It's almost not even a fair fight, but listening to Mahmood Mandani do his thing at a United Nations press briefing today with an impeccably-reasoned critique of the ICC and Save Darfur vis-a-vis the indictment of President Bashir of Sudan and the Darfur conflict was a heck of an experience.
Mandani's explanation was complex, which is fitting, since Darfur is a complex place. I'll try to distill it into a few basic points, as he did.
1. How many have died in Darfur? According to Mandani, the figures are widely overblown. The typical figure used is 300,000 dead since 2003, and he says, and I know for a fact, that this is a completely arbitrary figure. It's based on a statement John Holmes made last year, saying that since it had previously been extrapolated that 200,000 had been killed by 2004 of all causes, we could further extrapolate that it must be 300,000 by now assuming the same level of killing.
Only problem with this is that the death rate dropped dramatically in Darfur. According to Mahmood, more reliable figures have the death rate at 200 civilians a month in Darfur since January of 2005, which he claims is a lower death rate than in South Sudan today, Khartoum today, or even Washington D.C. today. Meanwhile, an internal report from the State Department, as well as reports from CRED and the WHO say the death toll from 2003 and 2004 was probably more like 50,000 to 70,000, 100,000 at most. Still horrifying and tragic, but increasingly less genocidal. This brings us to a second problem:
2. The total figures always include deaths from drought and desertification (estimated at 70-80% of the deaths, total), and while some of those are war-related, many of them are just drought and desertification-related. The drought preceded the war in Darfur. The climate's been drying out for decades as the population exploded (Sudan's total population quadrupled in the past 60 years, according to UN Population figures) and in the past 40 years the desert has moved 100 kilometers south, driving predominantly Arab pastoralists with it onto the land of predominantly African peasant farmers. Which leads us to...
3. Why did the killings take place? The Darfur conflict goes back well before 2003. The civil war started in 1987, according to Mandami. Part of it is a legacy of the land system imposed by the British (farmers get land rights, camel nomads don't) and part is the drought, which pushed the camel nomads on to the farmers' land. Rights advocates monitoring the civil war, Mandami said, pointed out that the atrocity level was much higher than previous conflicts because "life itself was at stake." There just wasn't enough water and land to go around. Finally, there was the legacy of the Cold War, where the USSR and Libya battled the US, France and Israel for control of Chad, resulting in a 40 year civil war in Chad, with heavily armed militias spilling over into Darfur to rearm and reenter the fray. "Darfur is to Chad as Eastern Congo is to Rwanda," said Mandami. Out of the conflicts and easy armaments in Darfur came the militai groups: the janjaweed and the peasant militias that later formed the JEM and the SLA, the main rebel groups today. The Sudanese government didn't really get involved until it backed the janjaweed "counterinsurgency" in 2002 and 2003, and it quickly lost control of the conflict thereafter. That leads us to the next problem:
4. Save Darfur says the situation on the ground hasn't changed, that there's a "continuing genocide," a phrase I've heard US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice use repeatedly. Only there isn't. UNAMID's own figures, according to Mandami, said that 1500-1600 civilians died in Darfur in all of 2008, of which 600 were killed in conflicts between Arab groups over grazing land, and the remaining 900 were victims of government vs. rebel violence (with the rebels killing the larger part). Andrew Natsios said it in Foreign Affairs: if this was ever a genocide, it was in 2003 and 2004. It definitely isn't one now. Now it's anarchy and banditry. Now it's Somalia.
So how does it end? Mandami advocates, quite simply, peace over justice. Or, in his words, "political justice over criminal justice." That is to say, peace is established, no one is charged with crimes, but in exchange, there is political reform that will prevent the conflict from being renewed. Political pressure, says Mandami, has gotten the Sudanese government to the point where it is ready for that reform, but now the ICC indictment likely ruins any chance of it happening, since the government cannot risk ceding any power. Mandami says the lessons of South Africa and Mozambique and South Sudan were that amnesty and impunity actually work pretty well, no matter how viciously the government and rebels have behaved. Responding to Desmond Tutu's call for justice from the ICC against Bashir, Mandami gently chided his good friend: "Desmond, what about you?" he said, recalling that Tutu had said that even though Biko's killers were known, they must walk free so that peace in South Africa could be ensured after Apartheid.
In the end, he advocated a fairly hands-off approach, and less moralizing, from the international community. "The right to reform belongs to those who are independent," he said. "Those who are sovereign." Sudan is a weak and unstable country, he said. If the ICC indicted President Bush, red and blue states in the US would not go to war because the US is stable and prosperous and strong. But we cannot assume Sudan will avoid a bloodbath in the aftermath of the indictment.
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I'm not sure if I agree with a blanket "peace over justice" or "political justice over criminal justice" worldview... but I mostly do. At the very least, I trust Mandami more than I trust Save Darfur, and I trust Andrew Natsios more than I trust a lot of the most outspoken celebrity advocates of US intervention in Darfur. It's not clear that there was ever a genocide in Darfur. Certainly it was a fraction of the violence in South Sudan, which was settled after 20 brutal years without justice. If there was genocide, it is no longer ongoing. Now a political settlement is needed, a political settlement that is probably not going to happen so long as the ICC indictment holds.
One final thought: Mandami echoed a thought I've repeatedly said here: ethnic wars end when someone wins (ie. they fight until one side is completely destroyed or subdued) or when both sides realize they can't and the need for peace with reform becomes apparent and necessary to all.