The following interview was published in the Armenian Weekly on April 5, 2008. More than a year and a half later, its message continues to resonate. The conflict in Darfur might be “frozen” but it is not resolved. And genocide can rear its ugly head again.
NEW YORK (A.W.)—Nicholas Kristof has been an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times since November 2001. In his weekly columns, he often tackles issues of human rights abuses and genocide, and has been instrumental in creating awareness on the situation in Darfur.
A two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, he has lived on four continents, reported on six, and traveled to 140 countries. (He is at least a two-time visitor to every member of the Axis of Evil.)
Nicholas Donabet Kristof is the son of Ladis Kristof, a Transylvanian-born Armenian who immigrated to the United States after World War II.
In this interview, conducted in his office at the New York Times on March 28, 2008, we talk about the genocide in Darfur.
Khatchig Mouradian—You’ve been covering the genocide in Darfur for four years now. What has changed over this time in both public awareness and the situation on the ground?
Nicholas Kristof—There’s certainly more attention to Darfur now. And it really is heartening, for example, how many university students all across the country have been willing to campaign for Darfur. So in my more hopeful moments, I think about the hundreds of thousands of college students who are protesting on behalf of people of a different religion, different skin color, who they will never meet, and I think, “Wow, we are really making some progress.”
But then at the end of the day, on the ground in Darfur, the situation is as messy now as it was four years ago. If you had told me four years ago when I first went there that in 2008, people would know what Darfur is, they would know what is going on there, that the president would have called it “genocide,” I would have been surprised. But if you told me that people would know what’s going on and yet still we wouldn’t do anything, then I would have been even more stunned and depressed.
K.M.—In the past, governments were careful not to invoke the term “genocide” because then they would have to act. Now, President Bush used the word when referring to Darfur, but nothing happened. Has the word “genocide” lost its meaning?
N.K.—I don’t think it ever really had a lot of meaning to inspire action. However, it does make people feel guilty. The reason you do have a lot of people protesting on behalf of Darfur is the word “genocide.” If you use the word “ethnic cleansing,” I don’t think it gets people so upset.
Look at how in the Congo the death toll has been much greater, but it’s not really a case of genocide; it’s a messy difficult case of rival militias and that has attracted much less attention than Darfur. What has made a difference is that in Darfur the death toll is smaller, but it is genocide. So I do think that genocide as a reality and as a term does make a difference—but just not nearly enough.
K.M.—In your columns, you’ve mentioned that you’ve received emails from people saying, Yes, the situation in Darfur is bad, but we have other priorities. How do you feel about this kind of reaction, be it from ordinary people or government officials?
N.K.—I think that one of the basic mistakes that Western governments make is that while they think that it’s unfortunate what is happening in Darfur, that there are a lot of unfortunate things going on in a lot of places around the world. And Darfur is their number 38th priority.
In fact, I think it’s one of the lessons of history that over time genocide really does rise to the very top of the priority list. The Armenian genocide is a perfect example of that. When it was going on, the Wilson administration certainly thought that it was unfortunate; they didn’t want Armenians killed, but they had huge challenges with Europe, with the Ottoman Empire, and so it just never rose very high on the priority list. The same is true with the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Bosnia. Yet, each of those has had a staying power, a resonance throughout history precisely because it was genocide. I think that the mistake that the administration has made, the State Department has made, and a lot of us in the media have made is that we don’t appreciate that there really is something different about a government choosing a people based on race, color, religion, or whatever, and deciding to kill them.
K.M.—Do you think there will be any drastic changes in the U.S. policy on Darfur when there’s a new president in the Oval Office next year?
N.K.—There is some reason to believe that the next president will be modestly more active on Darfur. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have both been very active on the issue. John McCain had been earlier on; he has slowed down a little bit on Darfur more recently. But all of them have been, at one time or the other, real leaders on it. So yes, there is hope that if they were in the White House, they would be more active on it.
But at the end of the day, I think that one of the things we see from history is that the president is never going to really lead in a case of genocide because there tends not to be a national interest involved, and there tends to be a lot of uncertainty about the right thing to do, and there are a lot of other priorities. When there has been some kind of response, it has been because you just had a lot of Americans shaming their president to act. Kosovo is a good example of that. There, we had the Clinton administration that really didn’t want to do very much, but they had just been tormented over a combination of Rwanda and Bosnia and, finally, they felt they had to do something and they did the right thing. Ultimately, I think it is going to be the same in the case of Darfur. The shaming of the U.S., Europe, China is going to actually make a difference.
K.M.—So you believe that the movement to change the situation is going to be from the bottom-up…
N.K.—It would be great if there were more change at the top, but the reality is that Mia Farrow has done more good for the people of Darfur diplomatically than Condi Rice has. And to the extent that China is now paying attention to Darfur, and is being somewhat helpful, that’s really because of Mia Farrow, not because of Condi Rice.
That said, I hope that we’re going to see more rigorous action by government officials, and Sarcozy, I think, is going to be more helpful in Chad especially. But fundamentally, political leaders are going to be reactive rather than proactive. So it’s going to be the grassroots activists who are going to be the ones bringing about that change, whether it’s in our government or in the Chinese government.
K.M.—What are your thoughts about the way Muslim countries have been reacting to the crisis in Darfur? They point out the double standards of the U.S., but they also uphold similar double standards by speaking about human rights violations in Israel and the Palestinian territories, while ignoring the genocide in Darfur.
N.K.—Everybody has double standards and we always tend to be more shocked about everybody else’s double standards. Look at Zimbabwe, for example. The world was horrified when you had white Rhodesians doing terrible things to blacks there, but when it’s Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, then it tends to be more accepted by everybody. Likewise, Sudan can get away with doing things to its own people that no outsider could get away with.
I do think that there have been double standards in the Egyptian news media, in particular. I really had hoped that the Egyptian news media, because it’s so important in the region, could have done more with Darfur. Instead, there is this reflexive sense that those Yankee imperialists went after Iraqi oil and neutralized Iraq on behalf of Israel and now they’re going to do the same thing to Sudan. I think that’s very unfortunate, but, I must say, we suffer from double standards all the time as well.
K.M.—And U.S. foreign policy in recent years has aggravated the situation…
N.K.—Absolutely. I think that our Middle Eastern policy—the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq—has left us in a situation where everything we do is viewed through an incredible prism of suspicion. That makes it very difficult for us to do anything about an Arab country, especially an Arab country with oil. This is one reason why it would be so helpful if we worked more with European countries and Muslim countries. If Egypt, the Arab League, or other Muslim countries outside the Arab world were to be more concerned about Muslims being slaughtered in Darfur, that would be of huge help.
K.M.—How does this affect you on a personal level? Isn’t it very frustrating to see how slowly things change—if they ever do?
N.K.—Absolutely. And the most frustrating is the difficulty translating from concern to actually any kind of positive action. I find that incredibly frustrating. I’m quite worried that the next issue is going to be the North-South war in Sudan. And Darfur might just be remembered as the prologue to something much bloodier…
One of the lessons that we should have learned is that you can intervene much more easily early on in a conflict. Once Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall, then it’s impossible to put him back together again. Right now, everybody is watching south Sudan fall off the ledge. We can still do something, but a year from now it may be utterly too late.
K.M.—What do you usually tell people who ask what they can do to help?
N.K.—Some of the websites that I recommend people to go to are Save Darfur (www.Save Darfur.org), the Genocide Intervention Network (www.genocide intervention.net) and Dream for Darfur (www.dreamfordarfur.org).
I do think that the Armenian community has some special responsibility to lead the way. One of the ways of memorializing the Armenian genocide should be to prevent the next genocide from happening…
K.M.—Just like the role the Jewish community is playing…
N.K.—Exactly. I think those websites are a good place to start, and some combination of calling the White House and writing member of Congress. There’s a website called Darfurscores.org that shows how each member of Congress has done. I think letters to other governments are helpful, too.
K.M.—What about the humanitarian aspect of all this?
N.K.—Early on, when people asked me what they could do to help, I would point them to specific humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders (www.doctorswithoutborders.org). I think they do great work and if one donates to them, that’s not money wasted at all.
But for four years now I’ve been going and I’ve seen doctors bandage up kids with bullet wounds. That can keep on going for 20 years. So at some point, you begin to think that the real response is not a lot more bandages and more surgeons, but to do something to actually stop the killing. And so for that reason, now when people ask, I tend to emphasize the advocacy organizations.