Thursday, September 13, 2007

Tallying Death in Darfur

Darfur is regularly called the “world’s worst humanitarian disaster.” Google returns 13,100 hits for a search of the phrase with “Darfur”; pairing it with "Iraq," a much larger killing field, yields only 544 results.

As a politically useful bloodbath which can be used to demonize Arabs and Muslims, exaggerated fatality estimates in Darfur are generally not subjected to serious scrutiny. In contrast, the most serious mortality estimates for Iraq, in particular the 2006 Lancet study, are disparaged and far lower estimates are regularly circulated in the commercial press.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times by Time Magazine's Africa writer Sam Dealey regarding a ruling of the British Advertising Standards Authority broke the pattern. The case concerned ads placed by the Save Darfur Coalition in Britain and the United States in 2006 claiming that 400,000 innocent people had been killed in Darfur.

The subsequent ruling ordered Save Darfur to alter the ads to present the 400,000 figure as opinion rather than fact and “concluded that there was a division of informed opinion about the accuracy of the figure contained in the ad and it should not have been presented in such a definitive way.”

Death toll estimates as high as 400,000 are often cited (though a much lower figure of 200,000 is most common; there is rarely any attempt to explain the discrepancy). As early as April 2006, Eric Reeves ventured that excess mortality in Darfur “significantly exceeds 450,000.”

As the Times piece points out, there is considerable justification for skepticism of the higher estimates. Reviewing a Government Accounting Office study that convened a panel of experts to review six prominent estimates, Dealey concludes that the current death toll is probably around 200,000, which, as he notes, is “just half of what Save Darfur claimed a year ago in its ad and still claims on its Web site.” A September 2006 article in the prestigious journal Science provided a range of 170,000-255,000 total deaths (including natural causes; counting only deaths attributable to the violence would yield a somewhat lower figure).

Alex de Waal, a respected expert on the region, wrote of the numbers controversy, “there is no certainty in these figures. The reality could be different. But the pattern is both clear and familiar, and the best guess is approximately 200,000 excess deaths, plus or minus.”

The debate is not academic. Dealey points out:
Inaccurate data can also lead to prescriptive blunders. During the worst period of violence, for example, the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disaster estimated that nearly 70 percent of Darfur’s excess deaths were due not to violence but to disease and malnutrition. This suggests that policy makers should look for ways to bolster and protect relief groups — by continuing to demand that the Sudanese government not hamper the delivery of aid, to be sure, but also by putting vigorous public pressure, so far lacking, on the dozen rebel groups that routinely raid convoys.
As de Waal observes, “In Darfur, the figures have become more politicized than any in recent history.” Inflating the death toll in Darfur does not further the cause of those seeking an end to the crisis but rather brings discredit to the movement. Moreover, it provides further illustration of the ease with which Darfur activists draw favorable attention and support while activists with causes of no utility to establishment interests or, worse, that are opposed to those interests are by turns ignored and ridiculed.


Neal said...

I read your two article on this page that relate to Sudan. I think you are confused.

The issue with Sudan is not just the number of dead but the ideology of the government. To understand that, one needs to go back some years.

It is worth pondering that a state of peace did not remotely exist prior to the time that fighting flared up in the Darfur region. Rather, there had been a period of fighting in the South that began in 1983, when a program to undermine the Christian and animist villages of the south of the country led to a "civil war" of sorts. That program consisted initially of the requirement that non-Muslim children be subjected to an Islamic school curriculum and indoctrination program.

That "civil war" was a rather one sided affair. The government began an extermination program, wiping out whole villages. Children were taken from their parents and forced to convert to Islam. As reported by the UN, food was also used as a weapon to force Christians and animists to convert to Islam. Slavery - as in the type that had existed in the South of the US in the 18th and 19th centuries - was reinstated, with about 100,000 or more people turned into slaves, sold to people in the Sudan but also to people in the various Gulf States. This is not a very pretty picture. All told, as many as a million to 1 1/2 million or more people may well have died.

Extremists among those in the government came to power and found wide support among Islamists in the Arab regions including, most particularly, Egypt.

Now, that brings up two points. One. You may be correct that the number of dead in the Darfur region has been overestimated. But, unlike in comparatively modern Iraq, estimating the number of dead is comparatively difficult.

Two. Sudan is not reasonably compared to a country such as Israel. Sudan has hardly been intellectually touched by modernity. That, after all, explains how slavery could be justified by the country's rulers - as something required by Islam!!!

The implication of religion to justify slavery harps back to the Mahdi ruler of Sudan during the late 19th Century. His great revolt was against the Ottoman Empire and justified on the ground that the Empire was not cooperating in support of slavery as an Islamic institution.

I think one fairly notes the hypocrisy of the West with reference to the Muslim regions. But, it is not reasonable, in noting that hypocrisy, to ignore what those in the Muslim region are saying and doing. And, what they are saying and doing are very, very bad things, far worse than anything that, for example, can be asserted against the Israelis. After all and notwithstanding all the hype, your estimate of the deaths in the Darfur region is four or five times the total number of people who have died in all of the Arab Israeli wars. And, the Israelis, unlike those in Darfur, are not engaged in an extermination policy. And, they have not re-instituted slavery.

It is also worth pondering that the main opponents of the Israeli government share entirely - as in they have supported - the ideology of the Sudanese regime and, so far as I know, have supported its policies. That is a scary thing, if you believe in finding a settlement to the Arab Israeli dilemma.

Kevin said...

You write that: "I think one fairly notes the hypocrisy of the West with reference to the Muslim regions. But, it is not reasonable, in noting that hypocrisy, to ignore what those in the Muslim region are saying and doing." Leaders of Muslim countries do plenty of reprehensible things, not least in US client states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Yet what relevance does your point have for US-based activists? Do you propose they should spend their time condemning Arab and/or Muslim states for failing to speak out on Darfur? It is a true (and obvious) allegation, but one hardly worth mentioning, or worse, devoting energy to expounding, even more so given the prevalence of Western-friendly atrocities that we actually have the power to address (the war in Iraq being just one example).

Neal said...


I take it that the horrors committed by the Sudanese are extraordinary by world standards. Far from being condemned by Arabs, the money to commit the atrocities comes from Muslim Arabs and Arab states.

That makes me ask whether, in the scheme of things, the problems caused by the US compare with those caused in the recent past by Islamists. The body count of Islamist massacres exceeds anything the West has done recently by a very, very large number and there is nothing to be said in favor of Islamist rule other than heartache.

The implication of the rise of Islamist power cannot be ignored. Wherever Islamist come to rule, injustice on a terrible scale comes to be. In Sudan, so that there is no mistake about what is involved: we have already seen the massacre of more than 1.5 million Christians and animists. We have seen the recreation of slavery (i.e. buying and selling of people at auctions) involving more than 100,000 people. We have seen food used as a weapon to force people to convert to Islam. We have seen children stolen from their families in very large numbers and converted to Islam. That, frankly, is what Islamist power is about. It is something to be stopped for the sake of world peace. It is a hundred thousand times more awful than Western power is at this time.

And, that does not mean I support the Iraq War. But, it does mean I understand that, in the scheme of things, it pales in comparison to what Islamists do when they come to power.