Smart Library on Globalization
Topics |  Bibliography |  Authors |  Expert Panel |  Help Print PDF Add
Evidence from Darfur shows that the Sudanese government's violence cannot be accurately described as a simple counterinsurgency against rebels. Rather, the government is guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against the black Africans of Darfur.

Scholars Petersen and Tullin accuse the government of Sudan of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur. These are grave charges. How do the authors substantiate their claims?

In the face of any claims to the contrary, Petersen and Tullin know that they need to be able to show—and not just claim—evidence for their accusations.

What Is the Evidence for War Crimes?

The Darfur area of Sudan is no stranger to conflict. Pastoral black Africans and Arab nomads from the north lived in an uneasy tension through the 1980s and 1990s. However, what had been a localized conflict exploded into national violence in the early 2000s. The Sudanese government began to back the Arab nomads in their conflict with the black Africans as a result of an insurgency against the government in western and norther Darfur.

The government's military attacks, in conjunction with Arab militias (known as the Janjaweed), were aimed to put down Darfurian rebels—or so the government claimed. But, was this a counterinsurgency or something more sinister?

Petersen and Tullin, drawing on eye-witness testimony, say that attacks against villages show that the government was about more than just putting down a rebellion. If the violence in Darfur was a product of rebel/government conflict we would expect rebels to be attacking villages where government troops and government supported personnel were located. We would expect the government to launch attacks against villages where they believed rebel activity was occurring. In short, we would expect more or less equal attacks from both sides of the conflict.

However, this is not what we see. Evidence shows that only 3% of the attacks on villages in Darfur came from rebels. Attacks by government and Janjaweed forces made up a striking 97% of the total. Petersen and Tullin say that this represents and overwhelming use of force by the government and government supported militias. Government and Janjaweed violence went far beyond military necessity. They weren't merely trying to put down an insurgency. The numbers point to a clear conclusion: military force targeted not just rebels but civilians.

Because extreme violence was used by the Sudanese government and the government supported Janjaweed against innocent civilians, at least some of the killings that resulted should be regarded as war crimes.

What Is the Evidence for Crimes against Humanity?

Could the Sudanese government's goal have been to attack villages in order to push back rebel positions? Perhaps the government was seeking to drive out the rebel population from local strongholds?

Certainly, if this were the case then we would expect to see violence. However, we would not expect to see a massacre. There is a difference in acting to weaken an armed militia and seeking to destroy an entire population.

Eye-witness testimony indicates that villagers were killed in 76% of the attacks by the government and Janjaweed. The government and Janjaweed killed an average of 43 to 57 people per village in each attack. Why kill so many people in so many attacks? The government knew that rebel activity and presence was not this extensive. [ref to Hagan militia leader keytext].

The obvious conclusion is that the murder of civilians was not collateral damage. Civilians were slaughtered intentionally as part of the government's attack strategy. So, say Petersen and Tullin, these killings should be regarded as crimes against humanity.

What Is the Evidence for Genocide?

Even if the Sudanese government's actions constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity, should the violence be described as genocide? Did the government of Sudan use extreme violence widely and systematically in order to destroy and ethnic or racial group?

Yes, say Petersen and Tullin.

The Violence Was Systematic and Widespread

If the violence in Darfur were local, or even if the government violence targeted only rebel strongholds, then we would expect the attacks to be spotty—concentrating in some areas while relatively absent in other areas. However, if government violence was widespread and systematic, then we have reason to believe that the government's target is much larger than members of an insurgency.

Petersen and Tullin were careful to identify the names of the villages named by eye-witnesses to the attacks between 2001 and 2005. They then plotted each of the villages named by eye-witnesses onto a map of Darfur. The distribution of the government and Janjaweed attacks is presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Distribution of the Government and Janjaweed Attacks

Figure 1 shows that the government's attacks were both widespread (across the entire area) and systematic (evenly distributed across this area of Darfur). The only exception is the area in the upper left of the map where relatively fewer attacks occurred. However, this area had been attacked during the mid to late 1990s and so much of the population in this area had already fled to Kutum and northern Chad.

The Government Was in Control

How do we know that the government was in control of the violence?

Aside from the fact that the majority of the attacks against villages in Darfur were carried out by a combination of government and Janjaweed forces, the timing of the violence provides additional evidence.

The majority of the attacks on villages in Darfur occurred between April 2003 and March 2004. However, there were two sudden drops in the violence during this time.

There was a sudden drop in violence in September 2003 with only one attack during that month. This drop in violence occurred in conjunction with two events:

  1. There was a peace agreement between the government and the rebels,
  2. The UN IRIN media service took up coverage of the violence in Darfur at this time.

Attacks on villages began again the next month.

There was another sudden drop in violence at the end of March 2004. At this time a senior UN official, Mukesh Kapila—the UN Humanitarian coordinator for Sudan—made a public statement comparing the violence in Darfur to the genocide in Rwanda. He stated that he did not “see any reason why the international community should not consider some sort of international court or mechanism to bring to trial the individuals who are masterminding or committing war crimes in Darfur.” This statement prompted an upsurge in international media coverage.

The fact that the violence in Darfur stopped suddenly in response to public exposure and possible international threat indicates that the government quickly called off the attacks out of fear of international response. If the Janjaweed were acting on their own, we would not expect to see this pattern. But, because the Janjaweed were acting as agents for the government, they pulled back when the government was threatened. However, when the Sudanese government saw that no serious international involvement was coming, the violence resumed.

Atrocities Were Motivated by Race and Ethnicity

The government and Arab militia did not kill only rebels. They killed civilians ruthlessly. However, they were not indiscriminate. The violence was almost exclusively Arab on black African. The attacks made the racial nature of the violence clear. Survivors of the attacks report that Janjaweed and government forces hurled racial slurs while attacking. Judging from the language the attackers used, the mindset was not “kill all the rebels,” but rather, “kill all the black Africans.”

In short, the goal of the government's attacks was to destroy the black African people of Darfur. It is the use of violence to destroy an ethnic, racial or religious group in whole or in part that constitutes genocide in international law.

The Sudanese governments actions were—judging from the evidence—genocidal.

Bottom Line

Evidence from Darfur shows that the Sudanese government's violence cannot be accurately described as a simple counterinsurgency against rebels. Rather, the government is guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide against the black Africans of Darfur.

Data and Methods:

Data Source:

Data consisted of information from a wide range of resources, including: extensive searches of newspapers, the internet and electronic libraries; all available reports by NGOs, human rights organizations, the UN and the African Union. The authors used a strict set of inclusion and exclusion criteria to determine whether to include a particular eye-witness account in the data set.

From the eye-witness accounts the authors were able to estimate the number of villages attacked and the number of people who died in each village.


The authors used several alternative assumptions to extrapolate from their sample to the general population in Darfur. This allowed them to calculate a range of people killed in Darfur during the target period.

Funding Source:

Not reported. [Bloodhound?]


Petersen, A.H. and Tullin, L. 2006.The Scorched Earth of Darfur: Patterns in Death and Destruction Reported by the People of Darfur. January 2001-September 2005. Copenhagen: Bloodhound.

Other Keytexts from this source
© Copyright 2017 CLG Portal. All Rights Reserved. Powered by