Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières Challenges US Darfur Genocide Claim

"It suited various governments to talk it all up, but they don’t seem to have thought about the consequences. I have no idea what Colin Powell’s game is, but to call it genocide and then effectively say, ‘Oh, shucks, but we are not going to do anything about that genocide’ undermines the very word ‘genocide’."

— Darfur aid worker on American claims of "genocide". [1]

American Political Opportunism Exposed

Attempts by the Bush Administration to exaggerate the extent of the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur province have come under increasing fire from the humanitarian aid community and other commentators. [2]

Certain facts are clear. In February 2003, two armed groups, the ‘Sudan Liberation Army’ and the ‘Justice and Equality Movement’, began a low intensity conflict against the Government of Sudan in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. These rebel groups launched attacks on government garrisons and civilians in the area. The government responded vigorously and the conflict spiralled out of control causing a growing humanitarian crisis. [3] Thousands of people have died and more than a million civilians have been displaced as a result of the conflict. Darfur is home to some 80 tribes and ethnic groups divided between nomads and sedentary communities, and the war has seen considerable inter-tribal conflict. A ceasefire agreement was signed in April 2004. [4]

In August 2004, the United States Congress unanimously adopted a resolution labelling the situation in Darfur as genocide. [5] On September 9, American Secretary of State Colin Powell in turn declared before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, "[that] genocide has taken place and may still be continuing in Darfur". These declarations echoed attempts to compare events in Darfur with Rwanda in 1994. Observers almost immediately claimed that the American "genocide" declaration had more to do with the US elections than the reality of events in Darfur. [6]

Any objective assessment of these American positions, given the astonishing degree of propaganda that has characterised the Sudanese conflict and particularly American-Sudanese relations, is difficult. Pressure group politics, especially within the United States, have distorted many international perceptions of Sudan. [7] An objective assessment is, nevertheless, essential. One absolutely neutral source, perhaps the only one, by which to examine American claims of genocide in Darfur, however, is the international humanitarian organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF). [8]

Médecins Sans Frontières is an exceptionally credible observer in this respect for two reasons. Firstly, MSF was amongst the first humanitarian groups to establish a presence in Darfur as the conflict unfolded. MSF is very heavily involved in the provision of medical and emergency services in all three of the states that make up Darfur, deploying two thousand staff. [9] It has been actively assisting 250,000 people displaced by fighting throughout the region. [10] It was therefore able very early on to form a particularly well-informed opinion with regard to claims that genocide was being carried out in Darfur. By comparison, Washington’s "genocide" determination was based upon access to one thousand refugees living in refugee camps in Chad, with unanswered questions about the feasibility of impartial translation, sensationalism, political bias and rebel pressure within refugee camps. The US claim was made on the basis of fleeting, and in comparison, momentary access to approximately one percent of the total number of people to which MSF has had regular, sustained access over several months. Secondly, MSF’s reputation is quite simply beyond reproach. Médecins Sans Frontières was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. It has also received numerous other awards recognising its outstanding humanitarian work throughout the world. [11]

Dr Mercedes Taty, MSF’s deputy emergency director, was an early observer of the situation in Darfur. Dr Taty worked for some time with 12 expatriate doctors and 300 Sudanese nationals in field hospitals set up in the towns of Mornay, El Genina and Zalinge in the heart of the Darfur emergency. Asked if comparisons between events in Darfur and Rwanda were justified, her answer was blunt: "I don’t think that we should be using the word ‘genocide’ to describe this conflict. Not at all. This can be a semantic discussion, but nevertheless, there is no systematic target – targeting one ethnic group or another one. It doesn’t mean either that the situation in Sudan isn’t extremely serious by itself." Dr Taty was also asked if the "ethnic cleansing" label was appropriate for events in Darfur. She said: "That is not necessarily accurate. There are several different tribes and clans and families and not all of them are persecuted or executed just for the sake of their tribe." [12]

In June 2004, MSF President Dr Jean-Herv̩ Bradol, following visits to MSF projects in Darfur, clearly challenged claims of genocide in Darfur: "The word genocide has been used, but it creates confusion. The situation is severe enough to be described for what it is Рa mass repression campaign against civilians. Civilians were targeted and a large segment of them were killed. Since M̩decins Sans Fronti̬res started working in Darfur in December 2003, teams have not witnessed the intention to kill all individuals of a particular group. We have information about massacres, but never any attempt to eliminate all the members of a specific group." [13] In July 2004, Dr Bradol stated that the use of the term genocide was inappropriate: "Our teams have not seen evidence of the deliberate intention to kill people of a specific group. We have received reports of massacres, but not of attempts to specifically eliminate all the members of a group". [14]

Dr Bradol subsequently described the August and September American declarations of genocide in Darfur as "obvious political opportunism". [15] Dr Bradol has noted that there are several weak links in the genocide claim. He finds claims that "Arab" militias are seeking to destroy "African" tribes questionable, stating that "the concept of race, discarded many decades ago with regard to biology" is irrelevant and "dangerous" and has been used "outside of its historical context". Dr Bradol has also noted that "Public expressions of an intent to destroy a group of humans are no more apparent than the existence of distinct races. There are no signs of this either in speeches by the Sudanese dictatorship or in the countries’ laws. To sum up: though we might suppose the intent is real, there has been no outward show of intent to destroy a group of humans, and defining the group of victims necessitates using a category that has, for good reason, been rendered illegitimate for many years." [16]

Dr Bradol sees a geopolitical motivation to the American move: "In the ten years from Rwanda to Sudan, what changed is the perception by the United States of the threats posed to its national security and strategic interests. And the Sudanese regime, while not at the top, figures prominently on the list of the nation’s enemies drawn up by the Bush administration." [17] Dr Bradol notes that claims of genocide have "met with great success among human rights organizations and humanitarian groups. The source of this enchantment is, in the end, just as political in nature as the unanimous vote by the US Congress." [18]

Dr Bradol’s intervention has been deeply significant. Both Bradol and Médecins Sans Frontières are simply beyond question in the authority with which they speak on the issue of genocide. He headed MSF’s programs in Rwanda in 1994, and spent several weeks assisting the surgical team that struggled to remain in Kigali during the genocide. He has very firm views on genocide, the Rwandan genocide and its implications for the humanitarian aid movement: "The genocide itself tore to shreds the humanitarian movement’s famous neutrality. Even when emergency aid saves lives, it cannot justify neutrality when faced with a political movement determined to exterminate an entire group of human beings. The only way to oppose such a movement is to call for armed intervention against the aggressors. That is what MSF did in June 1994 with its call, ‘Doctors can’t stop genocide.’ Genocide is that exceptional situation in which, contrary to the rule prohibiting participation in hostilities, the humanitarian movement declares support for military intervention. Unfortunately, an international military intervention against the genocide never came to pass and the Rwandan Patriotic Front did not win its military victory until after the vast majority of victims were killed." [19] Indeed, in 1994 Dr Bradol actively sought American and international military intervention to end the Rwandan genocide. [20] He has pointed out that Rwanda and Darfur are "highly dissimilar". [21]

Dr Bradol’s point about US strategic interests, rather than reality, dictating what it deemed to be "genocide" has also been made elsewhere. Richard Dicker, a Human Rights Watch expert on international law, has pointed out Washington’s history of its politicisation of responses to "genocide": "In the case of the crisis in Kosovo, the use of the term was encouraged by Washington to justify military intervention; in the case of Rwanda, when there was no readiness to intervene, its use was discouraged". [22]

In his book ‘Rwanda and Genocide in the 20th Century’, former secretary-general of Médecins Sans Frontières Alain Destexhe says: "Genocide is distinguishable from all other crimes by the motivation behind it. Genocide is a crime on a different scale to all other crimes against humanity and implies an intention to completely exterminate the chosen group. Genocide is therefore both the gravest and greatest of the crimes against humanity." Mr Destexhe, however, believes the word genocide has fallen victim to "a sort of verbal inflation…". He has pointed out that the term has progressively lost its initial meaning and is becoming "dangerously commonplace". [23] Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, has echoed Destexhe’s concerns: "Those who should use the word genocide never let it slip their mouths. Those who unfortunately do use it, banalise it into a validation of every kind of victimhood." [24]

Washington’s ploy must be seen for what it is. That the United States Administration has sought to use claims of "genocide" in Darfur for crass and electoral political reasons is clear. In crying wolf on "genocide" the Bush Administration has not only undoubtedly banalised the concept of genocide, it has enflamed an already fraught situation in Darfur. In the wake of Washington’s claim radical Islamists in Sudan have attempted a military coup, and the anti-government Islamist rebels in Darfur broke off peace talks aimed at settling the conflict. There is also no doubt that Washington will seek to push its "genocide" declaration upon the international community, inevitably causing strains once again within its European allies and the European Union.

The courage of Médecins Sans Frontières in directly challenging Washington’s propaganda is clear.


[1]. "US ‘Hyping’ Darfur Genocide Fears", ‘The Observer’ (London), 3 October 2004.

[2]. See, for example, "US ‘Hyping’ Darfur Genocide Fears", ‘The Observer’ (London), 3 October 2004, and "The Bush Administration, Darfur and ‘Genocide’: Placing Votes before Peace in Sudan", Media Monitors Network (MMN), September 2004,

[3]. See "Sudan: One Million At ‘Imminent Risk’ in Darfur, Says US Government", News Article by Integrated Regional Information Networks, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 3 March 2004.

[4]. See "Sudan government, Darfur rebels sign ceasefire deal", News Article by Agence France Presse, 9 April 2004.

[5]. It is not the first time that the US Congress has made these sorts of claims. On 17 June 1999, for example, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution condemning the Sudanese government "for its genocidal war in southern Sudan". The measure, House Concurrent Resolution 75, passed by a vote of 416 to 1, claimed that the Sudanese government was "deliberately and systematically committing genocide in southern Sudan" stating that an estimated 1.9 million Sudanese have died of war-related causes and that "Millions have been displaced from their homes" (See, for example, "U.S. House Passes First Sudan Measure in Six Years; Calls War ‘Genocidal’ and Urges Stronger U.S. Peace Efforts", Press Release by US Committee for Refugees, Washington-DC, 16 June 1999).

[6]. See, for example, "The Bush Administration, Darfur and ‘Genocide’: Placing Votes before Peace in Sudan", Media Monitors Network (MMN), September 2004,

[7]. See, for example, David Hoile, "Images of Sudan: Case Studies in Propaganda and Misinformation", The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, London, 2003.

[8]. Médecins Sans Frontières was established in 1971 by a group of French doctors as the first non-military, non-governmental organisation to specialise in emergency medical assistance. Most of the founders worked for the Red Cross in Biafra between 1968 and 1970.

[9]. See, for example, MSF’s own briefing: "Médecins Sans Frontières has been working in Darfur since December 2003. Today, 90 international volunteers and nearly 2,000 Sudanese staff provide medical and nutritional care in areas with more than 400,000 displaced people. Medical teams conduct medical consultations and hospitalisation, treat victims of violence, care for severely and moderately malnourished children, and provide water, blankets, feeding and other essential items in Mornay, Zalinge, Nyertiti, Kerenik, El Genina, Garsila, Deleig, Mukjar, Bindisi, and Um Kher in West Darfur State; Kalma Camp near Nyala and Kass in South Darfur State; and Kebkabiya in North Darfur State. MSF also continues to assess areas throughout Darfur. Additional teams provide assistance to Sudanese who have sought refuge in Chad in Adre, Birak and Tine, Iriba and Guereda." ("We are looking at a second catastrophe", Darfur feature article on MSF Australia Website,

[10]. See, for example, "The Health of Hundreds of Thousands of Displaced People Worsens Dramatically in Darfur", Press Release by Médecins Sans Frontières (USA), New York, 28 April 2004.

[11]. Médecins Sans Frontières has received, amongst others, the following international awards for their activities: 1999, The Nobel Peace Prize; 1998, the Conrad Hilton Prize; 1997, Prix International – Primo Levi; 1997, Prix International Sebetiater; 1996, Prix International pour la Paix et l’Action Humanitaire; 1997, Indira Gandhi Prize; 1996, Prix Seoul pour la Paix; 1993, the European Parliament’s Prix pour la liberte de l’Esprit Prix Sakharov, 1993, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ Nansen Medal; 1992, the Council of Europe’s Prix Europeen des Droits de l’Homme.

[12]. "Violence in the Sudan Displaces Nearly 1 Million. An Aid Worker Describes the Gravity of the Humanitarian Crisis", News Article by MSNBC, 16 April 2004.

[13]. "We are looking at a second catastrophe", Darfur feature article on MSF Australia Website,

[14]. "Thousands Die as World Defines Genocide", ‘The Financial Times’ (London), 6 July 2004. See also, Bradol’s views in "France Calls on Sudan to Forcibly Disarm Darfur Militias", News Article by Agence France Presse, 7 July 2004.

[15]. "From One Genocide to Another", Article by Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, 28 September 2004, available at Médecins Sans Frontières (UAE) website,

[16]. "From One Genocide to Another", Article by Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, 28 September 2004, available at Médecins Sans Frontières (UAE) website,

[17]. "From One Genocide to Another", Article by Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, 28 September 2004, available at Médecins Sans Frontières (UAE) website,

[18]. "From One Genocide to Another", Article by Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, 28 September 2004, available at Médecins Sans Frontières (UAE) website,

[19]. Interview available on the Médecins Sans Frontières (USA) website.

[20]. In Dr Bradol’s own words: "In June of 1994 I met with Donald Steinberg, a member of the National Security Council. I had been in Kigali, and had gone [to Washington] for the purpose of requesting that the United States make armored vehicles available to UN blue helmets to ensure the security of wounded persons threatened with extermination as they were being evacuated. At this time my interlocutor was convinced that genocide was in progress against Rwandan Tutsis, but refused to use the term. In fact, using the term genocide would have entailed a legal obligation to intervene on the part of nations who signed the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The American debacle in Somalia in 1993 had led the United States to decide to limit its foreign military interventions strictly in defense of its vital interests. Acting to put an end to the extermination of Rwandans didn’t fit within that framework." (See, "From One Genocide to Another", Article by Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, 28 September 2004, available at Médecins Sans Frontières (UAE) website,

[21]. "From One Genocide to Another", Article by Dr Jean-Hervé Bradol, 28 September 2004, available at Médecins Sans Frontières (UAE) website,

[22]. "Thousands Die as World Defines Genocide", ‘The Financial Times’ (London), 6 July 2004.

[23]. "Defining Genocide", News Article by BBC News, 30 June 2004.

[24]. "Defining Genocide", News Article by BBC News, 30 June 2004.

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