by Joachim J. Savelsberg, author of Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur

Violence in the Darfur region of Sudan is flaring up again, as the United Nations and news media report. Janjawiid militia are targeting the same groups they had sought to destroy during the genocidal violence of the early 2000s, in collaboration with the government of Sudan and its forces. Back then, 300,000 Darfuris lost their lives and 3 million lost their homes. Some of those targeted this year had just returned to their homes, and others had engaged in protests against local officials, accusing them of siding with Arab groups. Occasionally, Sudanese officials appear to be complicit in the attacks. In the recent mass killings in Fata Bornu on July 13, the local governor, Major General Malik Al-Tayeb Khojaly, a target of such protests, had withdrawn protection forces exactly the night before the Janjawiid attacked.

This new wave of violence is especially disappointing after the 2019 peaceful revolution in Sudan that resulted in the overthrow of former President Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party. A Sudanese court has since convicted al-Bashir on corruption charges. He is serving time in a Sudanese prison and awaiting another domestic trial for his military coup of 1989. While al-Bashir was still in power, the International Criminal Court charged him for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. Ali Kushayb, a leader of Janjawiid militia forces, is now in ICC custody in The Hague for his involvement in the mass atrocities of the 2000s.

Yet the violence in Darfur continues.

In the 2000s, diplomats, human rights activists and humanitarians had conflicting responses to the violence, as I wrote in my book Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur. In contrast to human rights activists and the International Criminal Court, diplomats and humanitarians were cautious about attributing responsibility to Sudanese officials. Diplomats were desperate to save the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended to the war between the North and South of Sudan, a war that had cost some 3 million lives. They highlighted structural conditions of the violence in Darfur rather than the criminal intent of government officials. Humanitarians depended on permissions from Sudanese authorities to get their desperately needed aid on the ground. Focusing more on the suffering in the camps than on the killings in the villages, they too were reluctant to attribute criminal liability to leading actors of the Sudanese state. I found that Western countries were unevenly receptive to the competing ways of framing the violence as crime, as a humanitarian emergency, or as armed conflict, generated by structural conditions and the desertification of the Sahel zone. Yet, interviewees from the different fields also pointed out that the tension between their positions did not constitute a zero-sum conflict.

Again today, these similar conflicting frames about the violence have emerged. Some diplomats and UN officials avoid pointing fingers at the new government of Sudan that came to power in 2019. They fear jeopardizing ongoing efforts toward democratization. Additionally, humanitarians still depend on permits issued by the Sudanese state and its collaboration. Yet, others demand that responsible actors be held accountable and potentially prosecuted. At the least, they call for an extension of the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission.

It is time to revisit these old arguments and revived conflicts in light of the recent violence in Darfur.

Conflicts between diplomatic, humanitarian, and human rights representations of the violence are unavoidable. Yet, we must explore where interests overlap between the benevolent forces that respond to the violence – through negotiation, aid delivery, or the pursuit of justice. Both diplomats and humanitarians must be interested in strengthening those forces within the current power arrangement that are appalled by massive violations of human rights. They must want to support the morale of Darfuris to keep them from venturing into the perilous journey toward Europe via Libya and the Mediterranean. Like human rights activists, they must be intent on holding perpetrators accountable while strengthening democratic forces within the current power structure in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.

Social fields generate distinct sets of knowledge and action strategies, but their boundaries are not always clear-cut. Exploring these overlapping interests of diplomatic, humanitarian, and human rights groups in Darfur will serve the advancement of peace and democratization, humanitarianism and justice in the region.