Darfur and the limits of public outcry

I just finished reading Rebecca Hamilton’s new book Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide, and I must say I’m more confused than ever about the role that ordinary people can play in resolving international problems. But I think I’m confused in a good way, that kind of “this is a lot trickier than I thought” way that leads to learning. Hamilton was deeply involved in student activism for Darfur, but in 2006 she switched tracks to study whether this sort of advocacy had any real effect. Over the next few years she interviewed everyone involved: activists, people within the governments of the U.S., Sudan, and other countries, staff from the UN and the International Criminal Court, and of course lots of Darfuris on numerous visits to the region.

This is a story about the limitations of public outcry, which Hamilton also talks about in this excerpt (full video and transcript)

All of this seems especially interesting right now in light of the debate around the Kony 2012 video and Mike Daisey’s falsehoods about the working conditions of Apple employees in China. At what point does simplification or sensationalization of a message make broad public “awareness” ineffective or even harmful? A number of smart people have wrestled with this question recently, including Ethan Zuckerman, who co-founded the Global Voices international citizen media project, in a very thoughtful essay.

Hamilton explains that the U.S. Darfur advocacy movement began on the back of the lessons of Samantha Power’s hugely influential book A Problem from Hell:

“It is in the realm of [U.S.] domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide is lost,” was the key message from the mammoth research Samantha Power had undertaken into the genocides of the twentieth century. It was a mantra that could be seen scribbled on post-it notes on Darfur advocates’ desks and added at the sign off of to their emails. The citizens who started to join the growing movement for Darfur believed that the power to make “never again” meaningful was in their hands, that if they created a loud enough outcry, they could generate the political will needed to get their political leaders to save Darfuri lives.

But this is only true if the problem is, in fact, a lack of political will — and if the political pressure that activists create pushes in the direction of solutions that actually work.

What happened next — during the six or seven years since the start of the attacks in Darfur and the writing of the book — is complicated. Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly called what was happening in Darfur a “genocide” in September 2004, marking the first time in history that an international leader had used “the g-word” while the violence was still ongoing, but the Darfur advocacy moment was really just in its infancy at that point, and Hamilton traces the internal politics of the decision to other factors. Then there was a UN resolution referring the matter to the newly-established International Criminal Court but, writes Hamilton, “contrary to conventional wisdom, the growing Darfur movement was not a significant part of this decision. Although some Darfur advocates voiced their support, the most influential advocates were those based in Africa.”

In 2006, advocates focussed their attention on getting a UN security council resolution authorizing a peacekeeping mission to Darfur. Getting the UN to deploy troops seemed like a way forward, but China, with its close connections to Sudan, would not support the necessary UN resolution. Here, perhaps, is a place where the citizen’s advocacy moment was clearly effective.

U.S. Darfur advocates realized that domestic pressure would not work to influence Chinese leaders. But the 2008 Olympics in Beijing were coming up. Activists executed a prolonged, international “genocide olympics” campaign to publicly link China  with the events in Darfur. This included marches, a torch relay, and press campaigns such as a Wall Street Journal op-ed. This had real consequences for China, including the high-profile withdrawal of Steven Speilberg as an artistic advisor to the opening ceremonies. Eventually, China backed down, signing on to a UN Security Council “presidential statement” calling for Sudan to “cooperate fully” with the International Criminal Court.

As one U.S. government official put it, “Activists finally ‘cracked the code’ on moving China.” This didn’t mean that China moved into line with the activist position, but it did move from obstructing all outside involvement with Darfur back to a position of neutrality. In an admittedly rare instance, the Olympics, when activists in the West could threaten an image China actually cared about, public shaming had worked.

The only problem was that a UN peacekeeping mission was doomed to fail, because Sudan didn’t want peacekeepers there at all:

Any mission to protect civilians using outside forces without the consent of the Sudanese government would not only be tantamount to invasion in rhetorical and legal terms, it would bring with it logistical and military complications rising near the level of practical impossibility. No country, not even the United States, was willing to fight a real war with real costs in terms of lives lost in order to protect Darfuris. And until any country was willing to do that, the theoretical debates could continue ad infinitum. The reality was that Sudanese consent was a necessity.

This is just the barest outlines of the story, which was (and is) an intricate international situation. But if this 1,000 word post can only barely outline the situation, how is an advocacy movement supposed to explain the details to large numbers of people? And how are regular people supposed to influence the decision makers in a different country? U.S. politicians have to listen to U.S. voters, but foreign politicians don’t.

International situations seem to require international advocacy — a much harder proposition.  As Hamilton asks in this video, “more generally, beyond a state model at all, how are we building connections between different communities?”

Perhaps the most fundamental question here is, why do we believe that bringing something to the attention of a large number of people will have any real effect at all? Of course it’s impossible to know what would have happened in Darfur had there not been this sort of mass advocacy, but the fact remains that in many of the ways that count, the effort was a failure. Hamilton ends the introduction of her book on this point:

Until Darfur, the persistent failure of the U.S. government to protect civilians from genocidal violence could be all-too-easily attributed to and justified by the absence of a politically relevant outcry from citizens. The insufficiency of that alibi has now been revealed. By telling the story of what happened when citizens did create an outcry, Fighting for Darfur enables us to take the next step and begin to understand the other missing pieces of the puzzle.


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