“Encouraging Khartoum: South Sudan Victimized by ‘Moral Equivalence,’” The Sudan Tribune, December 21, 2010

In the grim end-game to negotiations that seek to bring about a peaceful self-determination referendum for South Sudan, the Obama administration seems willing to surrender honesty in the process. Operating under the pressures of an excessively compressed electoral calendar—this a function of the incompetence of U.S. special envoy Scott Gration—the administration has now committed substantial diplomatic resources and apparently significant presidential attention. But if that effort is compromised by expediency and dishonesty, it may well do more to hurt than help the chances for a peaceful referendum and a fair settlement of outstanding North/South issues. To be sure, dishonesty, disingenuousness, and equivocation have a long history in Western diplomatic engagement with Khartoum’s National Congress Party (NCP) (the re-named National Islamic Front). But under the tenure of special envoy Gration—with unfortunate assistance from the Obama administration’s State Department and National Security Council (NSC), as well as UN officials—the refusal to speak the truth has become habitual and may yet lead to disaster.

One very recent and telling example stands out: on December 16, 2010 the White House issued a press release concerning the recent repeated attacks by Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) on the South Darfur village of Khor Abeche, and the forces of Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) faction leader Minni Minawi (formerly a partner in the regime). Deploring attacks that “left many injured, some dead, and thousands displaced,” NSC spokesman Mike Hammer went on to say:

“This attack comes at a time that we are also seeing increased evidence of support to militant proxies from the Governments of Sudan and Southern Sudan. All Sudanese leaders have a responsibility to protect civilian populations—to do otherwise is unacceptable.”

The implicit claim here is that the Government of South Sudan is giving “support to militant proxies” and irresponsibly putting civilian populations at deliberate risk. In short, more than seven years of savage, finally genocidal predations by the Khartoum-directed “militant proxies”—Janjaweed militia, the Popular Defense Force, the Border Guards, the Central Police, and other paramilitary elements in Darfur—are here being directly compared to the actions of the Government of South Sudan (GOSS).

This is an outrageous distortion, an apparent effort at soothing “even-handedness” that in fact betrays the truth in deeply consequential fashion. It may be true that the GOSS has hosted in Juba some of the Darfur rebel leadership, including Minni Minawi. It is also likely true that the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) has provided some medical assistance to wounded Darfuri rebels who make their way into Western or Northern Bahr el-Ghazal. It may or may not be the case that some elements of the SPLA have provided limited supplies, on an ad hoc basis, to rebel elements in Bahr el-Ghazal, something the Obama administration has warned against, and which indeed would be ill-advised. But none of this is in any way comparable to Khartoum’s recruiting, arming, and deploying the Janjaweed and other “militant proxies” in Darfur. Moreover, we should also bear in mind the longstanding animosity of the SPLM toward Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM): Khalil Ibrahim, leader of JEM, played a brutal part in the jihad against the South, with a leading role in one of Khartoum’s “militant proxies”; this has not been forgotten by the SPLM.

But the real perversity of the NSC comparison is made most conspicuous by the nominal subject of this brief press release, Khor Abeche. Perhaps Mr. Hammer of the NSC and Team Gration have forgotten the history of Khor Abeche (South Darfur), and the brutal Janjaweed attack of April 7, 2005. To be sure, this was a time that some now argue lies outside the range of the worst genocidal violence; perhaps it should be considered, in General Gration’s words, a “remnant of genocide.” But the brutal savagery of the civilian destruction defies such easy categorization (for a contemporaneous account of the comprehensive destruction of Khor Abeche and relevant context, please see my analysis of April 12, 2005 at http://www.sudanreeves.org/Sections-article502-p1.html ). Here are some of the details of what happened when real “militant proxies” were at work:

Following the April 2005 attack on Khor Abeche, the UN and African Union Mission in Darfur (AMIS, the predecessor to UNAMID), declared on the basis of their investigation that the sustained assault on this civilian village was “savage,” “pre-meditated,” and ultimately a function of “deliberation official procrastination” by Khartoum, which prevented the deployment of AU observers who might have been able to forestall the clearly impending attack. For this was one of the many occasions on which the Janjaweed has worked hand-in-glove with the SAF. The UN and AU both declared their “utter shock and disbelief of the relentless daylong attack on Khor Abeche.” Two years of fully comparable violence, amply chronicled by human rights organizations, should have forestalled both “shock” and “disbelief.” But certainly it would have been difficult to become accustomed to what occurred at Khor Abeche:

“[The Janjaweed proceeded to] rampage through the village [of Khor Abeche], killing, burning and destroying everything in their paths and leaving in their wake total destruction” (“Joint Statement by the African Union Mission in Sudan and the UN Mission in Sudan,” April 7, 2005)

The “Joint Statement” was unusually explicit in assigning responsibility for the brutal destruction wrought by “militant proxies”:

“The African Union had been engaged in discussions with the Wali [Khartoum-appointed governor] of South Darfur and Nasir al Tijani Adel Kaadir [commander of the Arab militia/Janjaweed force] on several occasions in the past on how to maintain the security situation in the area. Indeed, the AU had prepared to deploy its troops in Niteaga and Khor Abeche since 3 April [2005], to deter precisely this kind of attack, but was prevented from acting by what can only be inferred as deliberate official procrastination over the allocation of land for the troops’ accommodation.”
(“Joint Statement by the African Union Mission in Sudan and the UN Mission in Sudan,” April 7, 2005)

The attack came precisely at a time of rapidly growing humanitarian need—growing growing in part because of the many extremely costly delays and penalizing obstacles by which Khartoum had diminished the capacity of international aid organizations seeking to avert catastrophe:

“The UN World Food Programme said today [April 8, 2005] that for the first time since WFP’s major emergency operation for Darfur began, a drastic shortage of funds will force it to cut rations for more than one million people living in the western region of Darfur. Starting in May [2005], WFP will have to cut by half the non-cereal part of the daily ration. This is a last resort to help stretch current food supplies through the critical months of July and August—the region’s traditional lean months, when food needs become most acute.”

“‘The people of Darfur need urgent aid. They don’t have other options. The conflict in the region has robbed them of their homes and livelihoods,’ Carlos Veloso, the WFP emergency coordinator for Darfur, said.” (UN World Food Program statement [Khartoum], April 8, 2004)

Moreover, the UN Darfur Humanitarian Profiles of the time made clear that those aid workers seeking to help people such as those fleeing from Khor Abeche faced serious, sometimes deadly threats from Khartoum and its proxies:

“Increasing levels of harassment, detentions, accusations through national media outlets and others security incidents involving relief workers are placing further strains on humanitarian operations. Though responsible for the overwhelming majority of incidents, the Government of Sudan is not the only party guilty of intimidating humanitarians and denying Darfurians access to humanitarian assistance.” [The insurgency groups are here criticized.] (UN Darfur Humanitarian Profile Nos.11/12, March 1, 2005)

At least some of those who saw what was happening had the courage to speak out, if to an audience that showed no real concern. At the April 2005 annual meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Emmanuel Akwei Addo of Ghana (“the independent UN expert on the situation of human rights in Sudan”) made a number of telling remarks: that “aid workers were pulling back due to deteriorating security,” that “2,000 African Union troops lacked power to deter crimes in the remote region of [Darfur],” and in particular, that “aerial bombardment [by Khartoum] still goes on.” Speaking specifically of real “militant proxies,” Addo declared that, “the Khartoum government, which had responsibility to protect all citizens, had ignored repeated demands to disarm the militia who are waging a ruthless campaign in near total impunity” (Reuters [dateline: Geneva], April 8, 2005).

This, NSC spokesman Mike Hammer, is what “militant proxies” do. What is even vaguely comparable in the actions of the GOSS or the SPLA? And in answering this question, Mr. Hammer should acquaint himself with the scores of other human rights reports that chronicle countless examples comparable to the destruction of Khor Abeche. He would do well to acquaint himself with the history of such places as Labado, Mershing, Kailek, Muhajiriya, Silea, Tawilla, Donki Dereisa, Shearia, Abu Sarouj, Shangil Tobay, Guereda, Sirba, Hamada, Haskanita, Adila, Wadi Saleh, and too many others—names that would run to pages and pages and pages if we had anything remotely approaching full reporting.

A similar deployment of “militant proxies” defined Khartoum’s military strategy in the South during the civil war extending from 1983 to 2005, particularly during the years of the current regime. Khartoum’s “divide and conquer” strategy made terribly effective use of ethnic militias, turning Southerner against Southerner. As long as the victims of these Khartoum-funded militias were Southerners, the regime calculated that it was winning. Khartoum also engineered brutal raiding into Bahr el-Ghazal by the murahaleen, Arab militia proxies who enslaved many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Southerners, pillaged many scores of villages, and laid waste to the lands and livelihoods of people living near the rail line running between Babanusa (Southern Kordofan) and Wau (capital of Western Bahr el-Ghazal). Some ethnic militias are still controlled by Khartoum and have been active in the years following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (January 2005).

Finally, one might hope that Mr. Hammer and the NSC review the extensive evidence that Khartoum supported as a “militant proxy” the maniacal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). A good starting point might be the 2006 study by the International Crisis Group (“A Strategy for Ending Northern Uganda’s Crisis”), which reports that,

“Khartoum now admits that the LRA was given sanctuary and logistical support as part of a destabilization strategy and scorched earth campaign against Sudanese civilians.” (http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/africa/horn-of-africa/uganda/B035-a-strategy-for-ending-northern-ugandas-crisis.aspx )

If Mr. Hammer and his colleagues at the NSC have even the slightest understanding of what the LRA has been responsible for during more than twenty years of violence against civilians—the countless murders, mutilations, abductions, enslavements, and torture—perhaps they might develop a more discriminating sense of what a “militant proxy” really is.

The question for the Obama White House, then, is obvious: what on the part of the GOSS compares with Khartoum’s longstanding, highly diverse, and unfathomably cruel and destructive support for and deployment of “militant proxies”? No doubt the Darfur rebel groups have much to answer for in the compromising of humanitarian aid in the region; their inability to negotiate collectively and overcome political, ideological, and ethnic differences is deplorable. But they are neither controlled nor deployed by the GOSS; nor have they engaged in predations comparable in scale or number to the genocidal assaults committed by the Janjaweed and other “militant proxies.” The fatuous comparison offered by Mr. Hammer not only distorts the truth, but works toward a larger goal: establishing “moral equivalence” between Khartoum’s Janjaweed and other militia proxies, on the one hand, and the Darfur rebels on the other—and most perversely, a “moral equivalence” between the NCP regime and the GOSS.

MORAL EQUIVALENCE: ABYEI

By “moral equivalence” I mean the various distorting representations, disingenuous linkages, and specious comparisons that have been used to equate the actions, statements, and attitudes of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) with those of the NIF/NCP regime. The evident goal is to push the SPLM into a more tractable negotiating position, by whatever expedient means are judged necessary. This tactic of “moral equivalence” is to be distinguished from the more direct and blunt threats—typically issued behind closed doors—against the SPLM. Here an example would be former U.S. special envoy John Danforth’s insisting in early 2002 that SPLM leader John Garang give up on self-determination for the South, this shortly after Danforth’s meeting with the Egyptian leadership. Garang courageously refused and six months later the historic Machakos Protocol was signed, guaranteeing the right of a Southern self-determination referendum. In his stance, Garang was strongly supported and indeed influenced by the Sudanese Church’s historic declaration, “Let My People Choose.” His was not simply a politically principled decision but one reflecting the will of the Southern Sudanese people.

Recent examples of public assertions of “moral equivalence” by the Obama administration are often more subtle than that offered by NSC’s Hammer, but they have been relentless and should be highlighted if we are to understand why Khartoum remains so intransigent. For seeing that the U.S. and others are willing to squeeze the SPLM leadership unreasonably and expediently, the regime is perfectly willing to allow others to do their diplomatic dirty work. Abeyi—the most dangerous sticking point in negotiations and the most likely flash-point for renewed war—offers a revealing example. Senator John Kerry, a newly enlisted envoy for the Obama administration, is reported to have declared that the larger South Sudan referendum can’t be held hostage to claims over a small and insignificantly populated region (Abyei), and that the SPLM must do what it takes to resolve the issue one way or another. This, we should recall, is the same Senator Kerry who shamefully declared that humanitarian assistance would be fully restored in Darfur following Khartoum’s March 2009 expulsions of 13 critical international aid organizations:

“‘We have agreement [with Khartoum] that in the next weeks we will be back to 100 percent capacity, [Kerry said.]” (Reuters [dateline: el-Fasher, North Darfur, April 17, 2009)

This was a shameful bid to deflect attention from U.S. impotence in responding to the expulsions, which have now cost thousands of lives. Key aid sectors are still at best---more than a year and a half later---only two-thirds of pre-expulsion capacity; and al-Bashir has recently threatened to expel even more aid organizations if they do not respect "Sudan's sovereignty" (Sudan Vision [Khartoum], December 3, 2010, at http://www.sudanvisiondaily.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=64193 ). But Kerry, in commenting on the Darfur humanitarian crisis and now Abyei, has put himself fully in line with Obama administration policy. His recent characterization of the Abyei crisis comports fully with calls from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and special envoy Gration, declaring that now is the time for “compromise” on both sides. Gration declared in October—just days before an aborted meeting in Addis Ababa scheduled to discuss Abyei—that,

“There’s no more time to waste The parties must be prepared to come to Addis with an attitude of compromise [over Abyei]. The entire world is watching and will make judgments based on how the parties approach these talks, on how they act in the next couple of months.” (http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE69D6EV20101022 )

More recently, Clinton insisted that, “Most urgently, the parties [Khartoum and the southern leadership] must make the tough compromises necessary to settle the status of Abyei.” (http://blogs.state.gov/sudan/index.php/site/entry/clinton_unsc_sudan )

But compromises by the SPLM were already embodied in the Abyei Protocol of the CPA, which guaranteed both that Abyei would have a self-determination referendum on January 9, 2011, and that the delineation of Abyei itself would be undertaken by an international panel of experts, the Abyei Boundary Commission. It was regime President al-Bashir who was unhappy with the outcome, and so refused to accept these findings—and refused also to allow for the formation of an Abyei administrative body or preparation for the referendum.

The southern leadership protested against this flagrant violation of the CPA, but with little international support and to no avail. Foreseeing the consequences of continued stalemate, the SPLM compromised again, agreeing to allow a final decision on the findings of the Abyei Boundary Commission (ABC) to be made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. A decision was rendered by the Court in July 2009, finding that the ABC had exceeded its mandate; the Court then redrew the boundaries of Abyei in a way highly favorable to Khartoum, including moving to Northern Sudan areas in the east and north within Abyei that have very significant oil reserves. The historical reasoning and expertise of the Court were not nearly as compelling as that of the ABC, but despite this the SPLM accepted the decision as the only way to move forward on the Abyei referendum.

This is compromise, and a painful one at that. And the SPLM has offered yet further compromise solutions for Abyei, beyond accepting the binding arbitration of the PCA. For an “uncompromising” attitude we need only look at the statement this past July by Presidential advisor and former director of national security Salah Abdullah Gosh. Gosh suggested that the Abyei issue had still not been settled: “The [PCA ruling] ruling did not resolve the dispute” (http://www.sudantribune.com/Sudan-s-security-adviser-says-PCA.html ). Although he would later retract this assertion, he had tipped Khartoum’s hand: over the past six months the regime has reneged on terms of both the Abyei Protocol and the PCA ruling. And yet still the Obama administrations insists on more compromising by the SPLM. Gration declared recently that the Abyei crisis “is probably not a situation where either side will be happy. What we’re looking for is a solution that makes both sides angry but neither side mad” (Reuters [dateline: Washington, DC], December 13, 2010). Aside from the rhetorical ineptitude of this comment, the import is clear: the SPLM must sacrifice yet more, there must be “equivalence” in the sacrifice, even as this demand ignores what the SPLM has already sacrificed on the issue.

The apparent “even-handedness” of the State Department—”[a solution to the Abyei crisis] has to be a mutually agreeable alternative”—belies the truth: the SPLM has been put in a position—by Obama’s envoy Gration, by the State Department, and by the NSC—in which there is no possibility of finding “a mutually agreeable” resolution. The perils of “moral equivalence” could hardly be more conspicuous.

MORAL EQUIVALENCE: FURTHER EXAMPLES

Another telling example of “moral equivalence,” again with potentially destructive diplomatic implications, lies in the repeated calls—from the Obama administration, the UN Secretary General, the African Union, and others—demanding that the “rhetoric to be toned down on both sides.” Secretary Clinton declared last month that, “both sides ‘must avoid inflammatory rhetoric, quell rumors, and dampen animosities” (The Guardian, November 16, 2010). Ban Ki-moon urged both Khartoum and Juba to refrain from “hostile public statements” and “accusations of cease-fire violations, which risk heightening anxiety and provoking isolated security incidents that can escalate into a wider conflict” (Sudan Tribune, November 16, 2010).

But the UN force in South Sudan (UNMIS) has confirmed that bombings of Southern targets by Khartoum’s military aircraft have in fact violated the cease-fire—bombings that were occurring precisely as Ban indulged his penchant for fatuous equivocation. Civilians have been killed and wounded, and many thousands have been forced to flee southward from these repeated bombing attacks—confirmed not only by UNMIS but by journalists as well as other highly reliable sources on the ground. These attacks by Khartoum are the “security incidents” that risk “provoking” and “escalating into a wider conflict.” And yet the regime has comprehensively denied these now-documented attacks, in taunting and belligerent fashion. For his part, the UN spokesman in Juba, Kouider Zerrouk, was entirely in character in saying only that these UN-confirmed aerial attacks by Khartoum on the South were “unfortunate and should not be repeated” (Associated Press [dateline: UN/New York], December 16, 2010). Despite Khartoum’s mendacity and UN spinelessness, the SPLM has been extraordinary in its restraint, cleaving with calm but fierce tenacity to the goal of an on-time referendum.

More broadly, there is no comparability in the kinds of statements coming from Khartoum and those coming from Juba, and any survey of what has actually been said in the two capitals should make this abundantly clear. On Abyei, Khartoum has been stoking the rhetorical fires with tendentious and bombastic claims about the Misseriya Arabs, a constituency that seemed of no concern until after the regime had pocketed what it had gained from the July 2009 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Khartoum continues to work hard, in public and private statements, to convince the Misseriya that Southern secession will deny them grazing rights in the Abyei region, despite the fact that such rights are guaranteed by the CPA and have been repeatedly reaffirmed by the SPLM.

On citizenship and residency for Southerners who remain in the North, the proclamations from al-Bashir and other regime officials are deeply threatening, extending to virtual incitement to racial violence. While the North needs considerable cheap Southern labor for parts of its economy, most Southerners are being told, often in vicious terms, that they will be unwelcome in the North if the South secedes. The very opposite has been true of statements coming from the Southern leadership concerning Northerners who remain in the South.

President al-Bashir’s recent approving remarks about the flogging of a young woman in Khartoum (captured in a now notorious You Tube video) are entirely revealing. Moreover, this approval has as context al-Bashir’s extraordinary revelation of intolerance and discrimination, long in evidence but rarely so publicly expressed:

“‘If south Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity,’ [al-Bashir] told supporters at a rally in the eastern city of Gedaref. ‘Sharia (Islamic law) and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.’” (Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], December 19, 2010)

“There will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity.” But of course even Northern Sudan is far from homogeneous ethnically, culturally, linguistically, or even religiously; al-Bashir is striking a preemptive blow against other marginalized populations that might contemplate secession, even as he is shoring up his position among the radical Islamists who still make up such a large part of his political support. A brutal new tyranny is in the making, and yet the international community has remained silent—or speaks in worried tones about a failed state in “South Sudan.” The reality is that there is much more to fear from a collapse in the North than the South.

For here it must be noted that are very large, indeed strategic political implications to al-Bashir’s remarks. They reflect not only hateful bigotry, but are also a sign that he recognizes the growing threats to his presidency: he has managed Sudan terribly, on all counts, and many may now be prepared to hold him to account, even within his own security cabal. Under his leadership the economy has begun to fail: food prices are rising significantly (as is the general inflation rate); the Sudanese pound has been forced into an unplanned and uncontrolled devaluation; foreign reserves are dangerously low; cronyism in lucrative sectors of the economy—on a vast scale—has left huge numbers of potential businessmen and entrepreneurs disaffected; and US$38 billion in external debt hangs over the economy, debt that Khartoum can’t begin to service, let alone pay down. All this has led to a palpable loss in international confidence in the Northern Sudanese economy—an economy that has grown rapidly over the past decade, but mainly on the basis of oil revenues, which derive from oil reserves lying predominantly in the South. As a consequence, and in an effort to forestall a further erosion of international confidence, there have recently been a series of absurdly optimistic statements from regime officials about oil potential in the North, as well as nebulous plans for huge increases in agricultural output and exports (despite rampant food shortages in many regions of Sudan, North and South).

But the truth—and al-Bashir is well aware of this—is that coupled with what many in the North and Arab world regard as the ignominious loss of the South, the economic desperation may precipitate a coup, or at least an apparent “coup.” If it occurs, such a change is likely to be a reshuffling of the ruling cabal, with claims about a “new age” in Sudan’s political history; al-Bashir will be discarded, perhaps even surrendered as a scapegoat to the ICC. Or the coup may be directed by the army and hardliners expressly determined to abort Southern secession. The opacity of politics in the highest reaches of the NIF/NCP makes any prediction a guess, but the international community should be well prepared for such an eventuality, and should make clear that no political change in the North will lessen the world’s commitment to a free, fair, and timely self-determination referendum in the South.

MORAL EQUIVALENCY, CONTINUED

Those in the international community calling for a diminishing of the rhetoric on “both sides”—Khartoum and Juba—seem willing to overlook the fact that the regime has made repeated, unfounded, and irresponsible claims about the conduct of the Southern voter registration process, which has received high marks from international and Sudanese observers. A remarkable 96 percent of eligible voters have registered, suggesting how determined the people of the South are to express themselves on their future, which is clearly perceived by an overwhelming majority as an independent nation. Even so, the regime-controlled Sudan Media Center (SMC) declared on December 13 that,

“South Sudan citizens boycotted the procession called for by the SPLM after the voter registration process period came to an end. According to [SMC] sources, the SPLM leadership is frustrated due to the rise of the unionist trend amid the southerners.”

Were the stakes not so high, such absurdity would be laughable. But in fact the regime has orchestrated a “legal” challenge to the referendum, and there are some indications that the highest court (the Constitutional Court, which will ultimately do the regime’s bidding) may uphold one of these challenges, potentially derailing the referendum (Reuters [dateline: Khartoum], December 20, 2010, http://af.reuters.com/article/topNews/idAFJOE6BJ0FI20101220 ). If this occurs, and the regime seizes upon such a ruling as a pretext for delaying the January 9, 2011 vote, the odds of a return to war are greatly increased.

The Sudan Tribune and a few other Sudanese news websites appear to be the only organizations to report on the extremely inflammatory remarks by senior presidential adviser and former security chief Salah Gosh:

“Gosh said that the NCP was ready for its own ‘plan B’ should the SPLM violate the CPA, cautioning that the ‘battle smoke would cover the south and not the north.’” (http://www.sudantribune.com/spip.php?iframe&page=imprimable&id_article=37079 )

Warnings to both parties to “avoid inflammatory rhetoric” seem strangely uncomprehending of what is actually being said in Khartoum and Juba, and this yet again works to embolden the regime.

THE TOOLS OF MORAL EQUIVALENCY

The assertion of “moral equivalence” between the NIF/NCP regime and the SPLM also has as its complement a range of deeply distorted assessments of realities in the South, the North, and Darfur. For example, Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president who heads the “African Union High Level Implementation Panel” (which nominally focuses on Darfur) was tasked with monitoring Khartoum’s compliance with the “roadmap” putatively set out in a report by Mbeki in his capacity as head of the original AU “High-level Panel on Darfur.” The report was anything but a “roadmap,” and its recommendations and criteria for “implementation” were largely worthless. This doesn’t prevent Mbeki from claiming that his Panel has noted remarkable “progress” on Khartoum’s part:

“Nonetheless Mbeki in his report to the AU lauded the ‘remarkable relaxation of state control over the media’ in the pre-election period and the ‘more open debate on national political issues than had been seen for more than two decades.’ ‘This represents an important step towards the democratization of Sudanese political life. Although there have been some retrograde steps since the election, much of the progress towards greater openness has been sustained. This is commendable.’” (Sudan Tribune, December 12, 2010)

“Some retrograde steps since the election”? This is Mbeki’s characterization of an extraordinarily brutal crackdown—even by Khartoum’s impressive standards—on journalists (including international journalists), Sudanese human rights investigators, citizen protestors, and all news media. Human rights groups around the world, including those representing Sudanese and African Union countries, have been vehement in their condemnation of a wide range of actions by Khartoum. Mbeki is unmoved. But like “moral equivalence,” it is precisely such distortion that encourages Khartoum to believe that it may continue to flout agreements, prevaricate in various negotiating fora, ignore third-party recommendations, and hold the international community in contempt. To be sure, justice that meets international human rights standards has a long and difficult road to realization in war-ravaged South Sudan. But there is no equivalent to the actions in Khartoum condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the UN expert on human rights for Sudan, and many others.

Moreover, Mbeki’s report makes virtually no mention of its highlighted recommendation: that Khartoum agree to a “hybrid justice” process for atrocity crimes in Darfur, whereby jurists from other African countries would be part of securing meaningful justice for the countless victims of the past seven years. This is because Khartoum stiff-armed the proposal from the beginning and clearly has no intention of allowing for any internationalizing of the justice process—for the straightforward reason that the regime itself is the chief criminal. Indeed, impunity for Khartoum’s regular and proxy forces in Darfur continues to reign supreme. Mbeki’s glossing over this refusal on Khartoum’s part, and the continuing impunity enjoyed by the regime’s “militant proxies,” informs the regime’s future calculations about how to respond to AU proposals, demands, exhortations, and negotiations.

And insofar as Mbeki has ever more forcefully inserted himself into North/South negotiations, his weakness and ready yielding to Khartoum only makes the process more difficult. On Abyei, as Africa Confidential recently reported, we have the dismaying spectacle of Mbeki acquiescing before the intransigence Khartoum has relentlessly urged on the Misseriya leadership:

“[There is] widespread Sudanese criticism of Mbeki’s handling of both the Darfur and the North-South issues; [he is] widely seen as soft on the National Congress Party. One Ngok Dinka civil society leader told [Africa Confidential] Mbeki was basically telling the Ngok that the Abyei Protocol and Permanent Court of Arbitration boundaries must all be renegotiated because the Misseriya wouldn’t budge.” (Africa Confidential (November 19, 2010, Vol. 51 No. 23)

But of course Mbeki is far from alone in distorting Sudan’s realities in what he says and does not say.

THE COSTS OF MORAL EQUIVALENCE

Unchallenged by the international community for its most egregious assaults on civilians, humanitarians, human rights, and previous agreements, Khartoum only presses harder, tests further—a lesson the world seems incapable of learning, even as the evidence continually mounts. Most recently, for example, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights publicly declared that Khartoum “is blocking aid workers from entering the country ahead of next month’s referendum on independence for the south”:

“The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says almost 1,000 visas for humanitarian staff appear to be deliberately held up by the government in Khartoum. Navi Pillay said in an interview Thursday [December 16, 2010] that human rights observers and aid workers need to be in place before the January 9, [2011 referendum]. She says her own request for a visit to Sudan earlier this month was ignored by the government.” (Associated Press [dateline: Geneva], December 16, 2010)

Khartoum’s response to this immensely serious allegation? “An official at Sudan’s mission in Geneva, Naima Lazaar, says the claim of a visa holdup is ‘baseless.’” But we know from seven years of experience that Khartoum has repeatedly denied visas to humanitarian and peacekeeping personnel working in Darfur. This is not a new tactic, but one well honed by experience—and by observing just how pusillanimous the UN and other international actors can be, even on urgent humanitarian issues affecting millions of innocent lives.

For it would be difficult to overstate the current need for humanitarian assistance in South Sudan, as hundreds of thousands of Southerners make their way from the North to the South, often arriving with nothing, having endured privation, harassment by Khartoum’s proxies, and asset-stripping on their journey south. As many as 800,000 Southerners may arrive in the next six months, according to some UN estimates (The Independent [dateline: Juba], December 18, 2010). And threats of a harsher enforcement of shari’a in the North, a loss of citizenship and rights (including education), and an increasingly hostile environment may make of this figure an understatement (an estimated 1.5 million Southerners still live in the North, primarily near Khartoum). To add to the difficulty, there has been a terrible outbreak of kala azar this year, a very painful disease that is extremely difficult to treat. Food shortages are increasing as those returning arrive in areas that are already terribly poor and without available land and pasturage; lack of clean water and an absence of livelihoods are all that greet many of these desperate people, who nonetheless feel that returning is their only option.

This is the context in which Khartoum is obstructing visas for humanitarian workers seeking entry to South Sudan. And should war resume, an internal UN document indicates that planning is underway “for the possibility that 2.8 million people will be displaced in Sudan if fighting breaks out over the south’s January independence referendum” (Associated Press [dateline: Juba], December 21, 2010). And as yet further context, a recent study by European and African economists estimates that in addition to the unfathomable human costs, resumed war will cost Sudan, the region, and the international community some US$100 billion in coming years—a truly staggering figure (http://www.sudantribune.com/Return-to-conflict-in-Sudan-could,37065 ).

Let us be clear here about history: as the US, the UN, and other international actors know full well, obstructive behavior of the sort we now see on Khartoum’s part is entirely consistent with the regime’s actions during the 1983 – 2005 civil war; at various times Khartoum simply cut off all access for Operation Lifeline Sudan, which operated primarily from Lokichoggio, Kenya. In July 2002, for example, the UN estimated that Khartoum’s actions were denying all humanitarian assistance to some 1.7 million war-ravaged civilians in the South (http://www.sudanreeves.org/Sections-article49-p1.html ). The Nuba Mountains (in the North, but allied with the SPLM/A) was subject for years to the harshest humanitarian embargo, beginning with the National Islamic Front’s declaration of jihad in 1992.

And despite promises to facilitate aid operations in Darfur, we have seen for more than seven years now the deliberate obstruction, harassment, and intimidation of humanitarian workers and relief activities. These actions include violent assaults on national and expatriate personnel; the orchestration of some of the kidnappings that have increased so dramatically in the past two years; the extortion and misappropriation of very substantial humanitarian funds; the expulsion of 13 distinguished international aid organizations—roughly half the humanitarian capacity in Darfur—on absurd charges of espionage; and the suppression of key data and reports bearing on such critical issues as malnutrition. Nils Kastberg, head of UNCIEF in Darfur, recently became the first UN official to speak honestly about this calculated method of civilian destruction:

“[T]he Sudanese government ‘very often’ bars the release of data on child
malnutrition in Darfur. Sudanese security services have also hindered or delayed UNICEF’s access to camps in Darfur, [Kastberg said]: ‘Part of the problem has been when we conduct surveys to help us address issues, in collaboration with the ministry of health, very often other parts of the government such as the humanitarians affairs commission interferes and delays in the release of reports, making it difficult for us to respond timely.”

“UN cooperation with the Khartoum ministries like the Ministry of Health has failed to secure publication of the reports. [ ] Kastberg also pointed out that certain government agencies hinder the entry of UNICEF staff into the camps. ‘Sometimes it is security services that hinder access or delay access, sometimes it is the humanitarian affairs office that delays the release of nutritional surveys. Sometimes it is delays in granting permissions and visas. It is different sections of different institutions which interfere in our work.’”
(Radio Dabanga, October 20, 2010 http://www.radiodabanga.org/node/4997

But this is not the usual tenor of UN commentary on the crisis in Darfur; indeed, it is almost unique since the departure of former UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland. Much more representative are the comments of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who entered office promising to make Darfur a priority, and soon revealed his take on the Khartoum regime:

“[Ban declared that he] had been assured by Sudan’s President Omar al-Beshir that the aid for the millions of suffering people in the war-torn region would flow smoothly. ‘He will faithfully comply with all of the Security Council resolutions and his government’s own commitment,’ Ban said. ‘We will be very vigilant in urging him and in monitoring the implementation of his commitment.’” (Agence France-Presse [dateline: UN/New York], September 20, 2007)

Neither part of this preposterous assessment has anything to do with the realities then current and which persist to the present. Ban is either nave to the point of disabling incompetence or disingenuous in the extreme. Either way, al-Bashir and his regime could hardly have scripted a better, more self-serving statement. And as the events of the past three years reveal with terrible clarity, there are immense human costs to the foolishness and disingenuousness that have distinguished so many of Ban Ki-moon’s remarks on Darfur. Dismayingly, Ban has been all too ably seconded by his “special representatives” to the UN/AU mission in Darfur (UNAMID): previously by the pompous and utterly incompetent Rodolphe Adada, and currently by the regime-hugging Ibrahim Gambari, whose gross failure as UN special representative in Burma has recently been highlighted in a “WikiLeaked” cable (http://www.irrawaddy.org/article.php?art_id=20298 ).

For its part, the Arab League has for years supported Khartoum virtually without qualification, and Egypt—which defines Arab League policy on Sudan—has long made clear its deep opposition to self-determination for the South and to the cause of international justice as represented by the International Criminal Court. The African Union as a whole is scarcely better, and on the question of the ICC, AU Commissioner Jean Ping recently revealed his views all too clearly, accusing the Court of “two-speed justice” in cases involving Africa, and at the same time suggesting that the crimes of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda and the al-Bashir regime in Darfur were those of “little chicken-thieves” (http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5i17ai4jV1CyL7rQ8eaCJ2FPEBkVQ?docId=CNG.41983dae275c547ff110e193e65209d9.d61 ). Such unspeakable callousness figures largely in Khartoum’s assessment of any AU response to its actions against the South.

It is sobering, if not terrifying to think that these are the men who are doing so much to determine the future of many millions of Sudanese.

THE REAL LESSON OF KHOR ABECHE

The “moral equivalence” that is so destructive of the search for a just peace in Sudan derives in part from a willingness to assess the country’s various crises in excessively abstract fashion, to ignore the most basic facts of individual suffering.
Only such abstraction permits the kind of expediency that lies behind the evident goal of equating Khartoum with its various adversaries, whether in Darfur or the South, or indeed the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile (which were granted only “popular consultations” in the CPA, a largely meaningless gesture that will do nothing to change the most basic geographic reality: both regions will remain north of the new border between South Sudan and North Sudan). But Khartoum is not “morally equivalent”: this is a regime that has committed serial genocide as a domestic security policy—in the Nuba Mountains, in the oil regions of Southern Sudan, and currently in Darfur (where major military actions, inevitably targeting civilians, have punctuated the last few months and which appear likely to spike in a major way in the near future).

The Obama White House believes that the recent SAF assault on Khor Abeche is an appropriate occasion to make a particularly specious assertion of such moral equivalency—”we are also seeing increased evidence of support to militant proxies from the Governments of Sudan and Southern Sudan”; this is perversely mistimed and belied by the terrible events that occurred in April 2005, at the hands of true “militant proxies.” This suggests that the Obama administration is willing to accommodate Khartoum in a range of ways; indeed, envoy Gration set the tone early in his tenure, declaring on his first trip to Khartoum: “Like all Americans ‘Ana ahib Sudan,’ or ‘I love Sudan’” (Sudan Tribune, Khartoum, April 2, 2008)—failing to note the character or actions of his hosts, and even more tellingly failing to acknowledge that “Sudan” is hardly singular, that there are in fact enormous tensions between Khartoum at the center—geographically, politically, economically—and the many marginalized regions of the periphery that have suffered grievously under the tyranny of the NIF/NCP regime. As if to emphasize his diplomatic naivete in dealing with such tyranny, Gration argued for a new U.S. attitude toward the regime:

‘”We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries—they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.’”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/28/AR2009092802336.html )

Little has changed on Gration’s part, and such an attitude earns not only Khartoum’s contempt, but offers the regime an incentive to push further and further for concessions from the SPLM. Given al-Bashir’s precarious position, and the humiliation that will attend the loss of the South, U.S. policy guided by such sentiments—and a corresponding diplomatic assertion of “moral equivalence” between Khartoum and the SPLM—may end up convincing the regime that there are manageable costs to renewed war in which its first military act would be to seize the oil regions. Full-scale war would ensue, and we have been given too many glimpses of just how vast human destruction and suffering would be.

Here perhaps the advocacy community should recall the words of Romeo Dallaire, UN force commander in Rwanda during the genocide, published several years ago, but precisely relevant in the present moment:

“If there is any useful lesson that can be drawn from the events of April 1994, it is surely one about just how personal genocide is: for those who are killed, of course, but also for those who kill, and for those, however far away, who just do nothing. Our governments are no better than we are. The United Nations is no better than its governments.” (International Herald Tribune, April 11, 2005)

All too true, and our refusal to accept expedient “moral equivalence” would be a first step in doing something about the failing Sudan policies of the Obama administration.

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Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.