Watch CBSN Live

Colin Powell And The G-Word

CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

After reviewing the findings of State department and other U.S. investigators, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress "genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Jingaweit (government-backed Arab militia) bear responsibility -- and that genocide may still be occurring."

The G word was not used casually or without numerous consultations Powell had with State department diplomats, lawyers, aid specialists and other senior members of the Bush administration, according to senior State department officials. For months, many have been urging Powell to label what's been happening in Darfur genocide. Others have advised caution. Before his testimony, Powell and other officials had said what was going on in Darfur was ethnic cleansing. But they had stopped short of using genocide to describe actions being taken against the region's African farmers.

In late June, the Secretary of State traveled to Sudan to see the situation for himself. After meeting government leaders in Khartoum, Powell visited the Abu Shouk refugee camp in al-Fasher for a first hand, albeit somewhat sanitized look at those most directly involved. Powell and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who visited the region at the same time, used their visits to Sudan's Western province to raise the international diplomatic and political profile of the issue. They also wanted to put pressure on government leaders in Khartoum to stop aiding the Arab militia known as the Jingaweit. The flow of humanitarian aid did increase following those high profile visits. But little progress seemed to follow on the security front and attacks continued with the government failing to stop them.

Upon his return, Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he started what he called a "limited investigation" to determine whether what was ongoing in Darfur constituted genocide. During July and August the team sent to the refugee camps in Chad, where many Darfurians had fled. The State department team, working with the American Bar Association and the Coalition for International Justice, interviewed 1,136 of the 2.2 million people "the U N estimates have been affected by this horrible situation, this horrible violence."

Powell summarized the abuses indicated during the interviews with refugees, as follows:

"first, a consistent and widespread pattern of atrocities: Killings, rapes, burning of villages committed by Jingaweit and government forces against non-Arab villagers … Villagers often experienced multiple attacks over a prolonged period before they were destroyed by burning, shelling or bombing, making it impossible for the villagers to return to their villages. This was a coordinated effort, not just random violence."

Citing the applicable sections of the Genocide Convention (the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide), Powell concluded the events cited lead the United States to the conclusion that genocide "has occurred and may still be occurring in Darfur" because the evidence meets the convention's language as to the intent of the perpetrators to destroy "a group in whole or in part."

But Powell knows such a determination by the U.S. alone has no standing in international law so he also called on the United Nations to conduct its own investigation. If the U N were to reach similar findings. there would then be a legal obligation on the part of Sudan's government to stop the violence.

Recognizing the limitations of his own findings, Powell said "some seem to have been waiting for this determination of genocide to take action. In fact, however, no new action is dictated by this determination. We have been doing everything we can to get the Sudanese government to act responsibly. So let us not be too preoccupied with this designation."

For now, the Bush administration's tactics are to up the ante with another U.N. resolution, trying to exert more pressure on Khartoum to act to stop the violence. The most practical step forward is to gain approval for enlarging the African Union's monitoring force in Darfur. Powell and other officials speak of "calibrating the pressure" because they know there is a split within the Sudanese leadership between hardliners and those who are more moderate. One of the few pressure points left to squeeze is Sudan's oil sector -- that's the one "with the most bite," says Powell. Even that pressure point is complicated since China has oil interests in Sudan and it also has a veto on the Security Council.

If there is a silver lining in Darfur, it is in the role Africans are playing to end the crisis. The willingness of the African Union to send monitors to the region and have them supported by troops from other African nations is a huge step forward and one Powell wants to encourage and enlarge. Powell also notes political talks between Sudan's government and rebel leaders which are taking place in Nigeria. The Secretary would like to see Egypt, Pakistan, China and the Arab League do more.

The bottom line, however, still stares the world in its face. "These people are in desperate need and we must help them," Powell said. "Call it civil war; call it ethnic cleansing; call it genocide; call it 'none of the above.' The reality is the same. There are people in Darfur who desperately need the help of the international community."