What is Obama's stance on genocide in Darfur?

02/25/09 Seán Kinane
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How will the Obama administration deal with and prevent genocide? Edward Kissi, an assistant professor in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of South Florida, says that in many of his campaign speeches, Obama referenced genocide in order to condemn and draw attention to the mass killings in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Kissi suggests that one reason was to stress his “change” campaign theme by contrasting the failure to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda with restoring America’s moral standing in the world.

“In order to indicate that his idea of change included a commitment to the eradication of the following six global threats of the 21st Century. I call them Obama’s Six Horsemen of a Global Apocalypse. One: terrorism, two: nuclear weapons, three: climate change, four: poverty, five: genocide, and six: disease.”

Kissi spoke Wednesday on “The Obama Presidency & Genocide Prevention” at the USF Tampa campus library in an event sponsored by the Department of Africana Studies, the Institute on Black Life, and the USF Libraries Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center. Nearly 100 million people were killed in genocides during the 20th Century, Kissi says, and it is unclear whether Darfur should be included in that category.

“There is no consensus yet among scholars who study genocide, that the estimated 300,000 deaths and the nearly 1.2 million displaced civilians in the continuing civil war in the Darfur region of Sudan since 2003 constitute a genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity. The Bush administration and President Obama deemed the killings in Darfur, Sudan, as the first genocide of the 21st Century. The United Nations and some scholars who study genocide consider that as a mislabeling of what are clearly war crimes.”

Mark Greenberg, the director of Special and Digital Collections at USF Libraries, pointed out that Lissi’s legal and academic definition of genocide contrasted with the moral definition used by a previous speaker at USF, journalist Rebecca Tinsley, chair of the nonprofit group Waging Peace.

“Whether she used the term in its legal or most academic definition, I really can’t say. … Individuals left her talk with a commitment to try and do something.”

Kissi says the term “genocide” has come to mean any form of morally objectionable or indiscriminate killing. But that can lead to cliché, or the term can be used as a political tool for activists. Kissi paraphrased the legal definition from the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

“The intentional destruction – which includes killing – of particular groups of people by a perpetrator, often a state, and in recent years armed non-state groups or militias. So in very simple terms, when we talk about genocide, we mean the intended or actual extermination of a group from the face of the earth.”

Kissi says it’s not always easy to distinguish between the moral and legal-academic definitions of genocide.

“It is the … actualized intent to completely or partially destroy a group that distinguishes genocide from other forms of killing. So we have to distinguish between the Holocaust and the War in Iraq, Or the Holocaust and the war in Darfur. But again there are grey lines in between.”

If the Obama administration is confronted with a budding genocide, Kissi warns against U.S. military intervention.

“We have had too many of that, far too many of that. And perhaps that may be one of the causes of America’s indebtedness, and one of the causes of the antipathy of the world toward the United States. The president should be very, very careful not to walk in the tracks where ghosts reside. … He should give the responsibility to protect target groups in genocide situations to local and sub-regional bodies.”

James Coleman, a senior majoring in history at USF, disagrees. He thinks that U.S. military interventions, such as in Bosnia, are appropriate.

“Instead of taking the economic route to use our military to better our country’s resources, let’s step away from that. Let’s go ahead and use it to stop moral turpitude where we can stop it. Let’s stop a genocide or a potential genocide as the case may be.”

Kissi suggests that current day genocides could be perpetrated against high-risk populations such as immigrants.

“The likely victims of genocide in the [21st] Century will neither be religious, racial, political, but transnational groups known as immigrants. They can be black, green, blue, indigo, Sikh, Christian, Jew, Muslim. And if you look at what is happening in Europe, notions of nativism and nationalism and others, those are the high-risk groups that we have to seriously protect.”

On Monday, the USF Libraries Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center will host a lecture on “Colonial Violence in Kenya and Algeria” by University of Munich and Princeton University professor Fabian Klose. It will be at 2 p.m. in the Grace Allen Room of the Tampa campus library.

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

Waging Peace

Department of Africana Studies at USF

Institute on Black Life at USF

Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center at USF

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