Since conflict began in the Darfur region in 2003, a total of 1.8 million people have been displaced from their homes and villages and an estimated 300,000 thousand people have died – either from direct violence, preventable diseases, or malnutrition (Bellamy 31). Innumerable awareness campaigns have been launched by the United States and other NGOs. Still, the conflict remains unnamed. Is it genocide, a case of numerous war crimes, or does it constitute crimes against humanity?

      Eight years later, debates rage on and we have yet to reach a unanimous decision. Why is that? Well, labeling a conflict as “genocide” entails much evaluation, analysis, and a close correlation with the official Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It is a complicated task. Some may argue that labels are always complicated and usually, pointless. Although this may be the case when it comes to everyday life, matters of human rights are different. The sooner we learn to call conflicts by their real names, the sooner we can resolve them (whether this be through armed intervention, peace-keeping missions, or even foreign aid.)
      Most of the time, the problem comes down to awareness. As was the case with Rwanda, no one realized what was happening until it was too late. The United States has apologized for this, although many believe the Clinton administration knew all about the genocide and simply chose to ignore it. Sadly, in cases of human rights violations, out of sight can easily mean out of mind. Recently, after reading Mahmood Mamdani’s essay, “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency” in a Human Rights class and hearing about the End Genocide Action Summit on Oct. 22 in Washington, the question of Darfur lingered in my mind.  Like many others before me, I began to question the legitimacy of the United Nations’ decision.
The United Nations says…
      After careful considerations, the United Nations decided that what was happening in Darfur would not be considered “genocide.” The international organization gave three main reasons for this decision. The first was that the victimized tribes were part of a political group (insurgents rebelling against the Sudanese government), and not specifically targeted at populations. The second (quite crude) reason was that not everyone was killed. Darfur was not a case of complete extermination, as women and children survived and the displaced populations were put in camps. The third reason was the lack of genocidal mens rea. In the eyes of the UN, the Janjaweed and other Sudanese forces’ actions did not show enough “intent to destroy.” It was decided that “crimes against humanity” was a more suitable label for the mass atrocities committed in western Sudan.Examining the UN’s conclusion      The conclusion was based on the United Nations’ own laws and was a legitimate one. However, in my opinion, “crimes against humanity” was still a misdiagnosis. When it comes to matters of life and death, and moral decisions such as this one, we cannot always rely on the guidance of documents.
      Yes, the conflict between “African” tribes and “Arab” counter-insurgents (including the Janjaweed) is politically based. It did begin because of conflicts over land ownership. And yes, the Convention on Genocide fails to mention political groups as possible targets (listing only national, ethnic, racial or religious). But should a mere legal formality exempt counter-insurgents?

      Non-Arabs from the Zaghawa, Massalliet, and Fur tribes were deliberately targeted, the force and scale of the killing of Africans was exaggerated and disproportional to the force originally displayed by African insurgents, and there occurred a mass displacement of large numbers of people. Are these offenses crimes against humanity? Absolutely. Should the situation be considered genocide? As with all human rights issues, the topic is highly debatable but, in my opinion, I would say yes. Absolutely.

The Convention
      The main provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide carefully state that genocide is condemned “in time of peace or in time of war”, and defines genocide as “any of a number of acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction…” (para. 1). Note that political groups are, in fact, excluded.
A closer look at Darfur’s history

      The fighting in Darfur, between the Janjaweed and the insurgents, began as a result of domestic tensions, power struggles within Sudan’s political classes, and disagreements between nomads and farmers over previously shared land. The nomads later formed the Janjaweed militia and the farmers, the insurgents. For this reason, Mamdani sees the conflict as a political one. This may be the case, however, the conflict did not stem from fair and just government policy – if it had, an “African” insurgent group against the Sudanese leadership would not have been necessary. Nonetheless, the real issue is that political groups are not included in the Convention’s definition of genocide – even if they are just as valid as the other groups mentioned. This made it very easy to discount Darfur as a case of genocide. The way I see it is that regardless of the type of group you belong to, discrimination based on difference goes against the principles of international human rights.

A specific target

Mamdani’s article makes many references to the difficulty of defining the “Arabs” and “Africans” of Darfur. He claims that they cannot be simply defined or distinctly separated. He emphasizes this to prove that victims could not have been from a specifically targeted group. He has a point in that both the insurgents (“Africans”) and Janjaweed (“Arabs”) share the Muslim religion and Arab language. Yet, the “African” tribes are set apart by a sedentary farming lifestyle/communities (as opposed to the popularized nomadic lifestyle), broken Arab dialect called “rottana” (Mamdani 15), and a mostly darker skin colour. They are not considered Arabs by the elite of Darfur and do not play a role (or hold any power) within the Sudanese government. Herein lies the reason for the ethnic cleansing brought about by the government backed, Janjaweed. The separation of a people into worthy and un-worthy of life is based on political, cultural, and class distinction. Regardless of which one we choose to focus on, the counter-insurgency has still committed mass crimes against humanity.

Proof of intent

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo stated on behalf of the African Union in 2004 that the crimes in Darfur were not genocide because there was no “definite decision and plan and program of a government to wipe out a particular group of people” (Mamdani 4). This seems to be enough to prove otherwise (especially considering the Janjaweed was established by the Sudanese government to crush any and all insurgent forces, and that the deaths all targeted those particular tribes).

      The Security Council’s Commission of Inquiry ruled that the acts violated three international laws, but they concluded that the intention to eliminate the tribes was not present.

      To disprove this point, let us question how the tribes were expected to survive the injustice, difficult life conditions, and large measures taken to ensure their suffering. Were the actions deliberate, painstaking, and continuous? Yes. Were any means taken to end the killings once the insurgent forces were clearly overpowered and the tribes’ populations slowly dwindling? No. The intention to eliminate was never directly stated or made public; but a hidden agenda does not mean a lack of an agenda altogether.

A civil war

In his essay, Mamdami claims that the situation in Darfur is not genocide, but a civil war. He first expresses doubts about terming it genocide because the infighting seems very similar to the insurgency and counter-insurgency in Iraq. He then likens Darfur to a violent and tragic civil war:

      In the Kristof columns, there is one area of deafening silence, to do with the fact that what is happening in Darfur is a civil war. Hardly a word is said about the insurgency, about the civilian deaths insurgents mete out, about acts that the commission characterizes as ‘war crimes’ (Mamdani 6).

      Although the argument of insurgent violence is justified, the number of killings and the strength/power of the counter-insurgent Janjaweed forces is far greater. Insurgent crimes include civilian deaths, but they exclude displacement of peoples and systematic destruction of their homes. The insurgent killing is not racially or culturally driven. This, of course, does not make it correct. But, as stated by the Security Council’s Commission of Inquiry, it amounts to “war crimes” as opposed to the “crimes against humanity” committed by the counter-insurgency (Mamdani 3). The mass killings in Darfur cannot be neatly packed away as a civil war because the forces are of unequal power (the Janjaweed is backed by the Sudanese government for one, and armed/economically sustained by outside forces such as the Chinese government). Although their initial want for land was the same, their resulting intentions and strategies were different. For example, the Janjaweed burned and looted the villages of the African tribes. Then when the tribes moved to camps, they forced them to leave these camps as well.  The insurgents did not go to such lengths.Mass displacementMamdani carefully tip toes around the question of mass displacement as a characteristic of genocide. Although the counter-insurgency did not completely exterminate the insurgent population, other actions warrant the term genocide as well. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide lists “killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, taking measures intended to prevent birth, and deliberately inflicting conditions that would bring about their destruction as genocide” (para. 2). Unfortunately, all of these crimes have happened in Darfur and most were during, or as a result of, displacement.
      Estimates of 300, 000 thousand people or more have died. As stated earlier this was either from direct violence or from preventable diseases and malnutrition (the last two of which can be directly attributed to displacement).Bodily (physical attacks) and mental harm has been cause. The Mental Harm can be due to threats, raids, and the burning of villages and camps, not to mention the looting, violent killings, and rapes that followed. The mass rapes committed by Sudanese counter-insurgents were to prevent African women from having dark babies and ensure that lighter skinned, Arab babies were being born in the future. This is a practice of ethnic cleansing, and certainly a method intended to prevent birth.Lastly, deliberately inflicting conditions that would bring about destruction can be demonstrated by the mass displacement of more than 1.8 million people from their homes, the painstaking, systematic, and deliberate burning of their entire villages – house after house – and the following displacement of the same tribes from their camps once they had found somewhere else to subsist. Actually, using the words “somewhere else to live” would be an over statement, considering the conditions of their tents/camp.

The United States says…

I do strongly believe the situation in Darfur to be a genocide, and I am not alone. After much debate and hesitation, the U.S. Congress unanimously voted to label the conflict as “genocide” in 2004 (Bellamy 31). Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has also emphasized the genocide in Darfur for years, in his passionate op-ed column.

Three Reasons for Hesitation

Why, then, have we been so hesitant to label the crimes in Darfur as genocide? This is mainly due to three key reasons. Firstly, some international governments and world powers such as China have denied the genocidal nature of the crimes. Labeling it as such genocide would mean they would be forced to intervene. Of course, intervention is expensive. It entails resources, national efforts, a risk of ruining foreign policy, and can mean an end to profitable relations (such as China’s gifts of arms and funds in exchange for Sudanese oil). None of these things are in the state interest. Before Iraq, intervening in other states affairs (in the name of universal jurisdiction) could be profitable. Now states are seriously scrutinized, making perks very unlikely.

Secondly, it has proved very difficult to examine the situation in the region of Darfur and accumulate proof. The Sudanese government not only refuses to cooperate with outside investigators, but they also continue to deny their involvement with the Janjaweed and deny that more than 100 people were dying every day.

Thirdly, Mamdani states that the number of deaths in Darfur has always been fuzzy. Even Kristof, he says, can never get his numbers straight: “Each time figures were given with equal confidence but with no attempt to explain their basis”. This seems to instill doubt – doubt of the scale of the crimes and of the trustworthiness of sources. However, I do not believe this to be reason enough to disregard the whole matter as a question of civil war. The Convention states that whether “in whole or in part” (para. 1), the targeted killing constitutes genocide. When it comes to deciding if the crisis in Darfur is genocide or not, we can conclude that whether the number is 200, 000 or 500, 000 is completely irrelevant.

By: Sophia Loffreda

Follow her on twitter: @sloffreda( – !/sloffreda).

For more information on Darfur, to read about the End Genocide Action Summit, the Save Darfur Coalition, or to write a post card to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, visit

Author’s note: Please note that the opinions here are my own, and not The Cafe Phenomenon’s.
Feel free to comment, agree, disagree, or give your opinions by writing  in the comment section below this article.



Bellamy, Alex J., “Responsibility to Protect or Trojan Horse? The Crisis in Darfur and Humanitarian Intervention after Iraq”. Ethics and International Affairs. 2005: 31-53. <>. Web. 27 Sept. 2011.

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. New York: 9 December 1948. <>. Web. 27 Sept. 2011.

Mamdani, Mahmood. “The Politics of Naming: Genocide, Civil War, Insurgency”. London Review of Books, 8 March 2007. Vol. 29. No. 5. <> Web. 27 Sept. 2011.

Save Darfur. <>. Web. Oct. 14 2011.

United Human Rights Council. <>. Web. 27 Sept. 2011.

Featured picture courtesy of


About Sophia Loffreda

Sophia Loffreda is a Concordia Journalism graduate, based in Montreal. When she’s not writing or editing for TCP, she works at a Media company, and as a fitness trainer and freelance documentary filmmaker. A self-diagnosed television junkie, Sophia enjoys camera work, photography, layout design, and scriptwriting. She's also working on writing a sitcom with two of her closest and most sarcastic friends. One day they hope to be something like Shonda Rhimes or Tina Fey. Realistic, we know. For now, she’ll settle for reading her bible (Vanity Fair) and admiring genius (Woody Allen). Her other interests include art, pop culture, travel, cooking, reading, soccer, yoga, and running with her four-year-old dog, Charlie.

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  3. Leslie Cole says:

    Great article! All of the semantics involving the crisis in Darfur is very disheartening. Whether you call it genocide or crimes against humanity is irrelevant in my opinion. I see it as just another way to opt out on what should be our main objective as a global community; seeking social justice for all of humanity. I personally believe this is genocide, and I am always grateful to meet like minded individuals in this world full of apathy who are committed to doing whatever they can to end it. Fantastic job!

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