The Pain of the G-8's Big Shrug
Friday, 11 July 2008

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

Is genocide really that bad?

As President Bush and the Group of 8 leaders who are meeting in Japan again shun their responsibilities in Darfur, there is a serious argument to be made that genocide is overrated as an international concern. The G-8 leaders implicitly accept that argument, which goes like this:

Genocide is regrettable, but don't lose perspective. It is simply one of many tragedies in the world today — and a fairly modest one in terms of lives lost.
 
All the genocides of the last 100 years have cost only 10 million to 12 million lives. In contrast, every year we lose almost 10 million children under the age of 5 from diseases and malnutrition attributable to poverty. Make that the priority, not Darfur.
 
Civil conflict in Congo has claimed more than 5.4 million lives over the last decade, according to careful mortality surveys by the International Rescue Committee. That's at least 10 times the toll in Darfur, but because Congo doesn't count as genocide — just as murderous chaos — no one has paid much attention to it.
 
Does a mother whose child dies from banditry, malaria or AIDS grieve any less than a mother whose child was killed by the janjaweed?
 
The world has been trying to pressure Sudan to stop slaughtering Darfuris for nearly five years, yet the situation in some ways is worse than ever. In contrast, we know how to combat malaria, child mortality and maternal mortality. The same resources would save far more lives if they were used for vaccinations and bed nets.
 
So instead of pushing President Bush to worry about Darfur, where it's not clear he can make a difference, get him to focus on bed nets or deworming or iodizing salt in poor countries or stopping mother-to-child transmission of the virus that causes AIDS or so many other areas where his attention could have a humanitarian impact.
 
Genocide is horrific, but that doesn't make it a priority.
 
This is a coherent and legitimate argument, and there are moments when I catch myself sympathetic to it.
 
Yet in truth, genocide has always evoked a transcendent horror, and it has little to do with the numbers of victims. The Holocaust resonates not because six million Jews were killed but because a government picked people on the basis of their religious heritage and tried to exterminate them. What is horrifying about Anne Frank's diary is not so much the death of a girl as the crime of a state.
 
There are also practical arguments, for genocide can create cycles of revenge and displacement that make it far more destabilizing than any famine or epidemic. The Darfur genocide may well lead all Sudan to fragment into civil war, interrupting Sudanese oil exports and raising oil prices.
 
The Armenian genocide still festers after nearly a century; and former President Bill Clinton has said that his greatest foreign-policy mistake was his failure to respond in Rwanda. In the same way, the G-8's collective shrug today about the Darfur genocide — because the victims are black, impoverished and hidden from television cameras — will be a lingering stain.
 
After five years of genocide, President Bush still hasn't taken as simple a step as imposing a no-fly zone or even giving a prime-time speech about it. He gave Beijing a gift, his pledge to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics, without pushing hard for China to suspend military spare-parts and arms deliveries to Sudan.
 
The Islamic world has been even more myopic, particularly since the victims in Darfur are all Muslim. Do dead Muslims count only when Israel is the culprit? Can't the Islamic world muster one-hundredth as much indignation for the genocidal slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Muslims as it can for a few Danish cartoons?
 
This coming Monday, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court is expected to seek an arrest warrant in connection with Darfur, and his past statements suggest that it may be for the Sudanese president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, for genocide. That would be a historic step requiring follow-through.
 
A personal note: I have seen children dying of AIDS and hunger; I have had malaria and been chased through the jungle by militias. I want the G-8 to address all the aspects of global poverty, yet nothing affects me as much as what I have seen in Darfur.
 
I tilt obsessively at the windmills of Darfur because, quite simply, its people haunt me: the young woman who deliberately made a diversion of herself so the janjaweed would gang-rape her and miss her little sister running in the opposite direction; the man whose eyes were gouged out with a bayonet; the group of women beaten with their own babies until the children were dead.
 
Yes, genocide truly is "that bad."
 
I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground, and join me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kristof.

Nicholas D. Kristof writes op-ed columns that appear twice each week in The New York Times. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he previously was associate managing editor of The Times, responsible for the Sunday Times.

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