When Ethnic Cleansing Becomes Respectable

(US Army, Ret.)

“They are not carpenters or drivers. All they know is how to use a gun”

That knowledge, according to Ahmed Angabo Ahmed, Sudanese commissioner of Kas in southern Darfur, qualified known criminals as “soldiers” and “police” to fight anti-Khartoum rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement (Jem).


Opposition to the Arab-dominated regime in Khartoum is neither new nor confined to Darfur, a large region that forms much of Sudan’s western border with Chad and the Central African Republic. Peace talks in Nairobi, Kenya are down to the final fine points whose resolution will end a 21-year rebellion that pitted the largely ethnic African Christian and animist Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) against Khartoum’s Arab Muslim rulers at the cost of at least 2 million lives.

Conflict in Darfur in the past has centered over land ownership, grazing rights for the predominantly Arab herders, and above all, water sources. Some observers characterize the current fighting, which began in early 2003, as an ill-advised attempt by the SLA and Jem to obtain concessions similar to those made by Khartoum in the Nairobi talks B sharing oil revenues and even political power with the SPLA. Others point to Khartoum’s general neglect of the non-Arab population in the impoverished region as the driving force behind the rebellion.

Whatever the cause, an estimated 30,000 people, primarily from the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa tribes, have died and another million uprooted from their homes and livelihoods. A conservative estimate is that 100,000 Sudanese have fled into Chad where they struggle to survive in camps near the border. Hundreds of thousands of others are believed to be living “in the rough” in Sudan. Both groups remain vulnerable to continued aerial bombing by Khartoum’s air force and assaults by government backed “soldiers.” These marauding bands, collectively called the Janjaweed, also often interdict humanitarian aid, forcing relief agencies to resort to airlift to get supplies into the region. The approaching heavy seasonal rains threaten to intensify the refugee’s isolation and increase the toll dramatically.


Although Khartoum signed a ceasefire with the SLA and Jem on April 8, fighting did not stop. Experts believe that as many as 2.2 million people have been affected by the combat and what officials in many organizations gingerly refer to as “ethnic cleansing” or “ethnic displacement” of the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa peoples.

For example, in his latest report to the UN Security Council on the Nairobi talks, Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that it would be “politically unsustainable” for the UN to conduct a peacekeeping operation in one part of Sudan while fighting raged in another section. The Security Council, in its Resolution 1547(2004) of June 11, acknowledged the situation, demanded adherence to the ceasefire, and called for international engagement in Sudan.

The UN Action came a day after the G-8 countries, in a communique issued at their Sea Island, Georgia summit, stated their “grave concern over the humanitarian, human rights, and political crisis in Darfur” and called on all sides to “fully respect the ceasefire, allow immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access to all those in need.” However, the world’s eight most wealthy industrialized nations “deferred” to UN leadership to avert a disaster.

The closest the G8 came to labeling the Darfur conflict ethnic cleansing was to note that the “gross violations of human rights” in the region had “an ethnic dimension.” For his part, President Bush made no reference to Darfur of Sudan during his post-meeting press conference. Nor did Sudan come up on June 13, when Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared on NBC and ABC Sunday morning talk shows.

Defining ethnic cleansing seems just as hard as getting officials to discuss it. The actual term is traced by some sources to the former Yugoslavia (Serbo-Croat) although a similar phrase (judenrein or “Jew free”) was used by the Nazis.

In “A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing” (Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Summer) 1993, 110), Andrew Bell-Fialkoff says that ethnic cleansing “can be understood as the expulsion of an ‘undesirable’ population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these.” Reporting to the UN Security Council in February 1993 on widespread violations of humanitarian law in the former Yugoslavia, a committee of experts defined ethnic cleansing as “rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.”

(Interestingly, in light of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses and the frequent “targeted assassinations” of Palestinian militants by Israel, the committee then listed a number of practices as ethnic cleansing that went far beyond “expulsion”: murder, torture, extrajudicial killings, rape or sexual assault, and deliberate attacks (or threats thereof) on civilians as methods of ethnic cleansing First Interim Report, February 10, 1993, UN Doc. S/25274).

While the term may stem from the 20th century, the practice of ethnic cleansing is ancient. Both “secular” and “religious” texts recounting martial deeds are replete with references to the wholesale slaughter of inhabitants of cities or regions. Less extreme were instances of forced resettlement or expulsion to pacify an area, make room for colonists, or simply grab valuable land.

Ethnic cleansing could be construed as either a “war crime” (committed during armed conflict) or a “crime against humanity,” as these terms are defined in the Rome Statute (UN Doc. A/CONF.183/9*) establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC). In fact, a comparison of examples enumerated yields a number of instances of similar though not exact language. Regardless, a prosecution for ethnic cleansing will probably not succeed under either circumstance without evidence of a de facto policy or pattern of actions directed against a distinctive segment of a population. Thus, “random” killings or expulsions would be treated as individual crimes, not as ethnic cleansing. Conversely, anyone in an official position who encouraged, knew of but refused to intervene, or otherwise failed to dispel the belief among personnel under his control that ethnic cleansing was acceptable could be held accountable for this offense.

In light of World War II and the former Yugoslavia in particular, is there a point at which ethnic cleansing “becomes” genocide as first defined in the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (UN General Assembly Resolution 260 (III) A, December 9, 1948) and repeated in the ICC statute? Does it really matter, especially to the victims?

For nation states and for the UN, the assertion that genocide is occurring creates a presumption that the international community will act as prescribed in Article 8 of the Convention. This provides that “Any Contracting Party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in Article 3.”

Accepting the charge inevitably would trigger calls to dispatch a UN or UN-sanctioned military contingent, which in turn would require UN member states to provide combat and logistics units and create additional monetary obligations.

Whether the intervention force would operate as a Chapter 6 (peacekeeping) or a Chapter 7 (peace enforcement) contingent would depend on the specific conditions expected. Of note, contracting parties to the Convention can invoke Article 8 not only to suppress genocide but to prevent it. This point is reinforced in the listing of acts punishable as genocide in Article 3 B conspiracy to commit genocide, public incitement to commit genocide, and attempted genocide.


No country, it seems, wants to be the one to take the first step: labeling what is occurring in Darfur with the terrible “g” word. The U.S., tied down in Afghanistan and Iraq, could spare a few Tomahawk missiles to destroy a “chemical weapons plant” in Sudan in 1998 but cannot spare forces to lead an intervention to stop the unbridled assaults against the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa peoples.
Despite this reluctance, in early June, the African Union optimistically dispatched the first of 90 to 100 ceasefire monitors to Sudan. But with an area approximately the size of France to cover, the monitors will be hard pressed to oversee the implementation of the April “ceasefire.” So will the six human rights monitors the UN is sending (Reliefweb, June 4, 2004). A 6,500-strong UN peacekeeping force the Security Council authorized on June 11 is headed to Sudan, but its mandate applies to the Khartoum/SPLA peace agreement, not the continuing atrocities in Darfur.

Simultaneously, on June 3, Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, presided over a donor’s conference to raise $236 million for Darfur for the balance of 2004. Natsios warned potential donors that even should aid begin to flow immediately, 300,000 people might die while the toll might eventually climb to a million without help (BBC News, June 9, 2004). Even so, the conference, attended by representatives of 36 countries, international organizations, and aid agencies, produced pledges of only $126 million.

Meanwhile, a number of nongovernmental organizations are doing what they can to help relieve conditions on the ground and to convince world leaders of the need to apply more “carrots and sticks” to secure better cooperation from Khartoum. And on June 15, the UN issued an emergency appeal for an additional $55 million to care for an additional 110,000 people expected to flood UN refugee camps in Chad before the end of June. (The camps already are home to 93,000 refugees (BBC News, June 15, 2004).


In the short term, the U.S. should pressure the Sudanese government to reign in the militia carrying out atrocities, stop any support to the militias, and allow immediate, unhindered access for humanitarian workers and human rights monitors. The Sudanese government has been responsive to U.S. and international pressures in the past: it expelled Osama bin Laden, halted a resurgent slave trade, ended aerial bombing in southern Sudan, and launched peace talks with southern-based rebels. With further pressure, the Sudanese government could take action to save hundred of thousands of lives.

In the long term, the U.S., European Union, and other G-8 countries will have to convince Khartoum to re-allocate monetary and other resources to develop Darfur and give all its people a stake in working for Sudan’s political and economic success. The North-South accommodation could serve as a starting point, but it will have to be an early and committed start by all parties.


Resource commitments, reluctance to create a new “precedent” about limitations on national sovereignty, and increased accountability of constitutional heads of state and other public officials to international standards militate against declarations of genocide. But until countries and international organizations can summon enough willpower to intervene where ethnic cleansing is happening or about to happen, victims and their nongovernmental advocates will have to develop and rely on “early warning” signals of impending conflict to provide enough evidence to warrant a charge of genocide-in-the-offing.

It promises to be a long, hard struggle. But until it is won, ethnic cleansing will continue to be the “respectable” face of genocide.

Col. Daniel Smith, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran, is Senior Fellow on Military Affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby in the public interest. He can be reached at: dan@fcnl.org