WHAT'S IN A name? When it comes to genocide, a UN Security Council decision to give that name to a pattern of mass murder can mean the difference between life and death for enormous numbers of human beings. This is because parties to the 1948 Convention on Genocide, among them the United States, are obliged to prevent and punish crimes of genocide, which are defined as acts undertaken with "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group." This legal obligation forms the backdrop to a fateful argument about the definition of horrific crimes being perpetrated by the government of Sudan and proxy Arab militias called the Janjaweed against non-Arab tribal peoples of the Darfur region in western Sudan.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said on June 17 that there are "massive violations of international humanitarian law" in Darfur, "but I am not ready to describe it as genocide or ethnic cleansing yet." At best, this statement is a peculiar evasion of responsibility. Several human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations have reported evidence of the widespread ethnic cleansing of non-Arab ethnic groups in Darfur.
The air force of Sudan's National Islamic Front regime takes part in raids on villages. Then the Janjaweed ride in on horses, camels, and vehicles, killing men and boys, raping women and girls, burning hundreds of villages, stealing and killing livestock, and eradicating any sign that the lands of the non-Arab victims had been farmed. What is happening in Darfur is no less an instance of ethnic cleansing than what Serbs did to Bosnian Muslims or Saddam Hussein did to Iraqi Kurds and the marsh Arabs of southern Iraq.
But it is Annan's denial of the genocide in Darfur that does the greatest damage. Every day that he and the governments represented in the Security Council refuse to call the Khartoum regime's attempt to destroy the non-Arab peoples of Darfur by its true name, more of those people perish.
Returning from a recent trip to refugee sites on the border between Sudan and Chad, a team of investigators from Physicians for Human Rights issued a report that found several indicators of genocide in Darfur. The eyewitness accounts from refugees are heartbreaking. The destruction of villages, the killing, the hot pursuit of survivors, the systematic rape of women -- these crimes form a pattern the report calls genocide. And its authors take on the true role of healers when they call on the world to "name this crime for what it is and intervene to stop it from succeeding."
Annan, who as chief of UN peacekeeping in 1994 ignored genocide warnings from Rwanda, should heed calls that are now coming from many quarters for humanitarian intervention to stop the genocide in Sudan.