Friday, June 01, 2007

Darfur and Iraq: reply to a critic.

I got the following e-mail, which I have been asked to replicate in full. Well, he asked for it:

Your comparison of Iraq and Darfur is, like many such comparisons, absolutely ridiculous - there are no other words for it.

"The scale of the catastrophe that has befallen Darfur is rarely far from the front pages of international newspapers."
This is not only wrong and misleading: it is bizarre. As a regular reader of Le Monde, El Pais, The Guardian and the Irish Times, not to mention the Herald Tribune, I can say with some ease that Darfur is actually very rarely on any front pages. Iraq, meanwhile, has been, internationally, the biggest news story of our generation - bigger even than the attacks of September 11. In terms of news coverage, there is simply no comparison. Iraq appears on Google a full 160,000,000 times; Darfur 14,800,000: that is, I think you'll agree, a significant difference. Yet the implication - that attention has been shifted to Darfur to cover up crimes in Iraq - is similarly ridiculous. The Bush Administration, who would surely gain most from such sleight of hand, have been fitful at best with regard to Darfur, only now going so far as to condemn the Khartoum regime - a full four years after the violence started.

"I'm not happy with throwing the g-word around without careful definition, but if it applies to Darfur it certainly applies to Iraq; and if it applied to Srebrenica, it certainly applied to Fallujah."

This is a scandalous statement. When we talk about genocide, we are talking about deliberate and systematic extermination of a certain people. This can certainly be ascribed to Darfur - where the Bashir Govt has sought to "change the demography" of the province by targeting the Fur people. I will not enter here into Darfur's complicated ethnography, but suffice to say that there is a deliberate martialing of violence on the part of one ethnic group with the aim of destroying or removing another.

Does this apply to Iraq or Fallujah? That is, are Coalition policies tailored so as to destroy Iraqis as a people, through violence? Certainly not - and any competent observer will tell you that. Who is killing Iraqis? According to the Lancet report (which has been, to my mind, thoroughly discredited) only 31% of deaths are linked to coalition activity. Thus we might safely ascribe the other 69% to those who deliberately go out of their way to slaughter Iraq's citzenry - the militias and "resistance" that your blog supports. I do not believe that genocide is taking place in Iraq; genocidal intent, however, has certainly been evinced by those who seek to cleanse and kill with regard to ethnic and religious difference - the Sadrs and Zarqawis of the world. Yet the last time I checked, this is who the coalition is battling against.

With regard to the numbers of the situation, let us first dispense with the Lancet figures. As I wrote in the LRB:
"...the Lancet’s estimate that the number of ‘excess’ Iraqi deaths caused by the conflict up to June 2006 was between 393,000 and 943,000, yet there are serious reasons to doubt the credibility of this claim (Letters, 26 April). A joint research team led by the Oxford physicists Sean Gourley and Neil Johnson and the economist Michael Spagat at Royal Holloway concluded, in a report published in Science, that the study was ‘fundamentally flawed’ in a way that systematically exaggerates the death toll. The Slate science writer Fred Kaplan, in a published debate with the authors of the report, calls the methods used ‘highly questionable’.

The United Nations reported that 34,452 violent deaths occurred in Iraq in 2006, based on data from morgues, hospitals and municipal authorities, while the Iraq Body Count reported approximately 24,500 civilian deaths. (Extrapolated over four years, these figures more or less accord with those quoted by the Iraqi Health Ministry.) The Lancet study, meanwhile, recorded an excess mortality rate of 14.2 deaths per 1000 per year as of June 2006, which would amount to 370,000 deaths for the whole year. In 2006, therefore, the Lancet records more than 300,000 violent deaths that have, bizarrely, gone completely unrecorded by any other means."

The study, therefore, cannot really be taken seriously as a record of Iraqi mortality. I'll take my chances with a figure approaching 150,000 deaths. As horrific as this is (and I was an opponent of the war, and deplore it entirely) it comes nowhere near to the 400,000 - 450,000 dead in Darfur: the figure given by the UN, the Coalition for International Justice, and Sudan expert Eric Reeves, all over a year ago. We could easily now been approaching the half-million mark: Jan Egeland, two years ago, said that perhaps 10,000 die every month from starvation alone. As regards refugees, the UN estimates that up to 3 million people have been forced to flee their homes - out of a population of just over 7 million. Almost half of Darfur's citizenry, therefore, has been scattered, and forced the live in camps and conditions of unimaginable squalor, and where a great many, especially children, are slowly starving to death. Nothing wrought in Iraq - whether by the coalition or the insurgents ranged against it - comes remotely close to this.

The comparison, therefore, is both intellectually unsustainable and, more importantly, morally unsound. I can only hope that you change your views on the matter.

Sincerely,
Sean Coleman,
Ireland Campaign Manager,
Sudan Divestment Task Force.
www.sudandivestment.org


This foolish nonsense comes equipped with a lot of credentials. Sean reads the newspapers. He's a manager - for a task force, no less. He is a "competent observer". And so on and on. It is also accoutred with the fineries of humanitarianism and solidarity. And it is studded with a splendid array of glittering generalities. It is curious that this person thinks the best way to show solidarity with the people of Darfur is to denigrate the suffering of Iraqis. Equally strange to relate is the claim to competence, when this person doesn't know his Lancet reports from shinola.

I suppose I'll treat this ordinally, as I usually do with this kind of banality.

1) If Darfur has 14,800,000 references on Google, this would suggest that it has a reasonable number of appearances in the media. However, my precise statement included the following sentence: "If you were to google daily for 'Darfur' and 'genocide', you'd find hundreds of recent news stories on the topic. Do the same for 'Iraq' and 'genocide', and you get a few alternative news sites and irrelevant stories - you will most likely get a bunch of stories about Darfur again." The point, as Sean Coleman knows perfectly well, is that the connection is made with respect to Darfur and is not made with respect to Iraq. Secondly, as is made clear in the article linked in the post, this is in part because the bloody realities of Iraq are never acknowledged in the way that the catastrophe of Darfur is hyped the second it is discussed.

2) "the implication - that attention has been shifted to Darfur to cover up crimes in Iraq - is similarly ridiculous". I have not made such a broad and sweeping implication. (Check for yourself).

3) "The Bush Administration, who would surely gain most from such sleight of hand, have been fitful at best with regard to Darfur, only now going so far as to condemn the Khartoum regime - a full four years after the violence started."

In my post, I acknowledged that Bush wasn't particularly eager for war in Sudan: "I am not even convinced that Bush wants war on Darfur, but American state planners are undoubtedly paying close attention to this kind of campaign. They probably don't mind liberal columnists saying that Bush is negligent over Darfur, since such crusading zeal can potentially be put to excellent uses in other situations." I might add that it is reasonably well-known that Colin Powell called the killings in Sudan 'genocide' in September 2004, not "a full four years after the violence started".

4) "When we talk about genocide, we are talking about deliberate and systematic extermination of a certain people. This can certainly be ascribed to Darfur - where the Bashir Govt has sought to "change the demography" of the province by targeting the Fur people."

I confess to being aware of that definition of genocide, since I've outlined it on this blog. However, the phrase "change the demography" does not originate from the Bashir government. It originates from a communique from Musa Hilal’s headquarters, and the complete phrase is: "Change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes". (Alex De Waal and Julie Flint, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War, Zed Books, 2005) That is certainly evidence of an intent to 'ethnically cleanse' the Darfurian region on the part of the supremacist militias in 2004. There is no evidence, and that is why the UN has resisted the claim, that the Bashir government ordered this policy, and there is certainly no evidence that it has been carried out. On the contrary, Bashir has made a deal with some of the rebel forces (the Sudan Liberation Movement) in Darfur and actually used them to crush others (the Islamist JEM). Indeed, the SLM are attacking African Union troops as I write. That's the reality. That is also one reason why, in 2004, at the height of the violence, international aid workers refused to endorse the claim of 'genocide'. That is why Mercedes Taty of Medicins Sans Frontieres said: "I don’t think that we should be using the word "genocide" to describe this conflict. Not at all."

5) "Who is killing Iraqis? According to the Lancet report (which has been, to my mind, thoroughly discredited) only 31% of deaths are linked to coalition activity. Thus we might safely ascribe the other 69% to those who deliberately go out of their way to slaughter Iraq's citzenry - the militias and "resistance" that your blog supports."

Sean Coleman, competent observer, thinks he knows better than the MoD's top scientist, who knew it wouldn't be discredited from the start. He is talking about the 2006 report, although he doesn't say so. But on what basis might we "safely ascribe the other 69% to those who deliberately go out of their way to slaughter Iraq's citizenry"? 45% of deaths are from 'unknown' sources, and 24% from 'other' sources. 'Unknown' could include a large number of deaths caused by US air attacks, kidnappings, Special Police Commando raids (they have been in the forefront of civilian-murders on behalf of the occupation, and were commended for their efforts by the current head of the US army in Iraq, David Petraeus), criminal activity etc. 'Other' could also include criminal activity, SPC, sectarian militias (Badr Corps, etc). That's the whole point about 'unknown' and 'other': you can't "safely ascribe" them to anyone. You certainly can't "safely ascribe" the bulk of them to the resistance which this blog supports, since this blog doesn't support sectarian killings or the targeting of civilians and has never been supportive of the takfiri elements.

6) "With regard to the numbers of the situation, let us first dispense with the Lancet figures. As I wrote in the LRB:
"...the Lancet’s estimate that the number of ‘excess’ Iraqi deaths caused by the conflict up to June 2006 was between 393,000 and 943,000, yet there are serious reasons to doubt the credibility of this claim (Letters, 26 April). A joint research team led by the Oxford physicists Sean Gourley and Neil Johnson and the economist Michael Spagat at Royal Holloway concluded, in a report published in Science, that the study was ‘fundamentally flawed’ in a way that systematically exaggerates the death toll. The Slate science writer Fred Kaplan, in a published debate with the authors of the report, calls the methods used ‘highly questionable’."

Fred Kaplan is the man who mistook the original Lancet curve for a 'dartboard' to much hilarity; Michael Spagat is the apologist for the Colombian government and recipient of funding from the arms industry. Indeed, his involvement here is a result of the fact that he’d been using some of the IBC data in support of a power law hypothesis about the scaling of violent deaths, which carried on the highly tendentious work he’d done on Colombia. The Gourley led review concluded that the Lancet survey was flawed due to 'main street bias'. One of the survey's authors has already dealt with this, and with Kaplan's latest clueless intervention.

Secondly, Coleman's 'competent' observations on the Lancet study's merits would be more impressive if he had properly grasped the figures himself. As one respondent from the London School of Economics explained:

If Sean Coleman wishes to play the numbers game with regard to Darfur and Iraq, he would be best advised to compare like with like. To quote the ‘most credible’ source on Iraq, as he does in relation to Darfur, he would be obliged to cite the Lancet survey of 2006, which estimated 655,000 deaths in Iraq with a 95 per cent confidence interval of 393,000 to 943,000 ‘excess’ deaths. In other words, there is a 95 per cent chance that the minimum number of Iraqis killed as a result of the conflict up to June 2006 is more than the maximum number of deaths – 255,000 through May 2006 – attributed to the conflict in Darfur by the Science magazine article quoted by Coleman.


7) "The United Nations reported that 34,452 violent deaths occurred in Iraq in 2006, based on data from morgues, hospitals and municipal authorities, while the Iraq Body Count reported approximately 24,500 civilian deaths ... The Lancet study, meanwhile, recorded an excess mortality rate of 14.2 deaths per 1000 per year as of June 2006, which would amount to 370,000 deaths for the whole year. In 2006, therefore, the Lancet records more than 300,000 violent deaths that have, bizarrely, gone completely unrecorded by any other means."

I assume Coleman is quoting from the IBC's circular and idiotic critique of the Lancet survey, so I'll simply point out again that this is circular reasoning. The assumption is that statistics compiled from morgue data and municipal authorities are better sources than a cluster survey, and the reason given for that assumption is that such figures must be more reliable than those from a cluster survey. There is no effort to understand the differing sensitivities of such surveys, nor to consult what genuine experts think. The Lancet's survey is necessarily more sensitive to death than morgue data and hospitals, for the excellent reason that it is a) active and b) as a consequence can register those deaths that aren't recorded by a mortuary or a hospital, particularly in a degenerated infrastructure like that of Iraq.

8) "Almost half of Darfur's citizenry, therefore, has been scattered, and forced the live in camps and conditions of unimaginable squalor, and where a great many, especially children, are slowly starving to death. Nothing wrought in Iraq - whether by the coalition or the insurgents ranged against it - comes remotely close to this."

Finally, having energetically and ignorantly sought to discount Iraqi deaths as far as possible, he concludes that Iraq can't come close to Darfur, (his pet topic). Sorry, love, but that doesn't fucking cut it. Let's leave aside the misery of over two million Iraqi refugees, the destroyed towns and cities, a rubbled infrastructure, and people hoking through rubbish to eat. I can't imagine someone from a campaign to disinvest from Israel or the Congo (4 million deaths and no Save Congo Coalition, no campaign to disinvest there) going out of their way to minimise US crimes in Iraq. If Sean Coleman wanted me to agree to the proposition that there is genocide in Darfur, it wouldn't have been necessary to reduce and redact the evidence of atrocities in Iraq. It wouldn't have been necessary to introduce idiotic, nonsensical quibbles about the Lancet study, which he doesn't understand. It would certainly not have been essential to his case to misrepresent the situation in Darfur and then pretend to be a 'competent observer'. It would have been sufficient to, in fact, make the case that genocide was happening in Darfur. But Sean Coleman's politics are, if his letters to the LRB are indicative, a rather simple, uninformed, simon-pure liberalism. Necessarily, then, only dark-skinned people and wierd Easterners and psychopathic dictators can be responsible for 'genocide' (a tradition direct from the canon of Orientalist critique, beginning with Montesquieu, who was at least covertly criticising French absolutism). There cannot have been 655,000 dead in Iraq as of July 2006, for if that were so, then the whole business of requesting that the US government be a 'force for good' in the world would look somewhat famished. Imagine calling on an American president to use American troops to halt 'genocide' in Darfur if the US has killed more people in Iraq. Imagine reading all those newspapers and suddenly being told that they are in fact systematically downplaying the reality of slaughter in Iraq, and aren't actually very trustworthy when it comes to discussion of Western foreign policy.