It was April 30, 2006, and a recently elected Illinois senator named Barack Obama walked up to a microphone on the National Mall in Washington. He was speaking at a rally against genocide in Darfur, a region of western Sudan roughly the size of Texas. Joining him was actor George Clooney, Nancy Pelosi, and 50,000 people waving signs saying “Never Again” and “Stop Genocide.”
The idea of the rally was simple: raise awareness and prevent further atrocities in Darfur by putting pressure on U.S. politicians to take action.
Obama listed the atrocities committed by Sudanese government forces against its own civilians in Darfur: Women gang-raped while gathering firewood, 300,000 people killed, children slaughtered.
Three years earlier, ethnic minorities in Darfur rebelled against the Sudanese government, provoking a wave of atrocities in retaliation. Sudanese military pilots flew hulking Russian-made airplanes and dropped bombs from above. Government forces and an allied militia known as the Janjaweed burned villages to the ground.
The Washington rally was the pinnacle of a historic mobilization of American citizens known as the Save Darfur movement. With a multimillion-dollar advertising budget, celebrity star power, and prolific media attention, Save Darfur marked one of the first times in U.S. history that a campaign to prevent genocide in a distant country entered the political mainstream. The Save Darfur movement grew beyond anyone’s expectations, with clubs forming in high schools across the country, letter-writing campaigns by Americans, and grand celebrity support. Yet Darfur was not saved.
A decade later, the campaign’s accomplishments are hard to see. There has been no political agreement to end the civil war between Darfuri rebel groups and Sudan’s government. Last year, the human rights watchdog Amnesty International documented how Sudanese government forces continued to commit atrocities in Darfur. It described a military campaign that included bombing civilians and raping women. Amnesty also uncovered evidence that “strongly suggests” government forces repeatedly used chemical weapons during the campaign.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been accused of crimes against humanity in Darfur, but he has brazenly ignored an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court. There appears to be little path to accountability.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration announced last week that it is permanently lifting sanctions on Sudan after two decades of estranged relations. The decision was widely expected and was a process that began under former President Obama.
Experts argue engagement could actually give the U.S. more leverage over Sudan through rewarding limited progress. The sanctions can come back, U.S. officials warn. Even amid the ongoing tensions, Sudan has also been a longtime U.S. counterterrorism partner and is believed to have one of the largest CIA bases in the region.
But for the human rights groups that rallied around Darfur, the removal of sanctions on Sudan’s government is a crushing defeat just a decade after its unprecedented entrance into the conscience of American politics.
“Millions of people called, wrote, marched for Darfur, and it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough,” said Eric Cohen, a co-founder of the Act for Sudan’s activist group and a regional leader of the Save Darfur movement. Cohen described strategic and tactical missteps from the campaign. Infighting over strategy was rampant. The Save Darfur Coalition actually shut down last year.
One of the leading voices in the Save Darfur campaign said that it was never meant to be a panacea. “To expect a schoolteacher in Iowa who shows up at a rally to have had answers that a seasoned U.S. or African envoy did not have is a fundamental misreading of the division of labor between civil society and governance,” John Prendergast, a board member of the Save Darfur Coalition and human rights activist, told me. “Perhaps the narrative asserting a failed Save Darfur campaign with its celebrity backers has a better chance of getting published than an informed critique of international policy.”
But the lessons of the Save Darfur campaign are not that celebrity activists and support from schoolteachers in Iowa should be shunned. The advocacy movement faltered when it came to translating its noisemaking into effective policy, said Rebecca Hamilton, a professor at American University.
“This is the story of mass movement advocacy. It is second-to-none when it comes to sheer awareness-raising, but agility and nuance are rarely its strengths,” Hamilton said.
At that same rally in 2006 where Obama spoke at the rally to save Darfur, Prendergast promised the crowd a simple solution. He told the tens of thousands on the Mall that there was “good news” about Darfur: “This genocide can be ended immediately.”
The U.S. needed to do only three things to save people in Darfur, Prendergast said: Push for United Nations peacekeepers in Darfur, punish perpetrators of genocide, and create a special envoy to solve the crisis.
A decade later, it is hard to see how those bite-sized solutions have helped people in Darfur. The U.N. peacekeepers were eventually sent to the region but were repeatedly criticized for standing by as atrocities continued unabated. Al-Bashir has ignored a global arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court. And President George W. Bush created a special envoy for Sudan, but it had little effect.
“The campaign for international troops distracted attention from the need for a political settlement, and some [Save Darfur] campaigners were actively opposed to a peace deal because they believed that anything short of regime change was a sellout,” said Alex De Waal, the executive director of the World Peace Foundation.
The Save Darfur movement spent its early years reading from an outdated policy playbook, said Hamilton, who is also the author of the book Fighting for Darfur. Memories of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which the Clinton administration was criticized for blocking more aggressive action by U.N. peacekeepers to stop the killing, were still fresh in activists’ minds. “In trying to right the wrongs of Rwanda, it took a U.S.-centric view that overlooked the rise of China and its ability to shield Sudan from international condemnation,” she said, referring to Chinese arms shipments to Sudan and support at the U.N. Security Council.
At the same time, it would be inaccurate to say the Save Darfur movement was a complete bust. The overwhelming political support from the movement ensured that U.S. assistance to the people of Darfur was substantial. For each of the past five years, the U.S. has given roughly $100 million in humanitarian assistance to the region. De Waal and Prendergast both said that the Save Darfur movement created more attention on Sudan’s leaders, which caused them to think twice before committing more atrocities. Of course, that attention did not always work. Fighting in Darfur continued, and the government attacked civilians in other areas of the country, including South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Last Thursday, the same day the Associated Press reported that the Trump administration would permanently lift sanctions on Darfur, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power spoke to a room of wealthy donors to support refugees in New York City. Before joining the Obama administration, Power was best known as the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the book A Problem From Hell, which describes America’s unwillingness to prevent mass atrocities in the 20th century.
Power is also one of the principal architects of the theory that pressure on U.S. politicians can force America to prevent mass atrocities. This was the underlying idea behind the Save Darfur movement, and after nearly a decade of government service, Power still believes that it can work.
“More people, and particularly more young people, are getting involved in politics, recognizing that everything they care about seems to be coming back to this political question—that the humanitarian is no longer simply humanitarian,” Power told the audience. “Political, political, political.”
Two days later, Swiss aid worker Margaret Schenkel was kidnapped in northern Darfur by unknown gunmen. Darfur is hardly peaceful. She is still missing.