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Victims without Oppressors; Massacres without Crimes


“In the whole world no poor devil is lynched, no wretch is tortured, in whom I am not degraded and murdered.”

Aimé Césaire.

Genocide is defined in a 1948 UN Convention as acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group by “killing members of the group”; “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”; or “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” constitute the crime of genocide [1].

With this in mind consider just a fraction of the chilling evidence which continues to trickle in from Darfur. Amnesty International recently released a report that documents the experiences of hundreds of women who have been systematically raped (for no other reason than they are black African women) or sold as sex slaves [2]. Monitors from the African Union said that in an incident three weeks ago militiamen killed villagers by chaining them up and then burning them alive [3]. The Washington Post published an interview with Musa Hilal, a sheik who along with six other individuals is accused of organizing the Janjaweed militia’s terror tactics in Darfur. In 1997 Hilal was jailed for killing 17 Africans in Darfur; when the region erupted in rebellion in early 2003 the Arab-led government in Khartoum released Hilal on instruction to organise his militia [4]. To date 1.5 million people have been displaced, 2.2 million are in desperate need of food and medicine, and it is (conservatively) estimated that 350,000 might die before the end of this year. The list of government-sponsored crimes against humanity could go on and on. The point worth stressing is this: on the charge of genocide there is no fear of crying wolf in Darfur.

However, in refusing to call the crimes in Darfur “genocide” the world has opted to mimic the policy of the Sudanese Foreign Office who recently declared that while there are “problems” in Darfur “there is no Famine, no epidemic diseases” [5]. Of course, it should also be made clear that such apathy-masquerading-as-prudence is not unique to the West. To their immense discredit many Arab regimes have refused to condemn the Sudanese government. Given the “benumbing indifference” (The Times of India) that presently characterises the international scene it seems alarmingly easy to agree that the killing in Darfur “has exposed the quiet savagery of the rest of the world” [6]. In fact, some analysts (for example, The New York Times journalist who bluntly declared: “Western public opinion will not be as moved by the plight of the Sudanese as by that of the Kosovars”) outwardly endorse this “quiet savagery” [7]. Few have adequately questioned whether such “benumbing indifference” and “quiet savagery” are a cause or an effect of these atrocities.

In a chapter of great import to the situation in Darfur (entitled “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”), Hannah Arendt wrote about how totalitarian politics visibly exposed “the sufferings of more and more groups of people to whom suddenly the rules of the world around them had ceased to apply.” Arendt continues: “It was precisely the seeming stability of the surrounding world that made each group forced out of its protective boundaries look like an unfortunate exception to an otherwise sane and normal rule, and which filled with equal cynicism victims and observers of an apparently unjust and abnormal fate” [8]. History recalls that the lives of various minority peoples in Europe–most notably the Jews and Gypsies–were threatened only after “a condition of complete rightlessness was created.” The huge irony, which Arendt explains, is that these “stateless minorities” ought to have been able to fall back on their supposedly “inalienable” human rights. In fact, for these poor unfortunates it was, in a sense, not that they were oppressed but that nobody wanted to oppress them: “Only in the last stage of a rather lengthy process is their right to live threatened; only if they remain perfectly ‘superfluous,’ if nobody can be found to ‘claim’ them, may their lives be in danger” [9].

The mass deportation of ‘undesirables’ from country after country during World War II exposed–with shameless clarity–the naivety of those who claimed that “inalienable” human rights would save the many who had had their national rights removed. In other words, when human beings lost the protections afforded by citizenship, when they were stripped down to sheer biological existence (or “bare life”), they became at the same time utterly expendable. To the extent that we are all reducible to bare biological existence, to the extent that human-made protections like citizenship can be created and suspended, we are all potentially rightless and ‘superfluous.’ We are all potentially homines sacri–that which can be killed without sacrifice.

Once again genocide has exposed the plight of an ever-increasing number of people who find themselves stripped of their national rights and thus–in the eyes of the rest of the world–of the right to have rights (the Khartoum government has after all turned against its own people and the survivors in the camps frankly admit that going home isn’t an option). But perhaps the greatest tragedy–evident in the rising normality of camp life (think not only of the camps in Darfur and Chad but also of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib) and the disturbing stability of the surrounding world–is the sad knowledge that the present prolongation of Sudanese lives is due to charity and not to right: “for no law exists which could force nations to feed them; their freedom of movement, if they have it at all, gives them no right to residence which even the jailed criminal enjoys as a matter of course; and their freedom of opinion is a fool’s freedom, for nothing they think matters anyhow” [10].

In his interview with the Washington Post (which I mentioned above) sheik Musa Hilal responded to the charge of genocide in frighteningly plain language. “No one can wipe out an ethnicity,” he said [11]. “Never, never, never. No massacres,” echoed Abdul-Rahim Mohammed Hussein, Minister of the Interior, and the man tasked by Sudan’s President with resolving the crisis. “There have been no massive massacres–and no one can prove there have been” [12]. Here in plain speech the essential issue seems to lie: no one is willing to ‘claim’ the victims in Darfur–not even their oppressors. We thus have an almost preposterous situation of victims without oppressors and massacres without crimes.

It is notoriously difficult to explain why genocide happens–at least in the sense of what motivates one group of people to systematically liquidate another group; but we can begin to assess the conditions which make human liquidation possible. One confirmed system is to create political-juridical exceptions (for example: refugees, “enemy combatants,” “stateless minorities.”) These people literally stand beyond the pale of the law and the protections it affords. As the “Final Solution” demonstrates, once human beings are stripped of their national protections–once they appear before the court of human opinion as human beings (bare biological existence) and not “citizens”–far from being protected, their very biological existence may now be challenged. According to political philosopher Giorgio Agamben this “state of exception” is the only legitimate way to explain the increased normalisation of camp life which connects the refugee tents in Darfur and Chad to the internment camps of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay [13]. This also makes clear the racism behind the belief that “Western public opinion will not be as moved by the plight of the Sudanese as by that of the Kosovars” if and only because it refuses to accept the obvious: Darfur is unquestionably and unforgivably, “a tragedy with many authors” [14].

DAVID NALLY is working on his PhD in Geography at the University of British Columbia. He can be reached at:

[1] Ross Boylan, “Ethnic Cleansing in Sudan” May 26, 2004 p. 2 ()

[2] Marc Lacey, “Amnesty Says Sudan Militias Use Rape as Weapon” July 19, 2004; James Smith, “Living with the Legacy of Rape and Genocide” Scotsman 20 July, 2004

[3] Ewen MacAskill, “Sudan to face ‘Genocide’ Inquiry” Guardian July 28, 2004

[4] Emily Wax, “In Sudan, ‘a Big Sheik’ Roams Free” Washington Post

[5] Barbara Slavin, “Powell tells Sudan to aid afflicted region” USA Today June 29, 2004

[6] Cited in, Jefferson Morley “The Darfur Delay: Who’s Responsible?” Washington Post July 1, 2004

[7] James Traub, “Never Again, No Longer?” The New York Times July 18, 2004

[8] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt: New York) 1976 p. 267-268.

[9] Ibid. p. 296.

[10] Ibid. p. 296.

[11] Emily Wax, “In Sudan, ‘a Big Sheik’ Roams Free” Washington Post
July 18, 2004

[12] Hilary Andersson, “Land in the Grip of Death” Independent July 25 , 2004

[13] For a sustained treatment of Agamben’s ideas see Derek Gregory, The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq (Blackwell: London) 2004.

[14] Morley, op. cit.


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