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Sudan: Investigating Genocide

book review

Glasgow — Genocide in Darfur reviews the U.S. State Department's 2004 Atrocities Documentation Project (ADP) in Darfur which eventually led to Secretary of State Colin Powell's characterization of the situation in Darfur as genocide. It is edited by two individuals who participated in the investigation and contains chapters by those who participated in the project in various capacities, as well as some outsiders. This investigation was unique in that it was the first time that a government had set out to use sophisticated social science survey techniques to systematically assess whether a genocide was occurring or had occurred. Colin Powell's characterization of the situation in Darfur as genocide was also the first time a government had accused another government of an ongoing genocide, as well as the first time a government had invoked chapter 8 of the Genocide Convention, calling on the Security Council to address the situation.

The book begins by providing a short history of the conflict. Particularly useful is the 23-page chronology which charts the current crisis from its beginning in 2003 through June 2006. The roots of the crisis obviously go back much further, and we get a taste of the historical background initially (although those who want to delve deeper into the subject would be advised to consult Gerard Prunier's _Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide_ [rev. ed. 2007]).

The discussion then turns to the decision to undertake the investigation. Throughout the book we are given little hints of exactly why the State Department decided to do such a thorough investigation--possibly it was individuals within the State Department, Colin Powell, the pressure from evangelicals who already had an interest in Sudan because of their perception of Christian persecution in the South, a need to atone for the lack of action in Rwanda, a diversion from more robust action--but no sustained and documented explanation. The reader is left wanting to know more about the politics behind the decision. The investigation came after the need for humanitarian aid had already been established, partly as a result of a first-of-its-kind scientifically based mortality study. Another first was the use of satellite imagery to provide concrete evidence of the violence and devastation of villages to the world. This is rather ironic given that in 1996, when the Rwanda-supported Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) invaded eastern Zaire, resulting in perhaps 200,000 Rwandan refugees going further into Zaire rather than repatriating, the United States withheld satellite images from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as part of a gambit to argue that the refugee crisis in eastern Zaire was essentially over.[1] In Darfur, USAID acted essentially as a tripwire, alerting others within the U.S. government to the problems and pushing the government to address them. The satellite imagery helped boost the case outside the government.

The following few chapters examine the actual process undertaken to carry out the investigation, which occurred in refugee camps in Chad. Twenty-four investigators (plus local interpreters) took part in the project during the summer of 2004. Interestingly, the State Department was heavily reliant on NGOs--in particular the Coalition for International Justice--in putting together the investigation team. The methodologies and techniques used in carrying out the survey are described in detail (even those who do not use such techniques in their work will find this discussion fascinating). The investigators had to transplant traditional survey techniques, which are frequently used in much more controlled environments, where responses rates might be the biggest issue, to a much more unpredictable situation where the hostile physical environment (summer in the Chadian desert) impacted the investigators' ability to access the areas they wanted, and where the interview subjects had experienced unspeakable cruelty, loss, and hardship. The teams also had to adapt to a particular cultural and political situation. In an interesting example of culturally adapted random sampling, the teams would start their investigations at the local sheik's tent and move out through the camp from there in random directions, stopping at every tenth tent. The issue of interpreters was also important, since the teams had to hire them on the ground rather than bringing their own trained interpreters with them. The conclusion of this chapter is that it is possible to do a credible job with a local team of interpreters with some on-the-fly training, rather than necessarily needing interpreters with years of training.

The actual process of making the determination that the situation in Darfur constituted genocide, once the data came back from the field, is addressed in several different chapters, including the possible implications arising from the Genocide Convention and the possible (and eventual) referral to the International Criminal Court. However, the decision process still ends up seeming opaque. Although we have information from interviews with a couple of the main players, the reader ends up wanting more--more depth, more breadth in terms of sources of information, and more of a sense of the politics. This may be a function of the fact that this is essentially an instant review of the process, rather than a more in-depth, scholarly treatment which may only be possible further down the road. However, this becomes a theme throughout the book--the politics and motivations of the players involved are given somewhat short shrift as opposed to the description of what happened. There is also discussion of the findings of the International Commission of Inquiry, which was set up as a result of the U.S. determination and referral to the Security Council, which found war crimes and crimes against humanity but not genocide.

Following this, a few chapters analyze the work of the project and the implications. Although they make some good points, several of them are short and end up being more like opinion pieces than analytical pieces.

The final--and most important--issue addressed is what happened after the determination. Although there is a certain level of defensiveness on the part of one of the participants about the motivations for the survey, and possible implications/precedents of the investigation and genocide determination, there is general frustration about the lack of concrete response from the United States and the rest of the international community to the situation, which, as one of the participants concludes, "is nothing short of shameful" (p. 220).

Overall, this book provides an interesting account of a unique development in international relations and human rights--the systematic investigation of one sovereign state by another and the resulting finding of genocide and reference to the Genocide Convention. This has not had the effect that many might want, including many of the authors in this volume, but it could set a precedent for future crises--either to encourage further investigations and condemnations or to allow states off the hook after the condemnation is made. What it is missing, which will certainly be provided by other books as Darfur is analyzed in the years to come, is anything more than a somewhat thin discussion of the politics surrounding the decision to set up the ADP and the resulting actions (or non-actions). This does not take away from an interesting read that does provide some insight into the events surrounding some of the earlier responses to Darfur.


[1]. Kurt Mills, "Refugee Return from Zaire to Rwanda: The Role of UNHCR," in _War and Peace in Zaire/Congo: Analyzing and Evaluating Intervention, 1996-1997_, ed. Howard Adelman and Govind C. Rao (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2004), 175.

Genocide in Darfur: Investigating the Atrocities in the Sudan

Samuel Totten and Eric Markusen, eds.

New York: Routledge, 2006. 334 pp. Map, appendices, index. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-4159-5328-6; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 0-4159-5329-4.

Reviewed for H-Human-Rights by Kurt Mills, Department of Politics, University of Glasgow

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