The essence of who we are is at stake. Genocide is evil and must be stopped." So declared New Jersey senator Jon Corzine when he introduced the Darfur Accountability Act last March. The evil in question was the widespread atrocities that are still under way in western Sudan, including the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, along with rape, torture, kidnapping, pillaging, and the forced displacement of millions.
Senator Corzine echoed Secretary of State Colin Powell and President George W. Bush, who six months earlier had used the word "genocide" to characterize the death and destruction in Darfur. That was a historic moment, as the U.S. government for the first time labeled an ongoing crisis "genocide." But the real surprise was that this genocide finding did not trigger an urgent rescue operation. It wasn't supposed to work this way.
The 1948 Genocide Convention was assumed to have put its signatories under legal obligation to stop acts of genocide. The treaty defined genocide down from the eliminationist policies of the Holocaust to "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such." But events have shown that it is hard to prove the genocidal intent of leaders while a crisis is unfolding, that it is not always clear that people are being persecuted simply because they belong to a particular group, and that it is uncertain how substantial a "part" of such a group must be victimized in order to cross the genocide threshold.
These ambiguities have muddled the deliberations over Darfur, just as they did past discussions about "genocide" in Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia. The result is a time-consuming debate that David Bosco, senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine, calls "a warped diplomatic game: (who will say the G-word first?)." Although Washington has determined that the crisis in Darfur constitutes genocide, the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, and key human rights organizations continue to dance around the label. Bosco suggests that for cases such as Darfur we adopt the less charged, but no less actionable, term "crimes against humanity."
Now that we know that the Genocide Convention provides no automatic moral or legal trigger to action, steering away from the label makes good sense. It may also make decisive intervention on the part of the United States more likely. Why? To most Americans, "genocide" means nothing less than the absolute evil of the Holocaust. This reinforces Washington's tendency to take an all-or-nothing approach to crises such as Darfur. U.S. logistical and airlift support for African Union troops hardly seems adequate to honor our solemn promise of "Never again."
Ending our fixation with "genocide" will by no means guarantee armed humanitarian intervention in places such as Darfur. But at least the debate about what should be done won't be obscured by an ambiguous treaty or the shadow of history.