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Powell's Darfur Declaration

Why Foggy Bottom took so long to characterize the Sudanese--and Rwandan--atrocities as "genocide."

12:00 AM, Sep 15, 2004 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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LAST THURSDAY, Secretary of State Colin Powell finally called a spade a spade. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he said the atrocities--including murder, rape, and village razing--committed in the remote Darfur region of western Sudan qualified as genocide.

"The government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility," Powell declared. (The Janjaweed are Arab militias--almost certainly armed and supported by Khartoum--that have been ethnically cleansing black Africans in Darfur.) And "genocide may still be occurring."

Powell's statement was the first such declaration by a Bush administration official. This may seem surprising. After all, Congress labeled the Darfur situation "genocide" in July. That it's taken America's top diplomat so long to follow suit reflects, among other things, a legalistic concern.

The concern is that using the word genocide initiates responsibilities under the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Approved by the General Assembly in December 1948, the Convention obligates all signatories to stop genocide whenever it occurs. The key provision is Article 8. It reads in part: "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."

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan told the New York Times that Powell's declaration was roughly commensurate to invoking Article 8. If so, it would be historic. As Freedom House's Nina Shea has noted, it would mark "the first instance that a party to the 1948 Genocide Convention . . . has formally charged another party with 'genocide' and invoked the convention's provisions while genocide has been in progress."

By the protocols of the Convention, if the United Nations formally uses the term "genocide" in regard to Sudan, it has a legal obligation to act. So far it has not. The Arab League and the African Union, meanwhile, have both claimed there is no genocide in Darfur. The European Union says it has insufficient information to decide.

But the Bush administration hopes Powell's Senate testimony will galvanize Security Council backing for a new U.S. draft resolution on Sudan. The resolution has three main components. First, it threatens oil sanctions if Khartoum doesn't rein in the Janjaweed. Second, it calls for a U.N. commission of inquiry to probe whether the regime and the militias are complicit in genocide. And third, it seeks an expanded African Union security force in Darfur.

According to the Washington Post, Security Council members Germany, Britain, and Spain all support establishing a commission of inquiry. But China and Pakistan, two major importers of Sudanese oil, strongly oppose sanctions, as does Algeria. Beijing has warned it may veto the U.S. resolution.

Should the U.N. route fail, Powell's declaration of "genocide" will make it harder for the United States not to act. This is partly why the secretary of state waited so long to use the term. (Powell aides told the New York Times that he was also waiting for a State Department report to be completed and was wary of antagonizing the Sudanese regime.)

It's also why, in 1994, the Clinton administration was so reluctant to call the Rwandan slaughter genocide. Clinton officials indeed performed verbal gymnastics to avoid saying genocide.

The killing in Rwanda began on April 7. More than two months later, State Department officials still weren't identifying it as categorical genocide. At a news conference on June 10, a reporter asked Foggy Bottom spokeswoman Christine Shelly if she had received "specific guidance not to use the word 'genocide' in isolation but always to preface it with this word 'acts of.'" Shelly gave a remarkably maundering, incoherent answer, citing the statutory complexities of the 1948 Genocide Convention.

"I have guidance to which I--which I try to use as best as I can," she explained. "I'm not--I have--there are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of. I don't have an absolute, categorical prescription against something, but I have the definitions, I have phraseology which has been carefully examined and arrived at as best--to as best as we can apply to exactly the situation and the actions which have taken place." The preferred "phraseology" was "acts of genocide may have occurred."