Note (July 3, 2012): This was written January 30, 2011, as Egypt was in the process of trying to get rid of Mubarak. Some of it is still relevant, now that #SudanRevolts has taken hold, so I thought I’d share it again. Note that the tone is a bit ranty; I try to write more diplomatically these days. Lesson learned (for me, anyway): don’t blog while angry.
I should also specify that I do not advocate the idea of military intervention in Sudan (I have no reason at the moment to think this is a particularly good idea). The Mamdani quote is useful because it helps to explain some of the politics behind why #SudanRevolts is not as easy to rally support for. From the sounds of things, people simply want coverage and moral support. That should be easy to provide; but as yet, I’ve only seen limited coverage and certainly nothing on the scale of Save Darfur (for example); at least, not in the United States. The Sudanese diaspora have been the most audible voices outside Sudan, and they’ll continue to play a critical role in drawing attention to #SudanRevolts.
January 30, 2011:
In my frustration with the failure of international media to start covering the anti-government protests in Omdurman and Khartoum with even a fraction of the zeal with which they’ve pounced on Egypt, I wondered why the Satellite Sentinel and Enough Project weren’t drawing the same attention to northern Sudan as they have to other parts of the country. Clooney, Prendergast, and the Enough Project had done such a good job of bringing attention to Darfur and the South Sudan referendum, albeit often with serious misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the politics and history of the regions, it seemed natural that they should be the ones to say, “Look! Look what these guys are doing now!”
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But I find it hypocritical and insulting, even cold, to northern Sudanese. To me, drawing international attention when all eyes are on Egypt would possibly help deter mass violence against civilians. Al Bashir’s not an idiot. I’m not suggesting the Sentinel or Enough Project take any real action, just that they do a little bit of yelling and draw some attention to it, since Western activists are so good at that when they want to be. Drawing the line between war crimes and genocide on the one hand, and crimes that may be the result of “political protest” on the other, can be a really shallow distinction. Particularly when “the West” has spent so much time and energy railing about “saving” two other major regions of the same country from the government. So, just because crimes against humanity are committed outside the context of civil war, they’re under the purview of the state and none of our business. Seems to me to be a huge gray area in the Responsibility to Protect framework; a gap that politicizes Western activist involvement in other people’s wars.
Note that it was Westerners that decided to shout that what was happening in Darfur was genocide—something they did not do with the civil war with the south (although that word was used by some). And note that a grossly over-simplified picture has been painted of both conflicts, in which the bad evil Arab government teams up with bad evil Arabs in other parts of the country to commit genocide against the innocent African population. Nowhere in this narrative is it pointed out that both of these conflicts are also political in nature and origin. What makes the north different? Why are Darfuris and Southern Sudanese worthy of attention and protection and not northerners?
Mamdani put it succinctly:
“Where mass slaughter is termed genocide, intervention becomes an international obligation; for the most powerful, the obligation presents an opportunity. But if genocide involves an international obligation to intervene, war and counterinsurgency do not, for they are an expression of the normal violence of the state… Labeling performs a vital function. It isolates and demonizes the perpetrators of one kind of mass violence and at the same time confers impunity on perpetrators of other forms of mass violence.” [Saviors and Survivors, p. 281.]
Projects like the Sentinel want to say no, mass violence against civilians is wrong, period, moving beyond the sentiment that genocide is the only exception to the principle that state sovereignty trumps the responsibility to protect civilians. But apparently the context still has to be civil war, because mass violence against civilians outside that is just politics—and an expression of the normal violence of the state.
[Some videos are becoming available on YouTube, like the one below from the University of Khartoum. Operation Broken Silence has also posted some photos from their associates on the ground.]