Darfur scholar: Don't punish the perpetrators, but understand root causes of violence

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Blaine Friedlander

A single act of violence is not "a stand-alone activity," said a scholar on Darfur speaking on campus April 29, but rather "part of a cycle of violence" -- and trying to identify "the perpetrator" in Darfur is no longer relevant.

According to Mahmood Mamdani, a professor of government in the Departments of Anthropology, Political Science and International Affairs at Columbia University who has also been a professor at universities in Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa and was listed as one of the "Top 20 Public Intellectuals" by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines in 2008, the Western media portrays Darfur as "a conflict between Arab and Africans."

He presented "Lessons of Darfur: Human Rights Activism and Africa" in Goldwin Smith Hall as the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies' final spring Foreign Policy Distinguished Speaker.

In reality, he said, the conflict has many causes, including the restructuring of Darfur "as a system of tribal homelands" during the British colonial period, a major drought in the 1980s and a Cold War conflict in neighboring Chad that caused Darfur to become "flooded with weaponry." The only way to stop the conflict is to "identify the issues that drove the violence," he said.

Activities such as Human Rights Watch's World Report list that "documents atrocities," identifying perpetrators and calling for criminal justice, adds to the problem, he added, by blaming individuals and taking the violence out of its historical context.

Mamdani also criticized the Save Darfur movement, describing it as "media phenomenon" that is not a peace movement but rather "a war mobilization" and a "lavish advertisement; an advertising campaign." He noted that in 2007 the movement spent $50 million on advertising, giving none to the United Nations, aid organizations or to educate the public.

When two parties are trying to resolve a conflict, "you have to think of a future for both parties," he said. Instead of trying the perpetrators of violence in a criminal justice system, the parties must focus on reconciliation and building a future. According to Mamdani, the lesson of all the African conflicts that have been ended is: "Don't demonize the perpetrator."

Joseph Mansky '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle .

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