Moral Imperatives and an Ethical Analysis of Darfur

I’m guesting over at Bec Hamilton’s Promise of Engagement blog. She invited posts in response to Ben Wallace-Wells excellent piece in Rolling Stone magazine, entitled Darfuristan. He charts the way the international responses to the unfolding crisis in Darfur have led us into a quagmire. There were lots of points that interested me and several didn’t make it into my post. One thing that fascinates me – and I wonder if Bec’s book will address this – is the motivation that led us towards what I believe to be the wrong solutions.


Too often it seems to me that the people who have pressed the buttons have been led by deontological, rule-based or rights-based ethical theories. To the Amnesties or Human Rights Watches of this world, for example, Omar al-Bashir must be prosecuted because of his abuse of human rights. Breaches of human rights cannot be ignored. Rights are universal and absolute. We have a duty to respond. There are no grey areas.

On the other hand, the UN officials, diplomats or aid workers in Sudan often take a more consequentialist view. To them the aim is to ease suffering by weighing different courses of action and picking the one that does the best job. This might involve messy deals, turning a blind eye to abuses and so on – but an action is right so long as overall the suffering is reduced. Pragmatic deal making is the order of the day.

Given that the Save Darfur Coalition grew largely from roots in Jewish and Christian organisations, it seems that faith-based notions of right and wrong – and black and white moral judgments – have dominated the international debate. With such questions of good and evil it is easy to work out who is in the wrong and what to do: root out the evil. Rule-based philosophies have dominated the debate.

Moral Imperatives

In the same way Wallace-Wells spells out the simple rule of thumb that governed President Bush’s attitude:  genocide requires intervention. And…

For those who joined the Obama administration, the moral imperatives at stake in Darfur had been even more clear.

The journalist Samantha Power, the author of A Problem From Hell and now a member of the National Security Council, had been perhaps the genocide’s most vocal chronicler

Talk of “moral imperatives” and “problems from hell” suggests that Save Darfur’s analysis found a ready audience in Obama’s White House. There is no general calculus that suffering in the world should make us act so as to minimise that suffering and maximise happiness. Down that road lies “madness” – intervening in all the world’s problems. Instead we have a moral imperative, a rule which governs actions: genocide is happening so we must act. This allows us to pick and choose the conflicts in which we intervene, but also allows us to adopt a no-prisoners-taken approach. People like Nicholas Kristof would no doubt consider themselves enlightened liberals, but at the same time are happy to propose bombing Sudan in order to win peace.

In the other words, the same ethical processes have guided both administrations so I disagree with the next paragraph…

Darfur became the left’s Iraq, a counterpoint to the military interventionism of Bush’s neoconservatives, a place where a different vision of how imperial power might be exercised — to protect the targets of mass slaughter and to help rebuild their lives and restore their dignity — could be put to the test.

It’s not a counterpoint. For a European, like me, the similarities between Obama and Bush are sometimes more striking than the differences. Of course Obama has adopted a new policy where “cookies and gold stars” will play a role in dealing with Sudan. But at the same time, I worry that the US is simply too certain about what is happening in Sudan. It’s still a fist, but a fist in a kid glove. Moral imperatives are fine when you are looking for a military victory.

But they aren’t great at finding a negotiated settlement. That surely has to be the way forward for Sudan.

The question is: Are we trying to end the suffering in Darfur, or are we more interested in remaining true to moral imperatives? Why are we involved? Why do we care?

3 thoughts on “Moral Imperatives and an Ethical Analysis of Darfur

  1. Hey Rob

    Read your post at Bec Hamilton’s site, but my comment isn’t being moderated so I thought I’d post it here instead. I think you’re right in suggesting moral imperatives have quite a bit to do with everything advocacy-related, and the issue as I see it is that this creates a narrative that is sustained at too great a remove from Darfur itself and Darfuris themselves. Thus, the crucial nuances and shifting multiplicity of power centres and balance of power that is normal in any conflict hardly get a look in. Plus, the narrative has been too resistant to change, and is reluctant to adapt to new information.

    Anyhow, here’s what I posted, relating to your post on the other site:

    Might have a quick look at this: “In many ways, Darfur represents a gold standard for future campaigns.”

    As you acknowledge, I think you can look at this two ways, depending on your deontological or consequentialist bent.

    If you take the deontological approach, you feel that the moral imperatives of the advocates were served by the whole Save Darfur experience, and nothing on the ground in Darfur itself will convince them they were wrong overall. Conceptually, there is nothing wrong with advocating peace, security and justice, and I don’t think they will see their hand in today’s Darfur particularly clearly, or substantively change their opinions or methods because Darfur is still rumbling on. That, after all, is the fault of the politicians and diplomats.

    However, if you take the consequentialist approach, Save Darfur gets the wooden spoon. What has happened as a result of all the efforts? Darfur is now “low-level” intensity, with a huge chunk of the population in camps unable to return to their homes and livelihoods, and the peace process is viewed more with dutiful optimism than with the confidence to produce results. The Qatar-led process represents a strain of negotiations and stakeholders, and is not complete or comprehensive. There is plenty of ground to be covered and carrots to be dangled before peace is realised. Finally, the ICC process looks as far as ever from achieving anything as we approach the year’s anniversary since indictment, which crucially, did not include genocide among the charges.

    One of the problems in communicating Darfur, as you say, has been the simplicity. For future campaigns will such simplicity be used again? Probably. The media is very receptive to easily communicated concepts: the more complicated a story is presented as, the less likely it will be viewed as news.

    One final thought: will there be future campaigns like this one? Save Darfur sprung up on a de facto basis. Lines of communication are now well established, and a lot of know-how and advocacy expertise has been instituted, so there is the potential looking for a spark.

    However, I wonder what sort of a conflict that ticks enough ‘simplicity’ boxes, could capture the imagination in the same way again, one about which our Lord Coppers of today will say:

    “We think it is a very promising little war. A microcosm, as you might say, of world drama. We propose to give it fullest publicity.”

    We are even more compassion fatigued than before, and the silent majority saw no results last time they were asked to get off the fence.

    1. Cheers Guy. I guess the first thing to point out is that the Save Darfur was hugely impressive in how it mobilised support for its campaign. That, I think, will be where future campaigns look. The concern though – and here’s hope where lessons might be learned – is that it did seem to be a solution in search of a problem. There was an odd mix of groups left over from the South Sudan conflict, some with a particular interest in genocide. That led to a narrow focus,

      The other issue – and I have seen this with a lot of other conflicts and crises in Africa – is that the further from the continent you are, the more black and white things look, and the more prevalent is the deontological, duty or rights-based analysis. On the ground, the grey areas cannot be avoided. You have to be pragmatic. I have been struck by how often the workers in the field are frustrated by the messages coming from their HQs.

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