The United Nations took another step in its long road to irrelevancy on January 31 with a report announcing that the Sudanese government was not conducting a genocidal campaign in the Darfur region. It agreed that there were indeed mass killings of civilians, torture, rape, pillaging, possible war crimes and perhaps crimes against humanity, but there was no evidence of genocide.
"Some of these violations are very likely to amount to war crimes and given the systematic and widespread pattern of many of the violations, they would also amount to crimes against humanity," the report said.
The report hung its conclusion on the belief that there was no "genocidal intent" by the Sudanese government to kill off a particular group on the grounds of ethnicity, religion or any other reason, a rather dubious finding. No such policy was implemented, the report maintains, by the government, either directly or through militia groups under its control.
Such an assertion comes as a surprise to anyone with basic familiarity with Sudan. Although the Sudanese government denies it, it's widely believed that it supports an Arab militia known as the Janjaweed -- the group chiefly culpable for causing the region's strife -- in an effort to put down a rebellion by non-Arab African groups. Experts believe that the Janjaweed is attempting to exterminate three tribes so that they can take their land.
Since the campaign began in March 2004, thousands of homes in several villages have been destroyed in the fighting. At least 70,000 people have died from disease, hunger and fighting, hundreds of thousands have fled the region to neighbouring Chad, and two million are now affected by the conflict.
Even if one accepts that the Janjaweed aren't backed by Khartoum, the idea that the government has had nothing to do with the killings is laughable. The commission responsible for the report compiled a list of suspects that includes government officials and government-backed militias responsible for some of the worst crimes committed in Darfur. The report also maintained that most attacks "were deliberately and indiscriminately directed against civilians." At some point an official declaration of genocidal policy merely acknowledges the reality of what's already going on.
And yet according to the United Nations, although conditions that lead to mass killings and the targeting of a particular group exist, it falls short of being genocide. While the United Nations can engage in bureaucratic hair-splitting in trying divine whether genocide is taking place, the rest of us don't have to. As is commonly said of art, we may not know how to define it, but we know genocide when we see it.
It's ironic that we recently celebrated the liberation of Auschwitz. After the full scale of the Nazi atrocities was revealed to the world we all joined together to say "Never Again." Words have rarely translated into real action, particularly when it comes to Africa. In January 1994 Kofi Annan and the United Nations ignored a cable by now retired Canadian Major General Roméo Dallaire reporting that the Hutu planned to launch a genocidal campaign against the Tutsis. Three months later a 100-day orgy of killing began that resulted in the murder of over 800,000 people.
Where eleven years ago one might have argued it was unlikely that a massacre on the scale of Rwanda could occur, today we are under no such misconception. The evidence is staring us in the face in the victims of Darfur. The United Nations can afford to engage in technicalities in defining genocide and willful blindness to when it occurs but doesn't mean that the world has to. We must either act to end the genocide in Darfur or once again we'll wonder how mass murder occurred in front of our eyes and no one did a thing to stop it. "Never Again" wasn't meant to be a mantra, it was meant as a call to arms.