In September 2004, then-U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, became the first member of any U.S. administration to apply the label "genocide" to an ongoing conflict.* Interviews I conducted for Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide revealed that despite a thorough investigation into the atrocities in Sudan's western region of Darfur, the legal advice given to Powell was that the resulting evidence (on which he based his genocide determination) was inconclusive. Now a newly declassified State Department memorandum sheds further light on why Powell nonetheless decided to label the situation in Darfur genocide.
Sitting before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 9, 2004, Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was taking his time getting to the question that everyone in attendance was waiting for him to answer. "And finally" he said, "there is the matter of whether or not what is happening in Darfur is genocide."
The U.S. House and the Senate had drawn their own conclusion on the question some six weeks earlier. Through a concurrent resolution, Congress had determined that atrocities being committed against non-Arab groups by the Sudanese government and their proxy militia force in Sudan's western region of Darfur did indeed constitute genocide. It was not the first time Congress had accused the Sudanese government of genocide. They had drawn the same conclusion back in 1999 with respect to the Sudanese government's actions during a brutal war in southern Sudan that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 2 million people. But if Powell were to make a determination of genocide in Darfur it would be unprecedented: the first time the executive branch had used the word "genocide" in relation to an ongoing conflict.