Authors: Don Cheadle,John Prendergast
NOT ON OUR WATCH
The mission to end genocide in Darfur and beyond
Don Cheadle & John Prendergast
I am a Jew who remembers when my people in German-occupied Europe were condemned to isolation, hunger, humiliation, unspeakable terror and death. Until almost the end of the war, nobody came to our rescue.
I am a member of the human family who remembers that 800,000 human beings were massacred in Rwanda in 1994. They could have been saved, but nobody came to their rescue. The leaders of the world knew of the perpetrators’ intention and their victims’ vulnerability, but they failed to respond. Everything was known and, to the shame of civilized society, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were abandoned and then slaughtered.
I am writing this now because in Darfur, Sudan, families are being uprooted and starved, children tormented and murdered in the thousands, and women raped with impunity. The world knows that the non-Arab peoples of Darfur are dying by the thousands, yet, in the eyes of the victims, the world remains indifferent to their plight.
I refuse to remain silent while leaders of the world make excuses for failing to protect the people of Darfur. I am writing to voice my compassion for the victims and my anger at leaders who are timorous, complacent and unwilling to take risks. Remember: silence helps the killer, never his victims.
Darfur is today’s capital of human suffering. Darfur deserves to live, and American citizens are providing it with reason to hope. Not to help, not to urge our elected officials to intervene and save innocent lives in any manner possible and needed is to condemn us on grounds of immorality. Our failure to speak out to end the ongoing genocide in Darfur would place us on the wrong side of history. And that thought must seem intolerable to all of us.
For the sake of our humanity, SAVE DARFUR!
Professor Elie Wiesel
When Ordinary becomes Extraordinary
Senator Barack Obama and
Senator Sam Brownback
Issues that transcend politics in Washington, DC, are rare. However, there is one such cause that is worth putting political differences aside for. It is a cause that is more important than winning elections or raising campaign money. It is a cause that gets too little press attention despite the massive human consequences. The cause is Darfur.
Darfur is home to the first genocide of the 21st century. After the genocide in Rwanda, in which 800,000 people were killed, the world said we would not tolerate this ever again. Amazingly, the words ‘Never Again’ have continued to be uttered in the months—and now years—that have passed since 2003, when the killing started in the remote western region of Sudan. We continue to hear people say this genocide cannot continue, but it continues every day. Up to 400,000 have been killed and millions displaced.
Why should we care about human suffering in Africa or anywhere else?
First of all, preventing, suppressing, and punishing genocide is a moral imperative. Both personally, and as Western nations, we cannot sit idly by as innocent people are indiscriminately killed and forced out of their homes by violence.
The second reason genocide should matter to all of us is that we have all made a promise. ‘Save Darfur’ is not simply a slogan; it is an international commitment. The fact that some countries choose to look away from horrors such as those in Darfur does not allow us to shirk our responsibility.
Third, eradicating genocide will make the world safer. When we look out at the sea of humanity forced to live off handouts in UN refugee camps in Chad or Sudan, it is easy to forget that stopping genocide is not simply about charity; it is about creating a safer world for our children as well as for the refugee children stuck in the squalor of exile. History has taught us that regimes that target their own people rarely confine their murderous ambitions within their borders. Moreover, the victims—those who have been attacked not for anything they have done as individuals, but simply because of their religion or their ethnicity—tend not to go quietly into the night. Some radicalise, taking up arms against their assailants, and, eventually, joining criminal or even terrorist networks. The violence spreads; the innocents suffer.
So what does it take to stop genocide? What does it take to make the world listen and respond? It takes a number of important tools, including diplomacy, financial resources, and effective security forces. And in a world where these resources are finite, it often takes pressure—pressure from ordinary individuals standing together for an extraordinary cause—to mobilise these resources. In short, it takes you.
We are inspired by the occasions in world history when citizens, community leaders, and politicians have united in the struggle for truth, justice, and basic human dignity—in expanding civil rights, in helping bring an end to apartheid, and in speeding the fall of the Berlin Wall. We are sobered by the chapters in our past in which we have let injustices and atrocities unfold on our watch.
As members of the US Congress, representing different states and different constituents, we have been heartened, during what can feel like dark times, to hear loud, persistent, and inspirational voices from all corners of our own nation, and across the world, calling for action to end the massacres in Darfur. These voices have come from men and women of all ages, religions, and national backgrounds. We in Congress have heard this remarkable range of voices, and although we don’t always align on the details of foreign policy, we are committed to moving forward to help halt this genocide.
While Darfur is a current and pressing crisis, and while the anti-genocide movement in the United States and abroad has grown in response to today’s horrors, it must expand its reach and its range. Just as surely as we know that hate-mongering individuals will strike out against the innocent in the future, we must also know that you will be there to sound the alarm, to hold your leaders accountable for their sins of omission, to move us away from slogans to concrete measures that save lives.
Genocide is an exceptional crime. It will only be overcome if ‘extraordinary ordinary’ voices unite to summon the world’s leaders to action.
Preface: On Our Watch
‘Not on our watch.’ What does this phrase mean and why have we chosen it as our title? The origin of the phrase is nautical; it refers to sailors who take turns sharing the responsibility of being ‘officer of the watch’ aboard a ship. Whether this responsibility is requested or thrust upon the officer, it is to be taken very seriously, as any wrongdoing that occurs on his or her ‘watch’ will result in a demerit or bad mark, even if the officer was not directly involved in the incident. For better or worse, the buck stops here. ‘On your watch,’ on your record.
The phrase has since been co-opted in myriad ways, from managers talking to staff, to captains briefing cops, to teachers cautioning students, and even to parents warning their children that no misconduct will be tolerated while they are in command. And during President Bush’s first year in office, when reviewing a report on the Rwandan genocide, he wrote in the margins, ‘Not on my watch’. Perhaps he was putting his team on notice that he would not be the commander ‘of the watch’ while a similar genocide rolled on. Maybe it was just a shot across his predecessor’s bow, an observation to be passed around in the circle that a ‘bonehead’ move like this, allowing genocide to occur while you held the reins, would never go down on this president’s watch. It might have even been jotted down as a reminder or note to himself: ‘Note to self: thwart genocide.’
We don’t know the answer, but we do know this: as you read these words thousands of innocent people in Darfur are being systematically targeted for extermination. Their crime is that they are from specific non-Arab ethnic groups that are deemed to be sympathetic to rebel groups in Darfur; the ‘officer of the watch’ aboard this ship: apparently no one. Aside from the humanitarian aid workers caring for the war’s victims, the only people who can claim any such accountability are the African Union members stationed in Darfur and its surrounding areas. In their case this accountability is only as strong as their mandate, which does not allow them to engage the enemy, but rather simply to share reports with the United Nations on the results of the almost daily marauding runs. The UN’s ‘watch’ in turn, is hampered by its member states’ reticence to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign nation, despite the fact that it was precisely the need to confront this kind of crisis that led to the creation of this international body.
So whose ‘watch’ is it? Who stands on deck aboard this world-ship, assuming responsibility for the actions that occur during the shift? To us, the answer is clear: the responsibility of the ‘watch’ lies with those who take it up. Neither of us is a president, world leader, general, or captain of a gunboat, but we wish to take up the ‘watch’ and we know that there are thousands, maybe millions, like us who desire to tell their children and grandchildren that at a time when there was a terrible thing called genocide, to which those in power turned a deaf ear and blind eye, people like us spoke so loudly, in numbers so great, that we could not be ignored.
We take our ‘watch’ as seriously as any officer on board and believe in our deepest hearts that the power of the collective can override the reservations of the few, regardless of position or prominence. We pray that we can steer clear of demerits on our record, keep bad marks at bay, and with the words that follow help us all to be worthy of our roles as ‘officers of the watch’. We did not start this fire, but let us work together to put it out.
For those of us who don’t want to just talk about it and want to BE about it, the buck stops here.
Challenges and Choices
It was sometime around midnight in a little village in southern Sudan. The only link to the rest of the world within a 500-mile radius was one satellite phone, so when it rang it was a bit of a shock to everyone.
Don dispensed with the formalities. ‘My man, you are not easy to find.’
‘Obviously, hiding from you is not as easy as I thought,’ John countered.
Despite his attempt at a cool demeanour, John was excited. After Marlon Brando and Mickey Rourke (John is well aware that he has issues), Don was his favourite actor, and the fact that the two of them were about to go on a trip together to Chad and across the border into the western Sudanese region of Darfur was firing him up.
However, Don wasn’t making a social call. He was concerned that the mission that we were going on with a bunch of members of the US Congress was only going to spend several hours in the refugee camps in Chad, and he wanted to stay longer. ‘You gotta rescue it,’ Don instructed John.
John looked around to see what tools he had at his disposal in that little southern Sudanese village, but all he could hear was the ribbit, ribbit of the Sudanese frogs. ‘I am in the middle of nowhere. Give me 12 hours.’
A few hundred dollars of satellite phone calls later, a much more substantial and lengthy trip was planned. We also managed to get Paul Rusesabagina,
whom Don had portrayed in Hotel Rwanda, and Rick Wilkinson, a veteran producer for ABC’s Nightline, to come with us and help interpret and chronicle our first journey together.
Our trip to witness the ravages of genocide in Darfur was not the first brush with that heinous crime for either of us. Don had visited Rwanda post-filming, and John had been in Rwanda and the refugee camps in Congo immediately after the genocide.
As we listened to the stories of the refugees who fled the genocide, we sensed what it might feel like to be hunted as a human being. These Darfurians had been targeted for extermination by the regime in Sudan on the basis of their ethnicity. Although well-meaning and thoughtful people may disagree on what to call it, for us the crisis in Darfur is one that constitutes genocide.
Enough is ENOUGH. We need to come together and press for action to end the violence in Darfur and prevent future crimes against humanity. Through simple acts and innovative collaborations, we can save hundreds of thousands of lives now.
That is our fervent hope, and our goal.
Darfur: A Slow-Motion Genocide
Genocide is unique among ‘crimes against humanity’ or ‘mass atrocity crimes’ because it targets, in whole or in part, a specific racial, religious, national, or ethnic group for extinction. According to the international convention, genocide can include any of the following five criteria targeted at the groups listed above:
- causing serious bodily or mental harm
- deliberately inflicting ‘conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’
- imposing measures to prevent births
- forcibly transferring children from a targeted group.
The perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda took 100 days to exterminate 800,000 lives. This was the fastest rate of targeted mass killing in human history, three times faster than that of the Holocaust.
In mid-2004, one year into the fighting and six months before the trip Don and I took to Chad/Darfur, I went with Pulitzer Prize–winning author Samantha Power to the rebel areas in Darfur.
Samantha was a journalist in Bosnia during the horrors of that war, and her frustration with the failure of the United States to lead a strong international response to the atrocities being committed compelled her to research and write a book about America’s response to genocides throughout the 20th century. Her book,
A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide
(Basic Books, 2002), won the Pulitzer Prize. Samantha showed that time and again US leaders were aware that crimes against humanity were occurring but failed to take action. After she and I travelled to Darfur in 2004, Samantha wrote an article for the
magazine that won the National Magazine Award for reporting in 2005.
At the same time, US Secretary of State Colin Powell was visiting government-held areas in the region. But unlike Secretary Powell, Samantha and I went to the part of Sudan that the regime didn’t want anyone to see, and for very good reason.
Before the genocide, Darfur was one of the poorest regions of Sudan, and the Saharan climate made eking out a living an extreme challenge. But these difficulties only made Darfurians hardier and more self-reliant, mixing farming and livestock rearing in a complex strategy of survival that involved migration, inter-communal trade, and resource sharing.
It had been over a year since the genocide began, so Samantha and I expected certain evidence of mass destruction. And we were indeed witness to burned villages where livestock, homes, and grain stocks had been utterly destroyed, confirming stories we had heard from Darfurians at refugee camps in Chad.
Yet no amount of time in Sudan or work on genocide ever prepares anyone sufficiently for what Samantha and I saw in a ravine deep in the Darfur desert—bodies of nearly two dozen young men lined up in ditches, eerily preserved by the 130-degree desert heat. One month before, they had been civilians, forced to walk up a hill to be executed by Sudanese government forces. Harrowingly, this scene was repeated throughout the targeted areas of Darfur.
We heard more refugees in Chad describe family and friends being stuffed into wells by the Janjaweed in a twisted and successful attempt to poison the water supply. When we searched for these wells in Darfur, we found them in the exact locations described. The only difference was now these wells were covered in sand in an effort to cover the perpetrators’ bloody tracks. With each subsequent trip to Darfur, I have found the sands of the Saharan Desert slowly swallowing more of the evidence of the 21st century’s first genocide.
To us, Darfur has been Rwanda in slow motion. Perhaps 400,000 have died during three and a half years of slaughter, over 2.25 million have been rendered homeless, and, in a particularly gruesome subplot, thousands of women have been systematically raped.
During 2006, the genocide began to metastasise, spreading across the border into Chad, where Chadian villagers (and Darfurian refugees) have been butchered and even more women raped by marauding militias supported by the Sudanese government.
Sadly, the international response has also unfolded in slow motion. With crimes against humanity like the genocide in Darfur, the caring world is inevitably in a deadly race with time to save and protect as many lives as possible.
In autumn 2004, after his visit to Sudan, Secretary Powell officially invoked the term ‘genocide’.
He was followed shortly thereafter by President Bush.
This represented the first time an ongoing genocide was called its rightful name by a sitting US president. And yet in Darfur, as in most of these crises, the international community, including the United States, responded principally by calling for ceasefires and sending humanitarian aid. These are important gestures to be sure, but they do not stop the killing.
We believe it is our collective responsibility to re-sanctify the sacred post-Holocaust phrase ‘Never Again’—to make it something meaningful and vital. Not just for the genocide that is unfolding today in Darfur, but also for the next attempted genocide or cases of mass atrocities.
And there are other cases, to be sure.
Right now, we need to do all we can for the people of northern Uganda, of Somalia, and of Congo. Though genocide is not being perpetrated in these countries, horrible abuses of human rights are occurring, in some ways comparable to those in Darfur. Militias are targeting civilians, rape is used as a tool of war, and life-saving aid is obstructed or stolen by warring parties. Furthermore, by the time you pick up this book, another part of the world could have caught on fire, and crimes against humanity may be being perpetrated. We need to do all we can to organise ourselves to uphold international human rights law and to prevent these most heinous crimes from ever occurring.
That is our challenge.
Raising the Political Will to Confront Crimes Against Humanity
Preventing genocide and other mass atrocities is a challenge made all the more difficult by a lack of public concern, media coverage, and effective response, especially to events in Africa. Crimes against humanity on that continent are largely ignored or treated as part of the continent’s political inheritance, more so than in Asia or Europe. The genocide in Darfur is competing for international action with human rights emergencies in Congo, Somalia, and northern Uganda—conflicts that along with southern Sudan have left over 6 million dead—but the international response to these atrocities rarely goes beyond military observation missions and humanitarian relief efforts, which are insufficient Band-Aids.
Crises like these need the immediate attention of a new constituency focused on preventing and confronting genocide and other crimes against humanity. Of these four conflicts, only Darfur has generated sustained media and public attention. Images of innocent Darfurian civilians—men, women, and children—hounded from their homes by ravaging militia have triggered significant activism on the part of all citizens around the world. But these public expressions have not, by the time of this writing, at the end of 2006, yielded a sufficient international response. The world’s most powerful governments have yet to take bold action to protect the victims, build a viable peace process, and hold those responsible for this genocide accountable.
There is some positive momentum building. At the United Nations World Summit in 2005, member nations agreed to a doctrine called the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P. R2P states that when a government is unable or unwilling, as is the case with Sudan, to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, the international community must take that responsibility. We believe that this doctrine, developed by a high-level panel co-chaired by Gareth Evans (the president of the International Crisis Group, where I work) and Mohamed Sahnoun (former Algerian diplomat and UN special advisor) commits us all, as individuals and nations, to do our part to fulfil that responsibility.
During our visit to Darfur and the Darfurian refugee camps in Chad, we heard story after story of mind-numbing violence perpetrated by the Sudanese government army and the Janjaweed militias they support. We heard of women being gang-raped, children being thrown into fires, villages and communities that had existed for centuries being burned to the ground in an effort to wipe out the livelihoods and even the history of those communities. We heard things that simply should not be happening in the 21st century.
In one of the refugee camps in Chad in 2005, we met Fatima, 42, who described how she had to escape her village of Girgira in western Darfur after her mother, husband, and five children were all killed by the Janjaweed militias. She said she feared the government would kill her as well. In desperation, she walked for seven days to a refugee camp. She couldn’t walk during daytime hours because of the Janjaweed gangs. She hid under trees and plants. Despite all this, she wanted to return home, but she wanted to be sure it was safe. Having lost everything, she no longer trusted anyone, even the African Union troops deployed in Darfur.
Omda Yahya, a tribal leader we talked with from Tine, also saw all his children die in a violent raid on his town and in the subsequent escape to ‘safety’. His town, he says, was attacked by men on horseback, planes dropping bombs, and armies on foot. He fled with many of his tribe, and after more than 15 days of walking without food or drink, they arrived at a refugee camp. ‘We lost our village. They burned it. If we get all our possessions back, then after that we can go back. But now we don’t think it is safe to go back.’
How do we respond to these horrors?
What we’ve learned is that there are three pillars to fostering a real change in human rights and conflict resolution policy: field research to learn what is really happening in the conflict zones and what needs to be done, high-level advocacy to deliver the message to the people who determine policy, and domestic political pressure from a constituency that cares about these issues and takes them up with their elected officials.
This last one often goes missing. Sustained and robust campaigns by organised citizens are needed for maximum impact. Fostering these constituencies must be our focus.
Will the Western world lead efforts to protect people when they are being systematically annihilated by predatory governments or militias? Will we punish the perpetrators of crimes against humanity? Will we promote peace processes with high-level envoys and other support? None of these options is beyond the realm of the possible; they are simply matters of political will. If citizens and therefore their governments answer yes to these questions, millions of lives will be spared in the coming years.
The good news is that much of the suffering could come to an end. It is within our power. If the Western world takes a lead role during each crisis marked by crimes against humanity, our chances to prevent or end these crimes increases dramatically. If they had taken a leading role in three areas of policy—peacemaking, protection, and punishment—these crimes could have been prevented or stopped. If citizens and their governments increase their activism and work to build an international coalition to stop mass atrocities, major changes are possible.
Despite what you may see on the evening news, there are encouraging signs of progress. Indeed, sparse and sporadic news coverage of Africa focusing solely on crises there has led to a ‘conflict fatigue’ associated with the continent as a whole.
By ignoring the positive news, US and European media risk fostering a dangerous tendency to dismiss the entire continent as hopeless. So when wars erupt and their attendant human rights abuses emerge, the response—if there even is one—is often tentative and muted, and conflict-ridden countries easily descend into a free-fall. We think these conflicts are not just an affront to humanity; they are the greatest threat to overall progress throughout the African continent.