CLARITY ON DARFUR: AN OPEN LETTER TO THE AMERICAN JEWISH COMMUNITY
Since February 2003, there has been conflict in Darfur between two armed groups, the ‘Sudan Liberation Army’ (SLA) and the ‘Justice and Equality Movement’ (JEM), and the Government of Sudan. Thousands of civilians have died in the war and hundreds of thousands more have been displaced. Darfur, home to some 80 tribes and ethnic groups divided between nomads and sedentary communities, presents a very complex situation with very complex problems. It is a matter of record, however, that despite the fact that there can be no simple analysis of the issue the crisis has been distorted for political expediency. 
A number of American Jewish community organisations and leaders have chosen to label the tragic situation in Darfur “genocide”. These have included prominent groups such as the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish World Service, the American Jewish Congress, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.  In so doing, Jewish groups are echoing a very questionable claim made by the then American Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in September 2004.  This was despite Powell having stated two months previously that events in Darfur did not “meet the tests of the definition of genocide”.  His statement, in the lead-up to the US elections, was widely seen as an attempt to divert media attention away from the disastrous events in Iraq. It also pandered to the Christian right political constituency within the United States – as much was admitted by former Senator Jack Danforth, President Bush’s special envoy to Sudan, in an interview with the BBC in July 2005.  While ultimately boiling down to sheer electoral opportunism, Powell’s use of the genocide word undoubtedly further tarnished the image of the American government.  It is ironic that on the anniversary of having made his claim of genocide in Darfur, Colin Powell admitted having cried wolf on equally serious matters – that is to say his false allegations of Iraqi stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction made before the United Nations in 2003. Powell admitted these false claims were a “blot” on his record.  The Sudanese government has alleged that his genocide claims were similarly skewed. 
While every observer has noted that events in Darfur have been very serious indeed, opportunist American claims of genocide have been contradicted and criticised internationally. The United Nations Secretary-General Mr Kofi Annan, has observed: “I cannot call the killing a genocide even though there have been massive violations of international humanitarian law.”  The African Union’s position has been clearly outlined by its Chairman, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo: “Now, what I know of Sudan it does not fit in all respects to that definition. The government of Sudan can be condemned, but it’s not as...genocide”.  Similarly, the European Union has stated: “We are in not in the situation of genocide there.”  The AU has been able to draw on the first-hand observations of the thousands of AU peacekeepers deployed all through Darfur.
Of considerably more significance, perhaps, has been the pointed criticism of Washington’s claims of genocide by well-respected humanitarian groups such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders).  MSF-France President Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol has described American claims of genocide in Darfur as “obvious political opportunism”.  Dr Bradol had previously stated that the use of the term genocide was inappropriate: “Our teams have not seen evidence of the deliberate intention to kill people of a specific group. We have received reports of massacres, but not of attempts to specifically eliminate all the members of a group.”  Dr Mercedes Taty, MSF’s deputy emergency director, who worked with 12 expatriate doctors and 300 Sudanese nationals in field hospitals throughout Darfur at the height of the emergency, has also warned: “I don’t think that we should be using the word ‘genocide’ to describe this conflict. Not at all. This can be a semantic discussion, but nevertheless, there is no systematic target – targeting one ethnic group or another one. It doesn’t mean either that the situation in Sudan isn’t extremely serious by itself.” 
Médecins Sans Frontières is an exceptionally credible observer with regard to allegations of genocide for three reasons. Firstly, MSF was amongst the first humanitarian groups to establish a presence in Darfur as the conflict unfolded. MSF is very heavily involved in the provision of medical and emergency services in all three of the states that make up Darfur, deploying two thousand staff. It has been actively assisting hundreds of thousands of
people displaced by fighting throughout the region. Médecins Sans Frontières is also present and engaged in Chad. MSF, therefore, has a unique institutional awareness of events in Darfur. Secondly, MSF’s reputation is quite simply beyond reproach. Médecins Sans Frontières was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. It has also received numerous other awards recognising its outstanding humanitarian work throughout the world.  And thirdly, MSF’s record with regard to genocide is also unambiguous. Dr Bradol, cited above, headed MSF’s programs in Rwanda in 1994, and spent several weeks assisting the surgical team that struggled to remain in Kigali during the genocide. Dr Bradol and MSF called for armed intervention in Rwanda stating “doctors can’t stop genocide”. Dr Bradol has stated that “Genocide is that exceptional situation in which, contrary to the rule prohibiting participation in hostilities, the humanitarian movement declares support for military intervention. Unfortunately, an international military intervention against the genocide never came to pass and the Rwandan Patriotic Front did not win its military victory until after the vast majority of victims were killed.” Given the clear position with regard to genuine genocide taken by Dr Bradol and MSF, their unambiguous position in pointedly criticising allegations of genocide in Darfur is all the more powerful.
It must be noted that over the past decade or so a number of deeply questionable claims have been made about Sudan. These have included allegations that Sudan possessed and manufactured weapons of mass destruction. On 20 August 1998, for example, the Clinton Administration launched cruise missile attacks on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum alleging that the plant was making chemical weapons as part of Osama bin Laden’s infrastructure of international terrorism. Every one of the American claims proved to have been false. The London Observer newspaper spoke of “a catalogue of US misinformation, glaring omissions and intelligence errors about the function of the plant”.  These claims are now accepted internationally to have been unfounded. One of the other widely-publicised sensationalist claims about Sudan has been allegations of government-sponsored “slavery” and “slave trade” in Sudan. As “proof” for this, a great number of newspaper articles “reported” instances of “slave redemption” in which alleged “slaves” were said to have been “bought” back from “slave traders”. These sorts of claims began to be exposed as questionable where not simply false as early as 1999.  In February 2002, in an unprecedented international focus, and as the result of some excellent investigative journalism, The Irish Times, London’s Independent on Sunday, The Washington Post and International Herald Tribune, chose to publish, or republish, articles definitively exposing the deep fraud and corruption at the heart of claims of “slave redemption” in Sudan.  The Irish Times reported “According to aid workers, missionaries, and even the rebel movement that facilitates it, slave redemption in Sudan is often an elaborate scam.” 
Crying wolf on genocide is very dangerous – and can only but denigrate the memory of the reality of the Holocaust in Europe during the Second World War, and badly damage the reputation of those organisations who make such claims. Given that many previous serious allegations made about Sudan (including claims made by American administrations) have proven to be deeply questionable where not simply false, the danger of reputable Jewish organisations echoing claims made by the Bush Administration of genocide in Darfur is clear. The reputations of American Jewish leaders, and the organisations they represent, can only but suffer as a result. If, in the coming months or years, it emerges that American claims about Darfur were false it further weakens American claims to international leadership.
Additionally, questionable claims of genocide have undoubtedly undermined the Government of Sudan, a government that has just ended the long-running conflict in southern Sudan, and which has played a key role in the international war on terrorism as part of a growing and positive engagement with Washington and the international community.  Ironically, in opportunistically undermining Khartoum, these claims have served to strengthen the position of ultra-Islamists in Sudan, notably the key rebel movement involved in the Darfur conflict, the Justice and Equality Movement. JEM is widely seen as an ultra-Islamist movement closely identified with Islamist ideologue Dr Hassan al-Turabi and is opposed to any engagement with the United States, especially on counter-terrorism.  Dr Turabi was sidelined by the present Sudanese government in 1999, as Khartoum moved towards engagement with the United States. Turabi formed the Popular Congress party as a conservative Islamist opposition to the Khartoum government. JEM is led by Turabi protégés. Time magazine has described JEM as “a fiercely Islamic organisation said to be led by Hassan al-Turabi” and that Turabi’s ultimate goal is “the presidential palace in Khartoum and a stridently Islamic Sudan”.  The Knight-Ridder news agency has reported the Islamist twist to the Darfur issue: “The violence in Sudan’s western province of Darfur…is…also part of a long-running fight for political supremacy between Sudanese president Omar al
Bashir and an Islamist who called Osama bin Laden a hero. [Emphasis added] For 15 years, Hassan al Turabi was Sudan’s most powerful man, deftly manoeuvring its leaders from his perch as speaker of the parliament. He counted bin Laden among his close friends and once called the United States ‘the incarnation of the devil’.”  Leading Sudanese human rights and anti-government activist Ghazi Suleiman stated that “Turabi is the mastermind of the existing conflict in Darfur.”  Turabi loyalists have also attempted two coups d’etat in Sudan against the backdrop of events in Darfur.
That events in Darfur have involved serious abuses of human rights is clear. That these events do not constitute genocide is also increasingly clear. The testimony of Médecins Sans Frontières regarding allegations of genocide in Darfur is unambiguous. Not only are the organisation’s credentials impeccable but Médecins Sans Frontières is also present all through Darfur and have been so for two years. The American Jewish community is right to draw attention to events in Darfur. It is wrong, however, for them to echo discredited and opportunistic Bush Administration claims of genocide in western Sudan. At the very least such claims will encourage ultra-Islamist rebels in Darfur to avoid peace talks and artificially prolong the conflict – in the hope of further weakening the increasingly pro-Western government in Khartoum.  At worst it will damage the credibility of the American Jewish community in speaking out on genuine instances of genocide elsewhere in the years to come.