Moral Imperatives and an Ethical Analysis of Darfur II

Been thinking more about the motivations behind Darfur activists’ interest in Sudan, their ethical frameworks and moral reasoning following on from a previous post I wrote on Ben Wallace-Wells Darfuristan piece. It was prompted by Bec Hamilton’s invitation to comment, in which she took exception to Wallace-Wells interpretation of the peace v justice debate, which came into sharp focus when President Bashir expelled 13 aid agencies following the International Criminal Court’s decision to issue an arrest warrant.

Wallace-Wells portrays the episode as a straightforward mistake: one event provoking the inevitable backlash; the arrest warrant  to blame for the expulsions.

The unqualified optimism lasted precisely five minutes. Exactly that long after the indictment was announced, Sudanese police began to order humanitarian aid workers to leave the country.


Hamilton disagrees. On her blog she accuses Wallace-Wells of short sightedness:

The segment on Justice falls into the standard trap of painting a picture, promulgated by Khartoum, to suggest that the ICC caused the expulsion of the humanitarians. To state the obvious, it was Khartoum’s choice to thwart the humanitarian operation, and it is a choice they had already been making long before the ICC came along

Her logic is perfectly reasonable. Essentially her point is that Bashir has long hampered the ability of NGOs to do their jobs, so why blame the ICC for the latest round of obstructions? He knew he could get away with it because the rest of the world had not shown enough steel in dealing with him before.

Fair enough. As I say, nothing wrong with the reasoning. But I disagree. And the disagreement here lies at the heart of the problem with advocacy on Darfur, not to mention capturing one of the biggest disagreements in philosophy down the ages. Bridging this divide lies at the heart of efforts to save Darfur and might have lessons for future public policy.


Here’s how it goes. Bashir has a history of intimidating, harassing and obstructing the work of aid agencies in Darfur. For Hamilton that means he is to blame for expelling the aid agencies and no-one else. But what if the expulsions were the knowable, predictable result of the ICC indictment. Plenty of aid agencies were warning of exactly that. So too Sudano-philes such as Alex de Waal and Julie Flint. Knowing the risks, the ICC still indicted Bashir (of course, its  place is not to make ethical or policy decisions, rather to prosecute when they are called on by the UN, but bear with me). Does that not mean the ICC judges – or at least the political leaders who asked them to consider charges – shoulder some of the responsibility. Are we not responsible for the consequences of our actions?  Don’t the consequences matter?

Not to the advocates who pushed the justice solution. For them Bashir is responsible for his actions, as Hamilton argues; we for ours. And we are acting in the proper fashion by seeking justice. Why? Well, it’s the right thing to do.

This debate is not new and it pops up all the time. This is just the latest incarnation of a centuries old debate between consequentialists and deontologists. Do we use an ethics based on rules or one based on consequences? In Darfur it has resurfaced as part of the peace vs justice argument about whether or not we should indict President Bashir. That issue is rather done now, but it still has lessons for the wider questions about what to do in Darfur.


The question is not about which position is right and which is wrong. That’s for philosophers. And the truth is that most people operate with a mixture of the two approaches (eg it is wrong to lie, unless to fail to do so might hurt someone’s feelings) . The point is how to reconcile the two, so that at least we can agree on what is important in the debate and how to frame the questions. What is the end point of our interventions? What is success? What are we trying to do?

Maybe this question is too esoteric to be worth worrying about. People are hungry and frightened in Darfur. Why trouble ourselves? Well in the case of Darfur, the debate has often become paralysingly polarised between the two points of view – often expressed by aid agencies or diplomats as consequentialists on the one hand, and human rights advocates on the other. Often their points of view will coincide. Other times they will be in direct opposition. Forging a middle way on justice and peace has been impossible, for example, when the two sides not only differ on policy – but differ fundamentally in the way they see the world.

Bridging that divide is something I’ll explore next week.

4 thoughts on “Moral Imperatives and an Ethical Analysis of Darfur II

  1. Is it really deontologists and consequentialists in opposition? Even based on a consequentialist perspective, one could argue that it is important that justice is done (and seen to be done), because of its possible deterrent effect on future transgressions of human rights and humanitarian norms.

    In the end, as I have argued before, it is about what helps (in this case) the Sudanese population most in the long term. If that is an ICC indictment, then that is what we should pursue; but if it would do more damage (again, in the long run, not just looking at the effect in the next couple of months or years), we should try to refrain from doing so.

    The standard answer from opponents of the ICC indictment is that we have no clue whether this sort of justive really helps in the long run, but that it clearly does damage in the short and medium term because it was the direct provocation that led to the expulsion of the 13 aid organisations. However, we do not have that much evidence about this putative damage either; mortality/morbidity figures have not dramatically risen after the expulsion (yet?), and even if they will over the next years, it will be difficult to show any causal link.

    So the main conclusion is that one can argue either in favour or against the indictment, even departing from a consequentialist perspective, based on one’s perceptions of what works best; perceptions that are impossible to underpin with evidence.

    1. Thanks for your comment Michale. I agree that consequentialists and deontologists will often agree on courses of action. In the case of Darfur, though, many advocacy organisations seem to be arguing that the consequences don’t matter. It has become enough to quote justice and human rights. In the same way, the UN and aid agencies sometimes seem spineless in their willingness to bend over backwards for Khartoum in order to maintain access to camps. I think this is best explained in terms of the moral theories that underpin such groups. You are right that it need not be that way, but otherwise I find it difficult to understand the polarity in the public discussion of tackling Darfur.

  2. I think I might have not stated well enough the intention of my response, so let’s try to make it a bit clearer.

    You state: “This is just the latest incarnation of a centuries old debate between consequentialists and deontologists. Do we use an ethics based on rules or one based on consequences? In Darfur it has resurfaced as part of the peace vs justice argument about whether or not we should indict President Bashir.”

    My argument is that the peace vs justice debate is not only or even primarily about deontology versus consequentialism; it is at least as much about different views on what the results of various policies will be, all from a consequentialist perspective. You seem to support the view that those who advocate on the justice side do so from a purely deontological view, and even say that “… many advocacy organisations seem to be arguing that the consequences don’t matter. ” I would challenge you to substantiate that with examples from mainstream justice advocates (I am not talking about fringe organisations). And just to give a couple of counterexamples:
    – Save Darfur (a justice advocaacy organisation if there ever was one) calls on their site’s front page for “… diplomatic action to prevent a return to violence in Sudan”; clearly a reference to consequences and results as opposed to a deontological reference to rules or law.
    Amnesty International USA’s main Darfur page has this to say: “Amnesty International seeks to end the Darfur crisis by working to ensure security for displaced civilians, access and funding for humanitarian organizations, and accountability for the perpetrators of massive human rights abuses in the region”. Clearly hardly a deontological call to arms, more of a consequentialist credo.
    – Even Justice For Darfur (to which you link as the typical ‘justice’ proponent) says, “Making it clear that justice will be done helps not only the victims in Darfur, but the cause of accountability worldwide.” Clearly, they too are looking at this as a way to help the victims, not just as a way to follow the rules and principles. (And let’s not forget that both Save Darfur and Amnesty are members of Justice for Darfur, as are many other clearly consequentialist organisations.)

    Does all this matter? Yes, it does. Arguing about results with an unabashed deontologist is useless; but with a consequentialist, you ‘only’ need to come up with the evidence. Neither side of the peace versus justice debate seems to be willing to do much about that little issue.

  3. If Darfur campaigners are using the language of human rights or of justice merely as a rule of thumb, a way of avoiding making a calculation of pros and cons on every dilemma, then we could expect them to change their minds when confronted with the evidence that contradicts their strategy. Maybe they would agree that once in a while a specific set of circumstances might allow the pursuit of justice to be set aside in the interests of seeking peace.

    My question is, why does this not appear to happen?

    It was a post by Bec Hamilton, a thoughtful commentator on Darfur, that suggested something of the answer. In her consideration of the wisdom of indicting President Bashir, she did not weigh the consequences – she said the expulsions were simply not relevant to the discussion. Her point seemed to be that intention was everything. If President Bashir had bombed Darfur’s aid camps a day after the warrant was issued, then her position would not alter. No level of suffering would possibly change the moral equation.

    In a similar way, when I was reporting on the possibility of ICC indictments and canvassing opinion from human rights groups before the event it seemed that an arrest warrant was simply the right thing to do. Not once were advocates prepared to envisage circumstances under which it would be better to avoid taking Bashir to court.

    So while your consequentialist interpretation of deontological theories is plausible, I just don’t see it happening in practice. (I do see it among aid agencies – organisations with a primarily humanitarian role – which dress up their consequentialist position in the language of rights.)

    If it was just a question of arguing over the evidence, things would be a lot simpler.

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