's inferno

In the Darfur region of Sudan, civilians are raped and killed, not for land or goods, but because of

A humanitarian disaster is unfolding right now in the Darfur region of Sudan, and it could be prevented. More than 300,000 people, most of them ethnically African, have been killed in the past two years. Some 3.3 million have been forced to flee into camps as a campaign of terror by Janjaweed militias and the army of the government of Sudan clears large areas of the region. The campaign is co-ordinated and systematic. NGOs that hope to give limited help are themselves subject to intimidation. The latest reports suggest that up to 40 per cent of those designated ethnically African cannot be protected.

Rebels fighting the government have also attacked camps and killed civilians. There is, however, an utter disparity in power and violence perpetrated, between the rebel groups and the government/Janjaweed forces. Moreover, the government deploys an overtly Arab-supremacist ideology, chillingly expressed in Janjaweed chants of "Kill the blacks, kill the slaves", and evidence exists of written orders from the government "to change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes".

An important element of this campaign of intimidation, depopulation and murder has been the use of sexual violence. Last month, Amnesty International reported on a "dramatic increase in the numbers of rapes" in Darfur. Amnesty, Unicef, the Aegis Trust and other groups that take a range of views on the conflict all agree that sexual violence is central and systemic to this conflict.

There are few cases of straightforward genocide in which a dominant state sets out to annihilate an ethnic group because of who they are (rather than what they do or think). The Nazis arguably did so against the Jews; Rwanda's Hutu génocidaires did so against the Tutsis. But there are many more cases in which mass killing escalates out of intra-state conflicts that spill over into other states. There are two things that set these kinds of cases apart from "ordinary" civil wars. The first is the killing of significant numbers of civilians because of identities projected on to them. The second is that these projected identities determine who lives and who dies. The killing becomes the purpose of the project: civilians are killed not for a piece of land or other resources, but because of who they are. This kind of killing creates a cycle in which victims then kill for reasons equally meaningless strategically or economically. Such repri sals lead people to question the use of the word genocide.

As in Rwanda, there has been an unconstructive debate about the appropriateness of the term in Darfur. We seem to be frightened of seeing genocide as something distinctive; the debate becomes a word game - is this conflict genocide or is it not? Rather than becoming trapped in semantics, however, we ought to focus on how state-sponsored mass murder acquires a dynamic of its own.

Darfur, and Sudan more generally, was for 200 years a victim of both Egyptian and British imperialism. Then, for generations, the region was neglected by the central government of Sudan. The Sudan Political Service, which governed the area during colonial rule by the British, treated Darfur as a little piece of "authentic" Africa in which it could play king. This institutional condescension created a template of indifference with which post-independence governments in Darfur have continued to operate. In the hands of the post-colonial ruling elite, this template was given an Arab-supremacist inflection that then became an ideology of mass murder. The 1984-85 famine showed the world the extent of central government indifference to the fate of Darfur.

During Sudan's long civil war, the Darfur region was further isolated. When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January 2005, a quick Darfur Peace Agreement was also put in place, but it did nothing to meet the needs and demands of the people of Darfur.

How can the "international community" respond to crimes against humanity that are products of post-colonial politics and ideologies but also rooted in imperial legacies? First, we should admit that we are not an international community but a set of competing interest groups. In a unipolar world governed by the United States, it has been in the interests of some groups to pretend that intervention to prevent crimes against humanity or genocide is impossible.

But this is simply not true: China and other states have protected the Khartoum government while the US has been powerless to act. The reality is that Washington could do nothing to stop any state acting unilaterally to stop this kill ing, and would actually welcome anyone doing so.

Mesmerised by US history and by post-invasion Iraq, the international human-rights industry has also been slow to state what is now obvious. This is not an American problem. This is not a British problem. This is not even an EU problem. None of them could take the lead in solving it. This is an African, Arab and Asian problem. The solution is not invasion, or occupation, or regime change. The solution is in the hands of China and the African, Arab and other Asian states that surround, trade with and finance Sudan.

No-fly zone

What could these states or groups of states do? Khartoum has been persuaded to accept the deployment of a limited hybrid force. The first part of a UN force, comprising 43 military staff officers and 24 policemen, arrived in Sudan on 28 December: this deployment must now be built upon in various ways. First, the initial deployment of UN troops in Darfur should be hugely speeded up and extended. Second, a UN resolution should authorise the imposition of a no-fly zone over western Darfur to protect the camps of internally displaced people.

The government in Khartoum should accept both of these actions by acknowledging that it is no longer in control of the situation and that it requires help to protect aid supplies. But it should be made clear that both interventions will be non-consensual if necessary. President Omar el-Bashir's government has taken a series of gambles on the indifference of the world to the fate of Darfur's people, and he will continue to do so. At the same time he cannily presents Sudan as an Islamic state that is the victim of imperialist intervention in search of oil. It isn't, and the imperial power chasing oil hardest in Sudan at this moment is communist China.

There is a simple enough response to this charade. The deployment should be made up from Asian, African and Arab states and the regional organisations representing these states should make it clear that the government of Sudan will be completely isolated unless it moves to control the Janjaweed. Equal pressure must be put on states and groups currently supporting the rebels, especially Chad. The role of the west and nations that trade with Sudan - for example, Japan, China and Malaysia - is to bring economic pressure to bear on the Sudanese government and to offer economic incentives.

It is clear what needs to be done to bring peace to Darfur. But will it happen? A humanitarian disaster is unfolding before our eyes and cannot be prevented. A hybrid force may gradually be deployed over the next eight or nine months, by which time many thousands will have died and the government and rebels alike will have become radicalised by each other's actions. The fighting will continue to spill into neighbouring states. The civil war in Sudan between north and south may start again. But the long-term consequences of Darfur will go far beyond these terrible possibilities. They will be profound for the system of international relations in the post-Iraq-war world and they will seriously challenge European ideas of the universalism of human rights. This universalism holds that there are some things that all human beings should enjoy and some things no human being should endure.

Western imperialism can be blamed for many things, but there is no imperialist explanation for why African, Asian and Arab states do not act over Darfur. They face no logistical obstacle to establishing a no-fly zone. The problem is one of will, not agency or capability.

What ought to unite us against genocide is that, in the end, there is no conceivable geopolitical gain to be had from working with genocidal regimes. The path they have embarked upon has no strategic dimension and it will, in time, self-destruct. These are allies you do not wish to have, neighbours you cannot trust, crimes you cannot live with.

Brian Brivati teaches genocide studies at Kingston University. Additional research by Philip Spencer

Getty
Show Hide image

As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.