Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide (3rd edition) by Gérard Prunier

(Previously subtitled “The Ambiguous Genocide.”)

The down side first: I found the author’s writing style pretty dense – at times a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader is assumed, and Prunier may reference things and people without explaining them. Unfortunately the third edition is not very well-edited and typos abound. One of the most unfortunate of these is that the year of the Peace of Westphalia, given toward the end of the book, is wrong (it should be 1648, as any first year IR student will be able to tell you).

Prunier concludes that today, Sudan poses “no global geopolitical threat,” a statement which should be reconsidered after taking into account the importance of Sudan as a major economic investment for China and its strategic value for Washington as an ally in the “war on terror.”

Also, in attempting to make the argument that the conflict in Darfur is different from past genocides, and a 21st century genocide, he tries to set it apart from the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, for example, by saying that “genocide” is not as straightforward a determination as it was in the past. It’s true that the situation in Darfur is complex, but presenting it this way obscures the fact that genocides of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust, were also complex. It’s a mistake to assume there was no moral or political obfuscation in the genocides of Europe and Rwanda (or Burundi, or eastern Congo, or elsewhere), and the international reactions (or lack thereof) to them; to assume these are unique characteristics to Sudan.

Prunier posits that “there is no ideological commitment” on the part of the current regime “to do away with” those of African descent in Darfur, but rather that they are “seen as a danger, as an inconvenience that has to be dealt with within the framework of an ideology of Arab superiority camouflaged under a pretense of Islamic brotherhood.” But this phenomenon is also not unique to Darfur. Genocides throughout the twentieth century, and some earlier, grew out of the pretense that the target population was a danger or a threat to national security.  It is a classic technique, and often necessary for the purpose of rallying fear and hatred of “the Other” among the population.

Prunier’s observations that “Killing Black Africans… is not an ideology, it is not a systematic policy. It is only an inconvenient necessity,” and that it is in part a component of counter-insurgency, while still constituting genocide, is also not a characteristic unique to Darfur or the 21st century: see Europe’s conquest of the Americas or Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, for example. His demonstration that the killing is seen as necessary, albeit inconvenient, is in fact enough to prove intent (which makes it a crime under the Genocide Convention; which Sudan is party to). I think his attempt to make Darfur unique in this way takes away from the fact that it is actually so similar to other crimes of this nature.

Having said that, Prunier’s analyses of the roles of various international players– from Gaddafi’s geopolitical posturing and shifting cross-border alliances between Sudanese and Chadian actors, to the reaction of international news media and the complicity of the international community– are thorough, well documented, and highly informative.

Prunier makes well argued points about the fact that continued reference to the violence and its repercussions as a “humanitarian crisis” exacerbates the lack of an effective response to it, a mistake that has been made over and over again from Biafra in 1967 to the Congo in the 1990s. As former High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata put it, “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems… Humanitarian action may create space for political action but on its own can never substitute for it.” (Turbulent Decade, p. 25.)

He also makes the point that the semantic debate over whether the violence really constitutes genocide or not is of little concern to those experiencing it, and that this points to issues of compassion fatigue in the West, where genocide is worthy of our attention but other crimes against humanity are not (See also Mamdani). These are important points, indicative of the challenges that continue to confront organizations that engage in conflict management, peacekeeping, and international justice and jurisprudence.

Prunier points to post-colonial guilt as a particularly significant culprit in the way the Save Darfur movement took shape in the US, combined with a lack of real interest in Africa and the demands from Khartoum on the US and international aid agencies. These factors, he says, resulted in the buck getting passed to the African Union – which does not have the resources to deal with the problem or to effectively pursue President Al-Bashir now that there is an ICC warrant for his arrest. And while highly critical of the UN, Prunier does not fail to point out that Member States often demand that the UN (themselves, effectively) take action without providing it with the mandate or resources to do so.  This makes it extremely easy to scapegoat the intergovernmental organization when things go wrong. This same point was made by Roméo Dallaire, commander of the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda before and during the genocide, in his memoir Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.

Prunier’s book is worth the read, despite some of the history being a bit confusing. The last two chapters are especially good, and is where the bulk of his analyses of international actors are. Notably, he makes an interesting prediction that there is a good chance of the tenuous peace between the north and south falling apart between this year (2009 at time of writing) and 2011. From my own research on the civil war and from what I can see of the stories coming from Sudan these days, it seems his prediction is not far-fetched.

About Carol Jean Gallo

PhD student at Cambridge. Interested in local context and global affairs and the crossroads and misinterpretations between them.
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