The ongoing crisis in Darfur is no genocide.
In an age of 24-hour news channels, short attention spans and a long list of world crises, "genocide" remains headline-grabbing. But the term's application to Darfur is flawed in legal terms and unhelpful in resolving the crisis, and ultimately undermines worldwide efforts to prevent genocide.
Genocide is one of the most disturbingly evocative terms in our vocabulary, and the gravest crime humanity knows. The 1948 Genocide Convention states that two criminal elements - physical and mental - must be proved: There must be actions aimed at or resulting in the deaths of members of a national, religious or ethnic group, and perpetrators of such acts must also have the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, the targeted group.
The brutal campaign of the Sudanese armed forces and Janjaweed militia does not satisfy these criteria. Their intent is to forcibly put down or drive out of Darfur a secessionist movement and the insurgency that supports it. The government's campaign has used ethnic cleansing and scorched-earth policies that are utterly indefensible. Although the massive numbers of victims may compound the horror of the atrocities there, sheer scale is insufficient to transform massacres into genocide.
The U.S. is the only government in the world that has labeled Darfur genocide, but even its own special envoy for Sudan, Andrew Natsios, pointedly refrains from referring to it as such. The United Nations commission of independent, highly regarded jurists charged with investigating whether any international crimes had occurred unanimously concluded that Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir's regime, while probably guilty of crimes against humanity, "has not pursued a policy of genocide."
By conjuring up visions of a one-sided slaughter of innocents, the term "genocide" also misleads, belying the complexity of the Darfur conflict.
Darfur is a secessionist war, being waged by absolutely barbaric means, between the Sudanese military, along with its militia allies, and Darfurian rebels from various tribes that have constituted themselves in several disparate armed movements.
Several rebel groups have engaged in despicable acts themselves, such as the targeting, rape and murder of international aid workers. Indeed, the rebels took up arms and fired the first shot in an attempt to secure more political rights from the central government - the nub of the conflict. While there is no moral equivalency between the actions of the Janjaweed and the rebels, to say Darfur is a one-sided slaughter of innocents is at best an incomplete picture.
By blurring reality, "genocide" also makes finding a resolution to Darfur more difficult. When the facts of the conflict are buried beneath emotional cries to "stop genocide," we reflexively blame Mr. al-Bashir and his supporters - and place the onus upon them to stop. Indeed, the brutality with which they have conducted themselves warrants international condemnation, and for many years Khartoum blocked efforts at resolving the crisis. But the rebel movements are also impeding the peace process. The failure of the recent peace talks in Sirte, Libya, is largely a result of their boycott by several prominent rebel leaders. Intra-rebel fighting has caused further violence and displacement in Darfur and continues to destabilize surrounding countries. They, too, must be pressured to unify and attend peace talks in good faith.
Bringing peace to Darfur will require much clarity of vision and fortitude on the part of international intermediaries. The onus of resolving the conflict is shared by all parties (including the international community), and the rebels should not be absolved of their responsibilities for peace-making.
The most damning illustration of the proliferation of the word "genocide" has been the growing calls to brand the 2008 Beijing Olympics the "Genocide Olympics" in an effort to highlight China's ties to the Sudanese government.
We are in danger of turning "genocide" into a social catch phrase, allowing a boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome to develop. The term was intended to expose the most evil category of crime, and by force of that moral weight necessitate international action. Through its overuse and politicization, we risk wearing out the utility of the term and undermining the response to a future genocide.
Jonathan Kolieb is an international lawyer and research associate at the Century Foundation. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.