Darfur Debated

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

December 1, 2007


Bruising debates within the human rights and humanitarian communities have centered on the numbers who have died in Darfur, the use of the term genocide, the efficacy of military versus political solutions and the extent to which human rights advocacy can undermine humanitarian programmes on the ground.

Essential to effective planning in an emergency is knowing the scope of the disaster, the number of civilians who died, and from what cause. Yet in the Darfur emergency it has proved particularly difficult to affirm with any certainty the number of people who have perished and in what way. The principal obstacle has been the government of Sudan. Itself directly involved in ethnic cleansing, it has prevented compilation of credible mortality statistics. While the loss of life from the Israeli-Hizbollah conflict of 2006 was precisely determined, thus allowing families and communities to mourn, there has been a systematic effort by the regime of Omar Hassan al-Bashir to cover up the death toll in Darfur. The government of Sudan has claimed that only 9,000 have died. The UN, however, says that more than 200,000 have perished whereas Amnesty International estimates 300,000 (95,000 killed and more than 200,000 dead from conflict-related hunger or disease) and the Save Darfur Coalition, an umbrella group of NGOs, places the total at 400,000.

This wide range of estimates has generated intense disputes about how the statistics have been developed, time frames used and whether all causes of death (killings as well as starvation and disease) have been included. Deliberately underestimating the numbers can contribute to international inaction but, on the other hand, exaggerating death tolls in order to raise the alarm can undermine credibility and put into doubt all statistics. It can also make constructive dialogue more difficult and lead the Sudanese regime to put further obstacles in the way of aid deliveries since it makes no distinction between advocacy groups and relief suppliers.

The debate over numbers points up the absence both of standardised data collection and of an authoritative international body with the mandate and authority to collect and disseminate mortality and morbidity data in emergencies. Without such a body, different actors, whether governments, UN agencies, NGOs or experts will continue to make their own ad hoc estimates of mortality in emergencies, with the result that nobody really knows the scope of the crisis.

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