Review of Hagan and Rymond-Richmond, Darfur and the Crime of Genocide, for British Journal of Sociology, 2009

Posted: December 12, 2009 in Darfur, genocide reviews

Hagan, J. and Rymond-Richmond, W. Darfur and the Crime of Genocide Cambridge University Press 2009 269 pp.

The attacks of the Janjaweed militia and Sudanese government forces against the non-Arab people of Darfur, which began in 2003 and are still continuing in 2009, constitute the largest-scale genocidal violence anywhere in the world since the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, although perhaps they should be considered a ‘rolling’ rather than – like the latter – a ‘volcanic’ genocide (in the words of Madeleine Albright). Although there has been considerable informed documentation and analysis of these events, the academic literature is still weak, certainly relative to Rwanda which has been extensively studied, and the ‘genocide’ frame of analysis is still contested. And although sociologists have made considerable contributions to the conceptual debate on genocide, and recently to its historical sociology, they have been marginal to the analysis of recent cases, where anthropologists have made the running. We can only welcome, therefore, this volume which proposes to apply not only sociological but (innovatively) criminological perspectives to the Darfur situation.

Hagan and Rymond-Richmond’s main contribution is their analysis of an important victimisation survey of survivors of the initial violence in Darfur, conducted in 2004 for the US State Department and which formed the basis for then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s unprecented allegation that genocide had been committed. The Atrocities Documentation Survey has since been suppressed by the State Department and Hagan and Rymond-Richmond’s is the first serious analysis of its disturbing findings, which go a long way to supporting the genocide case in general, and the international criminal charges against Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir and other state leaders in particular. The refugee interviews are indeed, as Hagan and Rymond-Richmond write, ‘a genocidal trove of evidence’. They demonstrate, in extensive and graphic detail, the interlinked killings, rapes and mass displacements which made up the violence of the genocidal process.

The analytical crux of this book, however, is an argument about how the destruction of communities and lives was ‘racially’ constructed. The authors link the use of racial epithets by al-Bashir and other Sudanese leaders with the survey evidence that victims often (but not always) experienced the violence as racial, due to the (widespread but not universal) use of racial epithets by militia and soldiers during the attacks. According to Hagan and Rymond-Richmond, therefore, the attacks were genocidal not because the victims were black or members of particular groups such as the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa, but because the Sudanese state and the militia constructed them racially through persistent use of derogatory language (‘Zourga’ is the term used by al-Bashir). The authors ‘see racial epithets as forming the spark that transforms the specific forms of racial intent emphasised in international law’ into the type of ‘collective racial intent, or collective targeted fury and frenzy, that so often characterises genocide.’ (p.177)

This is an interesting contribution to the confused debate about the genocidal nature of the Darfur violence, which seems particularly unclear because of the overlapping nature of local identities (although that isn’t actually so unusual) and the common Muslim religion of perpetrators and victims. Clearly, as in all genocides – and this point is increasingly gaining ground even if there are stubborn objectivist resisters especially among legal scholars – it is the genocidists’ construction of the targets as a particular enemy (or enemies) which defines each genocide. The question here, however, is whether the particular ‘racial’ construction proposed by Hagan and Rymond-Richmond is an adequate representation of how the regime and the militia have constructed the civilian populations they have attacked.

There seem to me to be two problems with their approach. On the one hand, they give definitional and analytical priority to racism, although this is (in general) only one of numerous types of potentially genocidal ideology and there is no particular necessity for the determination of genocide (even in international law, let alone in sociological understanding) for it to be indentified as the main driver. On the other hand, they are over-dependent on a narrow evidential base, namely the use of racial language by both leaders and direct perpetrators, and fail to consider other possible drivers apart from racism. These weaknesses seem to be rooted in the particular type of sociological/criminological approach that the authors adopt, which tends to understate the political dynamic of the Darfur conflict and abstract recent events from their historical context. Certainly the conflict has been extensively racialised by the regime and the militia, but it is not clear that this is, in a simple sense, its driver, rather than an ideological form in which it has been represented.

Hagan and Rymond-Richmond also take for granted the international legal definition of genocide: for example, they compare events in Darfur to the Srebrenica massacres, because this has been internationally ruled as ‘genocide’, but don’t consider the wider parallels between Darfur and Bosnia-Herzegovina, presumably because the latter conflict as a whole has not been ruled genocidal. They also indulge themselves in extensive discussions of the history of criminology and expositions of Hagan’s other work, which will be of interest to criminologists but are not strongly relevant to the analysis of Darfur. Thus they conclude with unenlightening comparisons of the exclusion of homeless youth in Canada with the violence of Darfur. Overall, this is an interesting study, marrying social-psychological theory to a criminological framework in the analysis of important evidence about Darfur, but it raises more questions than it solves.

Martin Shaw
University of Sussex

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