Should the Mass Killing in Sudan Be Considered a Genocide? A Debate Between Africa Action and Kofi Annan’s Adviser

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A new United Nations report on Sudan criticized the government and its militia of systematically abusing and killing civilians in the country’s western Darfur region. But the report concludes that the Sudanese government did not pursue a policy of genocide. [includes rush transcript]

The report does say that some individuals, including government officials, had acted with “genocidal intent”. Over the past two years, at least 70,000 people have been killed in Darfur and more than two million people have been forced to become refugees.

The 176-page report was prepared by a five-member UN-appointed commission and delivered to the Security Council last week. It recommended that Security Council immediately refer the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world’s first permanent war-crimes tribunal.

But the Bush administration is strongly opposed to the court and could use its veto to block a referral. Washington has proposed a war-crimes tribunal in Tanzania to prosecute atrocities committed in Darfur. The State Department concluded in September 2004 that genocide had occurred in Darfur.

  • Edward Mortimer, Director of Communications, Office of Secretary General and an advisor to Kofi Annan.
  • Salih Booker, Director of Africa Action, which has rejected the conclusions of the UN report on Darfur,

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by two people. Salih Booker is on the line with us. He’s director of Africa Action in Washington, DC. Edward Mortimer joins us in our studio here in New York. He’s Director of Communications for the Office of the UN Secretary General. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

SALIH BOOKER: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. Edward Mortimer, let’s begin with you. Can you explain what this report says?

EDWARD MORTIMER: Well, I think you did a rather good job, actually. As you say, it finds that the government and its Janjaweed auxiliaries are responsible for an appalling series of crimes against civilians in Darfur — ostensibly against the rebel movement, but in most cases, there probably were no rebels anywhere near when these people were being raped, robbed, driven out of their homes, killed in a number of cases, as you say, and even when there were rebels, the use of force was totally disproportionate. So they say this probably amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity. They were asked to say whether it constituted genocide. They say there is one item missing for that, which is it’s not clear that the motivation was to destroy an ethnic group. It does appear that the government was basically concerted to clear out the area where these rebels might find support, although as you mentioned, it does say that individual government officials may have had genocidal intent. But it says that could only be established on a case by case basis by a competent court. They’ve established a list of the people they believe to be responsible for the crimes, and they have given that in a sealed file to the Secretary General, with a request that it only be turned over to a competent prosecutor. And as you said, the body that they think would be competent to conduct such trials and prosecutions is the International Criminal Court. So, the ball is, so to speak, now in the Court of the Security Council. They have the power under the statute of the Court to refer any case to it. And they will have to decide whether that is at right thing to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go to the issue of the International Criminal Court after, but first get response from Salih Booker of Africa Action to this report.

SALIH BOOKER: Well, we have to reject the conclusion of the report with regard to the issue of genocide. This is the weakest and almost bizarre part of the report, because their finding that there’s no government policy of genocide is literally based on three anecdotal examples that they list in the report that have nothing to do with governmental intent. And in a way they’re hiding behind this issue because, of course, intent is often the most difficult item to prove. A genocide is constituted of two elements, the mental element — the intent to destroy in whole or in part a racial, national, ethnic or religious group — and then the physical element — which are the actual acts of violence, the killing, the raping, the other sexual crimes, the destruction of home, property, livelihood, creating conditions designed to bring about the destruction in whole or in part of particular groups. Now, the report provides ample evidence of all the physical acts of genocide that have resulted in as many as 400,000 people being killed over the past two years, two million homeless, internally displaced, 200,000 across the border in Chad and refugee camps. And it continues. And the report acknowledges these atrocities continue throughout the period of the investigation. Just last week, there were more than 20 aerial bombardments of villages. The African Union observer mission on the ground has noted in investigating one of the bombings after, the African Union troops were fired upon. So, this genocide continues. The report simply fails to acknowledge government intent, and the intent is clear and documentary evidence that’s available. The report notes that the government refused to provide and refused to cooperate in providing documents that they had promised to provide regarding aircraft and helicopter engagement in Darfur, as well as other documents that Human Rights Watch, for example, has released that provide documentary evidence. But then there’s also, you know —- legal precedence has it that you can infer intent through the general context or circumstances of the perpetration of these culpable acts when they’re systematically directed against a group. And clearly for the last two years, the government has used genocide as a methodology of counterinsurgency. The report is mixing intent with motive, even though it claims to make a distinction, it fails to do so. And that’s the biggest problem. Now, whether or not it is -—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me get response from Edward Mortimer on that point.

EDWARD MORTIMER: I really don’t want to get into an argument with Salih about this. I think almost we’re falling into the trap of the Sudanese government if we do that. I mean they started out trying to claim this report as some kind of victory because it doesn’t say they’re guilty of genocide. But I think once the full text of the report was published, they completely changed tact and started saying it was unfair, biased and so on and so forth. The report says clearly that the crimes that have been committed may be no less serious and heinous than genocide. It says as Salih mentioned that they are continuing and they must be stopped, but it is urgent to take action. So let’s focus on taking the action, and if we get — as I hope we will — if we get to a competent court and to drawing up indictments against these people, then I think it would be for the prosecutor to decide whether to include genocide in the indictment. But the main thing is to take action, to bring these people to justice, and to stop what is happening and is continuing to happen in Darfur right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Salih Booker.

SALIH BOOKER: Well the problem with taking action is another weakness of the report. The only action they refer to is referring this investigation and the issue of accountability to the International Criminal Court, which we fully support and oppose the Bush Administration’s opposition. The problem, however, is that does nothing to protect the civilians on the ground in Darfur who continue to die every day. Numbers estimated between 10,000 to 30,000 per month. The report in its first conclusion says that the people in Darfur need to be protected. Yet it doesn’t recommend a Chapter 7 mandate for an international intervention to protect civilians and enforce — not observe — enforce the cease-fire. The African Union troops on the ground acknowledge they’re not enough, they don’t have the right mandate, and the international community is just dumping this problem on the African Union which doesn’t have the capacity to solve it. So, again, the international community is — you know, not living up to its own obligations and I would argue that this is in part because they refused to recognize this genocide. You know, yes, they’re willing to say it’s war crimes, crimes against humanity, but because they have set up this public perception that somehow this is a lesser evil, they’re not moving for any kind of Security Council resolution, calling for a new mandate, and an expansion of the force to protect civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Edward Mortimer.

SALIH BOOKER: We’re all for accountability.

EDWARD MORTIMER: Let’s not dump this all on this commission. The fact is that there’s plenty of things that could have been done, and some things have been done, without waiting for this report. The commission was given specific terms of reference and I think it has fulfilled those. Recommending military intervention or other ways of dealing with things, I think was not within their competence. Governments in the Security Council have the responsibility to decide how to deal with this crisis. They had that responsibility yesterday, and I think they have it even more sharply today in the light of what the report says.

SALIH BOOKER: You know, over — or a year ago, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, said, and I quote, “The only difference between Rwanda and Darfur now is the numbers involved.” This is more than just a conflict. It’s an organized attempt to do away with a group of people. That was the UN’s own Humantarian Coordinator for Sudan a year ago. You know, we are in agreement about the need for accountability. We’re in agreement about the need to stop the violence and the atrocities. Where we differ is that this is genocide. That’s why it’s important that you call it what it is. Otherwise, there’s no point in having an international convention on genocide. There’s no point in saying, never again, as we did at the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust or the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. This is why the UN finding has generated such headlines as “Sudan Exonerated of Genocide,” et cetera. Imagine if the commission had acknowledged that in fact genocide is taking place. The political and moral obligation and pressure on the UN to finally act and protect civilian would have been far greater. As it is now, they’re only talking about a resolution of sanctions.

AMY GOODMAN: Edward Mortimer.

EDWARD MORTIMER: Yeah. I think you’re doing a poor job as an advocate for human rights. You’re emphasizing the one point in the report that you don’t like. You’re saying these are the headlines, but you’re contributing to the headlines. Why don’t you emphasize the things that you do like, that you agree about, and surely, the need for action is the most important point.

SALIH BOOKER: As human rights advocates, we have an obligation to acknowledge genocide when it’s occurring. It is a unique crime against humanity.

EDWARD MORTIMER: Okay, okay. Whether it’s genocide or not, are you going to wait until we agree on whether it’s genocide before you do anything about it? Wouldn’t it be nor sensible to get on with it?

SALIH BOOKER: That’s what we have been trying to do—

EDWARD MORTIMER: Okay. Let’s not waste time on this argument.

SALIH BOOKER: — Which the United Nations has failed to do. They have dumped this on the African Union and they’ve been unwilling to bring necessary force to bear. They’re only talking about sanctions.

EDWARD MORTIMER: Now we’re talking about something which is urgent and immediate.

SALIH BOOKER: You have been talking about sanctions —- the past three UN Security Council resolutions have been getting weaker and weaker, the last one -—

EDWARD MORTIMER: Right. Okay, well that’s where you should concentrate your fire, is surely on the members of the Security Council. I think we agree that more urgent action is needed by the Security Council. And you know, that means putting pressure on the governments represented in the Security Council to do something.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but we’re going to come back with Edward Mortimer, Director of Communications for the Office of Secretary General Kofi Annan, and Salih Booker on the line from Washington. He heads up Africa Action in Washington, DC. We’re talking about the Sudan, stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re having a debate on the report that’s come out of the United Nations on the Sudan. Our guests are Edward Mortimer, Director of Communications, Office of Secretary General and advisor to Kofi Annan, as well as Salih Booker. He is the head of Africa Action in Washington, D.C. I interrupted your response, Salih Booker.

SALIH BOOKER: I was just saying that we have maintained the same position both before and after this report, that the priority has to be to protect the civilians in Darfur, who are vulnerable, who are dying every day, who do not have access to adequate humanitarian relief, because this genocide continues, and we’ll continue to advocate for an appropriate international response, which is a Chapter 7 mandate to intervene to protect these civilians and to enforce a cease-fire. This is not the first time that the government of Sudan has used genocide as a methodology for counter-insurgency. This commission of the U.N. was a wonderful opportunity to educate the international community about the meaning of genocide and its uniqueness as a crime. And it simply failed in that regard. Having said that, certainly, we support the effort of the report to push for accountability, to push this to the International Criminal Court, but we’re extremely disappointed that this commission does not speak to the immediate issue of protecting civilians on the ground who are dying in huge numbers every day.

AMY GOODMAN: Edward Mortimer.

EDWARD MORTIMER: Maybe I could just quote a view of another human rights activist, Leslie Lefkow, a Darfur expert at Human Rights Watch, who is quoted in The New York Times this morning, saying, I think the whole bickering over genocide, or not, aside, it is a very strong report. It unequivocally states that there have been crimes against humanity, war crimes and atrocities. The focus on genocide is really a red herring, used by the government of Sudan and others to distract from the larger issue of what has happened in Darfur. So I really think who, for the moment, we should agree to differ on this point and focus on what should be done.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on the point of the International Criminal Court, can you talk about the U.N.’s view on this, and the U.S. response?

EDWARD MORTIMER: Well, the International Criminal Court was set up by a conference in Rome in 1998, which was convened by the U.N. Kofi Annan, the Secretary General, was present when the statute was adopted. He has consistently supported it as the majority of member states of the United Nations have. However, it is not a U.N. tribunal. It is a distinct entity, and you have to adhere to the statute and ratify it to become a party. Sudan has signed it, but has not ratified it. The United States signed it in the last hours of the Clinton administration, but has not ratified it, and the Bush administration is strongly opposed to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Unsigned it.

EDWARD MORTIMER: Sort of, but you can’t really do that. But it exists. It has a prosecutor, it has judges. It is taking up a number of cases, and I think we will soon before very long see trials in that court. It’s, so to speak, ready to go. Whereas, they are suggesting, you know, set up another ad hoc tribunal like the ones for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, which are very expensive and would take a long time. However, the Secretary General has been careful to say, this is not a decision for him. This is something the Security Council members have to work out among themselves. The important thing is that there should be an effective accountability mechanism. And whether it’s the I.C.C. or something else, let the Security Council decide.

AMY GOODMAN: Hmm. Salih Booker, your response to this approach?

SALIH BOOKER: Well, we absolutely agree that it should be the I.C.C., that that is what this court was established to achieve. We absolutely oppose the Bush administration’s efforts, all-out efforts, I would say, to undermine the I.C.C., and to propose some duplicative creation of some new court without even consultation with the African Union on this. I would just reiterate that accountability is absolutely important. The I.C.C. is the way to go, but that does not in any way provide any protection to the people on the ground, who continue to face the genocidal war of the government of Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: On this issue of the International Criminal Court, although President Bush opposes it, saying that they don’t want U.S. soldiers and U.S. officials to be held accountable in an International Criminal Court, it has been my impression that it’s fine for them to hold others accountable in such a court. So, why the — what is the distinction between an ad hoc tribunal, sort of Rwanda style tribunal in Tanzania versus this?

EDWARD MORTIMER: I think their opposition to this particular court is visceral and ideological, and they basically have said, even though we agree that, in this case, these people should be prosecuted, we don’t want to do anything to give any legitimacy to that court. I think it’s an unfortunate position, but that is their position. And the other members of the Security Council are going to have to find a way either to persuade them to come off it or work around it or reach a compromise with them. We’ll see what happens.

SALIH BOOKER: Hopefully the other members of the Security Council will all agree it should go to the I.C.C. and force the U.S. in a position as to whether or not it’s going to veto this resolution for accountability on these crimes in the Sudan. The problem, however, is China, which is the major investor in the oil industry in Sudan, and Russia, which is the major arms supplier to the government of Sudan, are unlikely to support any strong measures, whether sanctions or whether on the issue of accountability, directed against the government of Sudan.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Edward Mortimer, you now have a situation where the Bush administration has called what happened in Darfur genocide, and the United Nations is not going as far as that.

EDWARD MORTIMER: That’s correct. I mean, obviously the United States is a very important member of the United Nations, but it’s not the only one. And clearly, there is not a consensus on this point. But I think that shouldn’t stop us from working as has been said to get effective, joint action to stop and punish the very, very serious crimes that clearly are happening, whether they’re genocide or not.

AMY GOODMAN: Not calling it genocide, does that mean that certain mechanisms of the U.N. are not triggered?

EDWARD MORTIMER: I don’t — I think it only means that the convention on genocide, signed in 1948, is not triggered. But there are plenty of other mechanisms that can and should be triggered?


EDWARD MORTIMER: Well, the Security Council has primary responsibility under the charter for international peace and security. I think it’s by now pretty clearly understood that that means not only war between states, but civil war and massacres and violations of — systematic violations of human rights happening within states. When you have — when you talk about war crimes and crimes against humanity, certainly, those states that are parties to the Rome Statute would say that the International Criminal Court should be involved. So, I think there is certainly scope for sanctions. That has already been discussed by the Council. The Secretary General has said that it should still be on the table. It’s been mentioned that the African Union does have a small number of troops on the ground. I think that clearly needs to be greatly beefed up, I think, both in terms of the numbers of the logistical resources, and the mandate. They don’t really have a protection mandate as things stand. They are more there as observers or to protect observers than they are to protect the population.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned about a repeat of ten years ago with Rwanda?

EDWARD MORTIMER: Obviously, everybody is concerned about that. Equally, obviously, no two situations are exactly alike. I mean, appalling and terrifying thing about Rwanda was how quickly it all happened. You know, you had close to a million people massacred in the space of less than three months. This is like a sort of crawling Rwanda. I mean, with relatively small numbers of people being killed, driven from their homes, raped, every day, but it has now been going on for about two years. And it is really shocking that it has not been stopped yet.

AMY GOODMAN: And the people on the commission, who made up the commission?

EDWARD MORTIMER: The commission was a commission essentially of jurists. The president of it, Antonio Casese, a very distinguished Italian judge, who was in fact the first president of the U.N. Special Tribunal on Crimes in the former Yugoslavia. The others are drawn from different parts of the world. One of them is an Egyptian judge, Mohammed Fayek. So that’s a neighboring, normally friendly country to Sudan, fellow Muslim and Arab country. You have got Hina Jilani, who is from Pakistan, also a Muslim country. You have got Dumisa Ntsebeza, who I think is from South Africa. So, it’s an international body. I think it represents the collective wisdom of the jurists and human rights activists of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Salih Booker, final word.

SALIH BOOKER: I think the real issue is citizen action. The world is failing Sudan as it failed Rwanda ten years ago. The difference will be will citizens bring sufficient pressure to bear in this country and other countries in the world to make sure that the Security Council acts differently this time around. We would encourage people to visit our website, to take actions, to be part of this civil society movement to end the genocide in Darfur.

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Again, Edward Mortimer, Director of Communications, the Office of the Secretary General, advisor to Kofi Annan, and Salih Booker of Africa Action in Washington, D.C.

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