Are Activists to Blame for Darfur?

“Blaming activists for Darfur is akin to blaming the person who calls 911 for the fire,” said John Norris, Executive Director of the Center For American Progress’ Enough Project, at the CAP-hosted event “Are Activists to Blame for Darfur?” Open Society Institute Fellow Rebecca Hamilton joined Norris for the discussion. Hamilton is currently writing a book examining the impact of citizen advocacy on Darfur policy.

“The charges leveled at the mass movement for Darfur have gotten a large amount of air time recently,” said Hamilton. Critics have accused activists of oversimplifying the situation in Darfur and of putting the money they raise toward advocacy instead of direct relief.

“Whenever there is a situation of failure we look back at what we didn’t do,” said Hamilton. In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, for example, there was a “glaring gap where there could have been a public outcry while the killings were ongoing.” Some in Congress and others later said that if the public had brought this issue to the forefront of the government’s consciousness, more might have been done to stop the atrocities.

After the atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia the international community began to develop the ability to more effectively respond to these conflicts. Citizen activists around the world made it clear that it was unacceptable for anything resembling Rwanda to happen again.

The mass movement for Darfur has made the genocide there an issue that the U. S. government cannot ignore. “Darfur was different because Bush saw it as a domestic issue that couldn’t be put on the back burner,” said Hamilton, a result of the voice activists gave to the issue.

“Few people in government wake up and say I’m going to go out and fix [genocide or war crimes] today,” said Norris. “The more noise that activists make the more likely we are to push people to a point where they’re willing to take decisive action to end conflicts such as Darfur.” This is where activists can play a crucial role. Many elected officials don’t want to take the political risk of dealing with issues like genocide until the public cares enough that it becomes politically risky not to act.

“The real sea change in what looked like a steady progression [toward international intolerance of crimes against humanity] was Iraq.” The United States’ “go it alone” approach to Iraq eroded the trust and confidence of the international community. Its complaints about war crimes in Darfur appeared hypocritical because of the evidence of torture in places such as Abu Ghraib.

But the United States now has the chance to turn around its image abroad and become a leader in addressing human rights. “There is a huge moment of opportunity with the Obama administration,” said Hamilton. “You can’t overstate the reaction in the international community to the change of administrations; the U.S will now be given the benefit of the doubt for the first time in 8 years.”

“The big challenge for a mass movement is that people are much better at responding to the immediate crisis than they are to staying engaged with these long-term capacity building structural change goals,” said Hamilton. It is important to build a whole culture and set of mainstream values that won’t tolerate crimes against humanity instead of relying on public outcry about specific crises that have already occurred.

“We need to create a culture of prevention,” said Norris. The establishment of a permanent international court at The Hague is a major step toward generating this global culture of prevention and deterrence. When war criminals are being held accountable for their actions, the next military leader will be less likely to target civilians.

So who is to blame for Darfur? The short answer is: It’s not the advocates. Activists raised awareness and created the political will to respond to the genocide. However, advocacy alone is not enough, and it needs to mature into a force that can engage people in a long-term, sustainable way. The solutions for problems like Darfur are as complex as the roots of the conflict themselves, and it will take a multilateral force of citizen advocates, policy experts, and governments to effectively resolve these situations.

Featured Discussants:

John Norris, Executive Director, Enough Project, Center for American Progress

Rebecca Hamilton, Fellow, Open Society Institute


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