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Characterization of Darfur violence as "genocide" had no "legal consequences" for U.S., according to 2004 State Department Memo

Article by Archive Fellow Rebecca Hamilton contrasts Darfur memo with 1994 finding that application of term to Rwanda would force U.S. "to actually 'do something'"

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 356

Posted - August 17, 2011

For more information contact:
Rebecca Hamilton - 202/994-7000

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Washington, DC, August 17, 2011 - A secret June 25, 2004 Department of State memo entitled “Genocide and Darfur” written by William Taft IV, the legal advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell, stated that “a determination that genocide has occurred in Darfur would have no immediate legal--as opposed to moral, political or policy--consequences for the United States.”

Writing for The Atlantic, National Security Archive Fellow Rebecca Hamilton argues that the memo’s determination that calling the conflict in Darfur genocide would yield no “legal consequences” influenced Secretary of State Colin Powell’s “judgment call” to become the first member of any US administration to apply the label genocide to an ongoing conflict.

The June 25, 2004 memo stands in stark contrast to a secret May 1994 State Department discussion paper on Rwanda--also declassified in response to a National Security Archive request--which warned that a finding of genocide in Rwanda might obligate the Clinton administration “to actually ‘do something.’” The briefing paper helps explain why, with clear evidence to the contrary, U.S. officials refused to label the massacres of over 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in Rwanda as genocide.

In her book, Fighting for Darfur, Hamilton interviewed Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Craner, who crafted the State Department’s investigation into whether genocide was occurring in Darfur. He recounted that the Department of State was heavily influenced by massacres in Rwanda a decade earlier. He remembers Powell instructing him, “There is not going to be another Rwanda.”

In addition to advising Powell that terming the events in Darfur genocide had no “legal consequences,” the 2004 memo also stated that “a finding of genocide can act as a spur to the international community to take more forceful and immediate actions to respond to ongoing atrocities.”

On September 9, 2004, free from the “legal implications” of the term and hoping to “spur” the international community into action, Secretary of State Colin Powell sat before Senate Foreign Relations Committee and testified that the Department of State had “concluded that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the Government of Sudan and the jinjaweid bear responsibility —and that genocide may still be occurring.”

Read Rebecca Hamilton's article at The Atlantic.

Different Conclusions
The State Department's June 25, 2004 memo, "Genocide and Darfur," found that the use of the term "genocide" by the U.S. carried no "legal consequences."
A May 1994 State Department discussion paper on violence in Rwanda expressed concernt that use of the term "genocide" might obligate the Clinton administration "to actually 'do something.'"

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