Article — From the November 2008 issue

The Activist

Alex de Waal among the war criminals

On July 14 the International Criminal Court requested a warrant for the arrest of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Since taking power in 1989, Bashir had overseen massive violence against his people, especially in Sudan’s Darfur region, with little personal consequence, and most activists applauded what Human Rights Watch called “a significant step towards ending impunity for the horrific crimes” there. A few, however, argued that the request was premature, even counterproductive. The most vocal among these critics was Alex de Waal, a British academic and Harvard professor. At age forty-five, de Waal has dedicated most of his professional life to understanding the politics of northeast Africa. Many of his colleagues nonetheless took his opposition—he called the ICC action a “coup de théâtre”—not as a measured objection to an artless tactic but rather as a confused apology for a war criminal.

Lanky, pigeon-toed, and slightly graying, de Waal is an unlikely object of controversy. I first met him in 2006, when I took a class of his called The Politics of Humanitarian Emergencies in Africa. He was unflaggingly specific about the region’s baffling politics, but he would always find the detail that kept us, his audience, in his narrative grip: the Rwandan MP who brought his pistol into the Chamber of Deputies, or the surprising origins of the sex manual for Tigrayan revolutionaries. (This technique was also, I later discovered, central to his fieldwork.) One day he brought to class several replica land mines and passed them around. De Waal was the first chairman of the Mines Advisory Group, one of a coalition of organizations that in 1997 were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward banning land mines. He did not mention this in class. What he did mention was that most mine sweepers die from want of caution. “They get addicted to the adrenaline,” he explained. “They say it is better than sex.”

We studied emergencies from across Africa—the collapse of Somalia, the Rwandan genocide, the revolution in Ethiopia—but the focus was always on Sudan, and particularly its vast western region, Darfur. De Waal began his career with a dissertation on a famine that killed at least 100,000 Darfuris in the early Eighties, and he joined the Africa division of Human Rights Watch in 1989, the day after Bashir launched his coup against Sudan’s ostensibly democratic government. The new regime immediately barred human rights workers from Sudan, but de Waal nonetheless spent the next several years sneaking across the border, documenting its extensive human rights abuses. He resigned from Human Rights Watch in 1992, largely because he opposed its call for military intervention in Somalia, and has since accumulated a comically large number of missions and titles from various governmental and non-governmental bodies, including the Economic Commission for Africa, the InterAfrica Group, and the United Nations. In 2005, the African Union asked him to be an adviser to its mediation team at the Darfur peace talks. His job, essentially, was to help stop the war, and that is the job he continues in today, drawing on whichever affiliation best suits the needs of the moment.

De Waal takes pride in his competence, and he does not hesitate to criticize activists he deems inexpert. He generally is against large-scale interventions, as with Somalia, but he is critical as well of what he considers to be dangerously inept instances of small-scale activism. Issue-awareness campaigns, for instance, may draw attention to important causes, but they can also motivate counterproductive demands among warring factions. Injecting cheap grain into a war zone might reduce malnutrition, but it may also help fund a warlord or destroy the local farm economy. The potential for unintended consequences also informs de Waal’s concern about the ICC. He has no doubt that Bashir is a criminal, but he also believes that an arrest warrant, at this time, is far too blunt an instrument. Handled improperly, Bashir’s arrest and trial could endanger what little peace there is in Sudan.

Such views have sometimes angered his peers. In a lengthy email to me, Gerard Prunier, a Canadian expert on eastern and central Africa and author of his own book on Darfur (The Ambiguous Genocide), called de Waal an “institutional scholar” whose primary motivation is maintaining his own “view of himself as a (well-paid) man of destiny.” In a 2007 Newsweek online debate, John Prendergast, a former State Department adviser who now heads the anti-genocide project ENOUGH, told de Waal that he tends to “blame activists for things getting worse on the ground in Darfur, and for the failure of the Darfur Peace Agreement of 2006. At least that is what most activists perceive your intentions to be.”

De Waal’s students were often just as critical. Confronted with the unpleasant idea that their activism might be pointless or even counterproductive, one or another of them would point fiercely at him from across the table and ask, “Well what do you want us to do then?” In response to this unanswerable question, he would usually return as quickly as he could to his stories, mentioning perhaps the U.S. Marine who was eaten by a shark off the coast of Somalia.

I had planned to travel to Africa myself, to research a book based on such stories, and I asked de Waal for contacts there. Two months later, as I began a series of interviews with officials in Kigali—I had gone to Rwanda in search of Okwir Rabwoni, the pistol-toting MP de Waal had told us about—I found that his associates had as many questions for me about de Waal as I had for them about East Africa. Had he sent me? What was he doing now? When was he coming back? I didn’t know. But everywhere I went, his name started conversations.

In Africa, I eventually, unsurprisingly, crossed paths with de Waal himself, and I asked if I could watch him at work. He said yes. In fact, he said, in six months he would be traveling to Sudan, perhaps even to Darfur, to help the African Union bring about a planned “Darfur-Darfur Dialogue and Consultation” among the region’s many warring factions. He was looking forward to getting back to Darfur, where, as a Ph.D. candidate twenty years earlier, he had developed a taste for the region’s hard dates.

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