08 April 2009

Against Humanitarian Intervention

Saviors and Survivors is a new book by Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani that argues against a rush to judgment on the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. He places himself at odds with a "Save Darfur" lobby based in the United States that has portrayed the conflict in Darfur as a genocidal war waged by the Sudanese government and its "janjaweed" auxiliaries against a group allegedly perceived as inferior "Africans" by the so-called "Arab" aggressors. Mamdani claims that the lobby has ignored both a decline in violence in Darfur over the past five years and the realities of ethnicity in Sudan that make the genocide charge a spurious one. He goes through the history of Sudan and its precursor states, noting that tribal animosities have their root, as seems often to be the case in Africa, in the colonial power's divide-and-rule strategy of favoring certain tribes or ethnicities over others and suppressing the development of a truly national consciousness. The Belgians did the same thing in Rwanda, with awful consequences in the 1990s. The Darfur conflict is a clash over land and dwindling resources rather than a race war; the desertification of grazing land is forcing horse and camel nomads onto farmlands where they aren't welcome. The apparent aggression of the nomads (including the janjaweed) is a reaction to a denial of rights to groups that had been denied the same tribal privileges as farmers. The conflict grew extremely violent because the region had become militarized during the Cold War, when Darfur was a staging area for factions struggling for control of neighboring Chad, including proxies of the U.S. and Libya.

Mamdani seems to be offering an objective account of the story. He takes no sides, as far as I can tell, and that might immediately offend people who automatically see the "Africans" of Darfur as the good guys. But Mamdani doesn't believe in the sort of good guy-bad guy dichotomies that enthrall Americans. That's part of the reason why he opposes any armed "humanitarian intervention" by foreigners in Sudan. As far as he's concerned, all sides have legitimate interests and grievances that need to be hashed out in a deliberate reconciliation process. He prefers the South African concept of "truth and reconciliation" to the "victors' justice" exemplified by the Nuremberg trials. His refusal to moralize the Darfur issue will probably lead some to say he's an apologist for Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese dictator whom the lobby blames (incorrectly, Mamdani says) for the conflict. This is a clash of sensibilities. For Mamdani politics is a perpetual negotiation process of permanent interest groups, the ideal object being that no one should lose. For others, including Americans, politics is more like a zero-sum game involving factions (parties) rather than interests, usually in the form of elections, where the winner takes all and the losers are marginalized as much as possible. From that perspective, Sudan's problems won't look like they're solved until Bashir is gone and the janjaweed are crushed. But Mamdani insists vehemently that African independence depends on the other perspective prevailing.

Mamdani isn't the first writer I've seen criticize the humanitarian intervention principle. His criticism resembles that of Slavoj Zizek and other intellectuals. Their view is that the West's declaration of rights for people in other countries, and its self-appointment as guarantor of foreigners' rights, actually strips people in other countries of responsibility for their own governments and reduces them to a quasi-colonial dependence on the old colonial powers (plus the U.S.).When the developed world decides, however benevolently, what the rights are of people elsewhere, those people implicitly lose the right to decide for themselves what their rights are. The insistence on war-crimes tribunals on the Nuremberg principle, enshrined however hypocritically in the International Criminal Court, turns what should be a political process conducted by the people themselves in any given country into a legal process imposed from outside. Mamdani describes this as the transformation of people into "consumers" of rights instead of sovereign citizens. Such a viewpoint begs the question of whether the people of any country are better off sovereign when that means a sovereign is crushing them underfoot, but that question doesn't fully answer Mamdani's point. If he means to say that it's up to the people of each country to put their own house in order, and that it's wrong in some way to deny them that responsibility even if leaving it with them means years of bloodshed and suffering, I have to agree -- to an extent. My agreement ends once anyone assumes that national sovereignty puts a limit on global progress for all time. It's more likely that a time will come when we all have to interfere in one another's affairs -- as long as everyone and every nation has an equal opportunity to make a difference, and the object is everyone's well-being. Nations will probably fall by the wayside some day -- only not right away, most likely. For now, Mamdani's book is a cautionary tale that policy makers should read with care.

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