When I lived in Brazil in the early 1990s and worked for Associated Press, I filed a short item on a study by a pro-choice group that revealed the staggering number of abortions that took place in the nation. The study showed, the group argued, that abortion needed to be legalized because so many women ran serious risks in order to get “back alley” abortions. That claim may have had merit, but the numbers, I realized too late, were surely bogus. After re-examining the study, I discovered that for it to be true every Brazilian woman of childbearing age would have had (on average) multiple abortions, which was obviously impossible.
All groups, left, right and center, sometimes make sensational claims and cite dubious statistics. Political organizations do it for obvious reasons and advocacy groups do it because it calls attention to their cause and helps bring in money. For years, the Southern Poverty Law Center hyped the threat of the Klan in the course of raising a $100 million-plus endowment. This same sort of game is apparently being played by Save Darfur, whose “mission is to raise public awareness about the ongoing genocide in Darfur.” The group has claimed in ads that as many as 400,000 civilians have been killed in Darfur, saying on its website that this results from a “scorched-earth campaign by the Sudanese government against Darfuri civilians.”
The problem is that the 400,000 figure is inflated and the whole Save Darfur campaign oversimplifies the conflict there into black and white. Or to be more precise, into black and brown–the Save Darfur story is that good Africans are being killed by bad Arabs, even though many of those Arab victimizers are just as dark-skinned as the African victims. Even advocacy groups on the ground have criticized Save Darfur, saying it has distorted realities and that its policy prescriptions are dangerous.
I’m not offering an apology for the Sudanese government, which is guilty of egregious war crimes in Sudan. When I was at the Los Angeles Times in 2004 I wrote a story about intelligence collaboration between the CIA and Sudan’s Mukhabarat that was widely circulated by Save Darfur and I’ve accepted invitations to speak at events organized by advocacy groups. But the situation in Darfur, and Sudan more broadly, is far more complex than what is typically reported here.
As to the number of deaths in Darfur: last year, a member of the Save Darfur coalition ran full-page ads in British newspapers that claimed that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir had unleashed “vicious armed militias to slaughter entire villages of his own citizens. After three years, 400,000 innocent men, women and children have been killed.”
The ads, virtually identical to ones run by the group here, were challenged by the European Sudanese Public Affairs Council (ESPAC), which is close to the government in Khartoum and funded by companies that do business in Sudan. Earlier this year, the British Advertising Standards Authority ruled in ESPAC’s favor, saying studies did not support the 400,000 figure, which it deemed to be a disputed “opinion,” not a fact.
Aid groups, too, have been angered by Save Darfur, especially its calls for UN intervention in Darfur and the imposition of a “no-fly” zone there. In an email to Save Darfur sent earlier this year, Samuel Worthington, head of an aid group called InterAction, wrote, “I want to privately convey to you our strongest objection to the wording used in your current Save Darfur media and e-mail campaign. As someone who like you is a strong advocate for human rights and the protection of populations who do not have a voice I am deeply concerned by the inability of Save Darfur to be informed by realities on the ground and to understand the consequences of your proposed actions.” The email accused Save Darfur of “misstating the facts” and said that the policy recommendations offered up in its ads “would set into motion a series of events that could easily result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of individuals.”
The decision by the Advertising Standards Authority received little attention in the British media, nor has it been covered much in the American media. Indeed, Save Darfur continues to cite the figure of 400,000 in its advocacy work.
Alex de Waal, program director at the Social Science Research Council and author with Julie Flint of Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, has dissected the issue. The “figures for mortality in Darfur had become politicized,” he writes, “with many advocates speaking about extremely high death rates that were not, in fact, supported by systematic evidence.” De Waal reviewed a number of studies and concluded that the “best guess” is approximately 200,000 deaths, of which roughly one-quarter resulted from direct military attacks. He criticizes the
implication that the deaths [in Darfur] are wholly ‘slaughter’ by the Sudan government and its militias, rather than predominantly due to hunger and disease. While such famine deaths may have their ultimate cause in the war, and especially the government’s conduct of the war during the extreme phase of 2003-04, there is an important difference between violent killing and death by these other causes.
De Waal says that “the death of an estimated 200,000 people in Darfur, from massacre and man-made humanitarian disaster, is a crime of the first order,” but that “inflating the estimates can cheapen the currency of suffering” and discredits advocates.
Also worth reading is an essay by Brendan O’Neill called “Darfur: pornography for the chattering classes.” He writes:
‘Save Darfur’ activism–from Hollywood celebs calling for Western military action to the growth of campaigning commentary on the conflict–has not really been about Darfur. Rather, it has been about creating a new moralistic and simplistic generational mission for campaigners and journalists in America and Europe . . . If this only meant that they have distorted public understanding and debate about Darfur, that would be bad enough. But it’s far worse than that. The narcissistic campaigning of the Save Darfur Coalition and others has helped to prolong and even intensify violent clashes in the region. The good-and-evil presentation of the conflict has warped its dynamics. State Department officials claim that, during the height of the conflict, some Darfuri rebels ‘let the village burnings go on, let the killing go on, because the more international pressure that’s brought to bear on Khartoum, the stronger their position grows’.
O’Neill may be overly caustic, but he’s correct in regard to the general Good v. Evil portrayal of Darfur, which extends to coverage of Sudan in general. Some years ago there was a media uproar over the “slave trade” in Sudan, during which Arab slavers were reportedly selling Christians as chattel. The story was largely a hoax, as ultimately revealed by 60 Minutes. Meanwhile, until a deal a few years ago settled the conflict (at least temporarily), the Western press dutifully covered the Good v. Evil conflict between Sudan’s Islamic government and Christian rebels in southern Sudan, even though most of the rebels were actually animists and most of their leadership were corrupt, violent gangsters. Similarly, there’s been little scrutiny of Darfur rebels, who recently killed 10 African Union peacekeepers.
The Sudanese government’s awful human rights record makes it a rich, deserving target, but it’s also an easy one. There’s little American investment in the country so there’s no business lobby working on the government’s behalf. The Bush administration accuses it of genocide and deems it a pariah. Everyone from the Congressional Black Caucus to Christian conservatives hates Sudan. But it’s hardly the only worthy target on the global stage, especially as there’s no pro-Sudan lobby in this country to fight against and the U.S. government has relatively little leverage over the regime.
“[E]ven with the best intentions in the world, campaigners find themselves hoist on the petard of their own hyperbole,” David Rieff wrote in an op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, one of the few critical looks at the advocacy movement for Darfur. “None of this is to say that the crisis in Darfur is manufactured. It is all too real. But a crisis that involves innocent victims and evil victimizers is different from one in which there is evil enough to go around.”