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There is strong evidence that the violence in Darfur is an instance of genocide. An analysis of data commissioned by the U.S. State Department points to race as one of the prime motivations for the Sudanese government's barbarity.

The violence in Darfur has been described as “ethnic cleansing,” “crimes against humanity” and “genocide.” But which is the most appropriate term?

According to Article II of the Genocide Convention, genocide is defined as “any one of a number of acts “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The heart of genocide goes beyond widespread or ferocious violence. The goal of genocide is the destruction of an entire people “in part or in whole.” So, if we have evidence that the Sudanese government's attacks in Darfur were racially motivated, we would have reason to argue that genocide is the appropriate term.

But, do we have this type of evidence?

Evidence of Genocide

John Hagan and his colleagues argue that the evidence points strongly to genocide. Their analysis of a U.S. State Department commissioned survey of 1,136 people living in a Darfurian refugee camp in Chad reveals six reasons why the violence in Darfur should be understood as genocide.

1. Violence Is Carried Out by Government and Pro-Government Militia

The atrocities in Darfur are not the result of haphazard racial violence. It is directed and carried out by the government with the help of a pro-government Arab militia called the Janjaweed. More than two-thirds (68.4%) of refugee households reported that the attacks were carried out by the combined government and Janjaweed forces.

Tensions between Arab herders and the African subsistence farmers in Darfur have existed for some time. But, before the Sudanese government intervened, the two groups lived side by side, worked out their differences and even intermarried. The government transformed the tensions between these two peoples into a dangerous ideology of racial hatred.

2. Racial Epithets Are More Common When Both Government and Janjaweed Attack

Why isn't the conflict just a matter of land? After all, the Arabs had been forced south onto African tribal lands by increasing desertification. The Arabs needed land for their cattle. The Africans needed land for their farming. What is “racial” about that?

Nothing. That is, nothing until the racially Arab government in Khartoum became involved.

We know that race became the motivation behind the attacks based on the racial epithets heard during attacks. If an attack on a village in Darfur was about land, we wouldn't expect to hear expressions of racial hatred. We also wouldn't expect racial epithets if the conflict was simply about political power. However, refugees reported hearing racial epithets 16.5% of the time when the Janjaweed attacked alone. They reported racial epithets 31.9% of the time when they were attacked by government forces alone. But, racial epithets were used 44.3% of the time when government and Janjaweed attacked together.

This provides evidence that the government intensified hostilities by making the conflict racial.

3. Racial Epithets Are Associated with Killing and Raping

Is the violence really any different when racial epithets are reported? Does “racializing” hostilities increase the intensity of the violence?

Yes. The evidence also shows that making an attack a matter of race increases the violence of the attack. In attacks where racial epithets were heard, 73% of the refugees studied reported that a family member had been killed. Compare this to 60.2% reporting a family member killed when no racial epithets were heard.

When the attack was carried out by the Sudanese forces and racial epithets were heard, 92.9% of families had a family member raped or killed. Violence was deadlier when the Sudanese forces brought race into the picture.

4. Rebel Activity Doesn't Explain Killing and Raping

A major excuse the Sudanese government gave for attacks in Darfur was that they were simply putting down an armed insurgency. In other words, the government was just trying to defend itself.

The data show otherwise.

If the violence was just about the government putting down a resistance, then we would expect there to be more killing in attacks on villages where there was rebel activity. Sure, race might be used as a way to fan hostility in these attacks, but we would still expect the violence to be greater when the attacks were on rebels rather than on people not involved in the insurgency.

What we see, however, is that the presence of rebel activity makes no difference. Killing and rape are just as likely to occur when there is no rebel activity as when there is. If the government is only trying to put down an insurgency why attack innocent villages with the same ferocity as those harboring rebels? The fact is, the violence in Darfur is about race.

5. Some Racial Groups Are Targeted More than Others

If government and Janjaweed violence was motivated by rebel activity then we would also expect to see more killing in attacks on ethnic groups that are more active in opposing the government. This only makes sense. Kill the people that are attacking you. What would be the point in attacking an ethnic group that has little to do with armed opposition?

There would not be a point, unless the real motivation was to exterminate an ethnic group rather than fight rebels.

Take the example of two African ethnic groups, the Zaghawa and the Massaleit. Rebel activity is much higher among the Zaghawa (21.1% report rebel activity) than the Massaleit (only 1.7% report rebel activity). If race was simply an excuse to motivate violence against rebels, then we'd expect more racial epithets in attacks on Zaghawa and fewer in attacks on the Massaleit. In fact, we see the opposite.

In attacks on the Zaghawa rapes and killings are equally likely whether racial epithets are used or not. On the other hand, in attacks on the Massaleit (where rebel activity is very low), racialized attacks are much deadlier. What this tells us is that race is not simply a cynical method of achieving a political goal. In fact, violence against a particular race is the goal.

6. Arabs Are Spared

Arabs and Africans in Darfur have lived along side each other for a long time. If the government attacks were about putting down a rebellion in a particular area, we would expect that Arabs and Africans would both suffer.

If the attacks in Darfur were about race, we'd expect to see two things. First, we would expect to see Arabs in Darfur spared more often in attacks. Second, we would expect to see racial epithets used more frequently when Arabs were spared. We see both. When racial epithets are heard, Arabs are more often spared than when no racial epithets are heard.

Ultimately, It Is Not About Fighting Rebels

When all the different pieces are taken into account, what do we see? When were the refugees most likely to report that a family member had been raped or killed?

If the conflict were about fighting rebels then we would expect such things as the presence of rebel activity or whether the villagers fought to defend themselves to predict the extent of the killing and rape. This is not what we see. In fact, when all the different factors are taken into account rebel activity and fighting in defense are not related to killing and rape at all.

Three things predict killing and rape of the Africans in Darfur:

  1. Being female. Young African men were more likely to be killed while African women were more likely to be raped and killed. Rape was not merely a tool to terrorize Darfurians. There is a racial dimension to rape as well. Beyond terror, rape was used to “alter the race of children.” In this setting, where descent is transmitted from the father, having an Arab father makes the child Arab. So, raping African women functioned not only to terrorize the Darfurians, but operated as well to substitute Arab children for African children.

  2. Hearing racial epithets. In attacks where racial epithets were heard, refugees were twice as likely to report a family member being killed or raped compared to attacks where there were no racial epithets.

  3. Arab villages being spared. Darfurian refugees were over five times as likely to have a family member killed or raped when a neighboring Arab village was spared at the time of the attack. In other words, when an attack specifically focused on violence against one racial group while sparing another, the results were deadly.

Bottom Line

What is happening in Darfur? The Sudanese government claims that they are fighting against armed rebels. Some people think that the violence is a result of government incompetence more than evil. The UN avoided describing the situation as genocide—they didn't feel that the government violence aimed to destroy the racial Africans in Darfur in whole or part. But, what was really going on? When we rely on more than anecdote or government whitewash, when we actually study the data, what we see is that the violence is about race. When all variables are taken into account—age, family size, education, employment, rebel activity, whether villagers defended themselves, etc.—and all the numbers counted, what matters in the end, what predicts murder and rape in Darfur, is race.

Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

Data was gathered by the Atrocity Documentation Team commissioned by the U.S. State Department in 2004 from Darfurian refugees in ten camps and nine settlements in eastern Chad from July through August 2004. Researchers gathered information from 1,136 randomly selected refugees using a semi-structured interview protocol.

Based on responses in the initial interviews, researchers added two questions about rebel activity. The final 501 cases added the answers to these questions. Because the question of rebel activity was important for this analysis, only these cases were used for this study.

Method of Analysis:

The number of deaths for the 24 months after the conflict began was estimated by extrapolating from the survey findings. The estimate of the number of deaths did not include those who died in refugee camps (due to disease, malnourishment, etc.).

Measures of association were calculated using cross-tabulations and the significance of the overall association was measured using a chi-square statistic. The authors used non-parametric statistical methods to assess multivariate associations.

Funding Source:

Funding for the data collection was provided by:

  • U.S. Agency for International Development,
  • The Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative of the American Bar Association.

Funding support for this particular study was not provided.

Full Text Availability:
Full text available at

John Hagan, Wenona Rymond-Richmond, and Patricia Parker. 2005. “The Criminology of Genocide: The Death and Rape of Darfur,” Criminology 43:525–61.

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