In July 2004, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum declared a “genocide emergency” in Darfur, Sudan. This week, after extensive research and an assessment of conditions on the ground, the Museum is changing its categorization of conditions in Sudan to a “genocide warning” for the entire country.
As part of its mandate, the Committee on Conscience at the Holocaust Museum is charged with alerting the national conscience and stimulating action to prevent or halt acts of genocide and related crimes against humanity. For some time now, we have evaluated situations based on three graduated categories of urgency:
Emergency: Acts of genocide or related crimes against humanity are occurring or immediately threatened.
Warning: Organized violence is underway that threatens to become genocide or related crimes against humanity.
Watch: The circumstances indicate a serious potential for the eruption of mass violence that would be within the Committee’s mandate.
Drawing distinctions between these alert levels is important, albeit difficult, because doing so helps shape the proper policy for saving lives. Under the 1948 Genocide Convention, genocide is defined as the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, religious or racial group through killing or other acts. It is a difficult crime to prove because of the high standard involved with documenting intent. It is also a very specific crime—and should not be used as a catch-all term for all mass killing or atrocities.
Choosing how to categorize a particular situation, moreover, is not an exact science. At any given time, regrettably, there are often several wars or conflicts in the world where extreme violence against civilians is being perpetrated. Experts will often disagree where on the continuum to genocide a certain situation ought to be placed. Here at the Holocaust Museum, we pay extremely close attention to the facts on the ground in order to arrive at our own judgments.
Mindful of the power of the word genocide, we have always tried to be judicious. As the scale of the violence in Darfur became increasingly apparent in 2003 and 2004, circumstances demanded that we place the situation at our highest level of alert. The Sudanese government and allied militias conducted a series of offensives that drove civilians in the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit ethnic groups off their lands. More than two million people were displaced from their homes, and the government obstructed the delivery of humanitarian assistance from international groups. Mortality rates skyrocketed: the World Health Organization estimated that up to 200,000 people died during this period.
While reasonable people disagreed with our assessment—the United Nations, for instance, never labeled the events in Darfur a “genocide”—we strongly believe that our “emergency” designation was accurate.
But now conditions in Sudan have changed. Although violence persists in Darfur, it is of a different character, with rebel groups and criminal elements responsible for violence along with the Sudanese government. The Sudanese government has halted major offensives against civilian groups. Humanitarian assistance is being provided. Mortality rates have been significantly reduced: The United Nations estimates that about 1,500 people died as a result of violence in each 2007 and 2008. New satellite assessments by the US government, highlighted in “Crisis in Darfur”, the Museum’s initiative with Google Earth, clearly show the level of destruction of Darfurian villages has decreased from the height of the Sudanese government’s systematic military campaign between 2003 and 2005.
The situation across Sudan remains perilous. In Darfur, millions remain at risk in displaced persons camps because it is too dangerous to return home, and those chiefly responsible for the crimes in Darfur remain in power in Khartoum. Furthermore, we are deeply concerned about the situation in South Sudan, where hundreds of civilians have been killed in fighting over the past several months. Over the course of the next year, the country faces significant political challenges—with national elections and a referendum on southern independence. Our concerns focus on the challenges for Sudan as a whole and the imminent risks to large segments of the civilian population. By our own criteria, we believe it is most accurate to place Darfur and the rest of Sudan in our “genocide warning” category.
We also believe that the Sudanese government must be held accountable for its past and current behavior. The International Criminal Court has sought an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir and other Sudanese officials for their roles in orchestrating violence in Darfur. When this warrant was issued in March, the government responded by evicting 13 humanitarian organizations working in displaced persons camps—another possible violation of international law. This is unacceptable: the Sudanese government must fulfill its responsibility to protect its own citizens.
We recognize that there is a significant public debate about how to describe what is happening in Darfur. We will continue to closely monitor conditions in Sudan, and we are ready to raise our alert level if necessary. Our hope is that an accurate description of the evolving situation will help elicit the appropriate policy and public response—and lives will be saved.
Mike Abramowitz, Director of the Committee on Conscience