Sudan is sliding deeper and deeper into a chaotic violence from which there is no longer any apparent escape and to which there is no meaningful international diplomatic response. Human suffering and destruction throughout the country are outstripping the available humanitarian resources. Following the Khartoum regime’s May 20 military seizure of the contested border region of Abyei, some 120,000 Ngok Dinka indigenous to the region were forced to flee to South Sudan. There is no prospect for their return, despite the deployment of an armored Ethiopian brigade under UN peacekeeping auspices, which is incapable of providing the kind of civilian security necessary for the Ngok to resume their agricultural lives. Khartoum’s regular forces and its Arab militia allies continue to pose a terrifying threat throughout Abyei.
Khartoum next moved to begin a large-scale campaign of ethnically targeted destruction in neighboring South Kordofan State, now part of North Sudan. On June 5 the regime, in a carefully prepared military and intelligence operation, targeted the African tribal groups known as the Nuba. Using roadblocks and house-to-house searches, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and security services rounded up as many Nuba as possible, often using membership in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) as pretext. The Nuba people supported the Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) during Sudan’s long civil war, and continue to demand “popular consultations” to determine their status within North Sudan. These were promised as part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the civil war, but have not been conducted in any meaningful fashion. Instead, the people of South Kordofan have suffered large-scale targeted executions and arrests; both satellite photographic evidence and numerous eyewitness accounts have identified what are, beyond a reasonable doubt, mass gravesites. They may hold thousands of bodies.
Indiscriminate aerial bombardment continues throughout the Nuba Mountains, the SPLM-N stronghold. Some 200,000 civilians have been displaced and many more put at risk of starvation. All significant humanitarian access to the region has been blocked by Khartoum. Valerie Amos, the head of UN humanitarian operations, who finally seems to have grasped the significance of a crisis that has been two months in the making, said earlier this week, “Unless there is an immediate stop to the fighting, and humanitarian organizations are granted immediate and unhindered independent access throughout South Kordofan, people in many parts of the state face potentially catastrophic levels of malnutrition and mortality.” Khartoum remains unmoved and refuses to grant humanitarian access, clearly determined not to allow another “Darfur,” with a large international relief presence, in South Kordofan.
Not content with these actions in South Kordofan, Khartoum—increasingly under military control, with deepening rifts in the political cabal—attacked Blue Nile, another Northern state, on September 1. Again, the military operation was prepared in advance, and the seizure of Damazin, the state capital, was rapidly accomplished with large numbers of tanks and trucks carrying heavy machine guns. The house of the elected governor of Blue Nile, Malik Agar, was destroyed (Malik, who also heads the SPLM-N, is now leading the military resistance). Again, indiscriminate aerial bombardment has targeted civilian villages and non-military installations. More than 20,000 have already fled into neighboring Ethiopia to the east, and many more civilians are displaced within Blue Nile. To date, the international community has offered nothing more than the obligatory expressions of dismay and demands for an immediate cessation of hostilities. There is no pressure on Khartoum to change its course of action, no persuasively articulated consequences if the regime continues to pursue its immensely destructive military campaign.
Khartoum’s military and political goals (ultimately indistinguishable) are to prevent the growth of new sources of resistance in North Sudan, comparable to the resistance offered by South Sudan over many decades of civil war. As Faoud Hikmat of the International Crisis Group puts it, Khartoum’s goal is to prevent a “new South of the North of Sudan.” No matter how destructive these preemptive measures, no matter what the cost to civilian populations, the regime will pursue its survivalist agenda. That the economy in the North is a shambles—suffering from high inflation, dramatically reduced oil revenues, and unsustainable external debt—only adds to the urgency of the military campaigns. Indeed, Khartoum may even attempt to seize Southern oil fields.
Sudan is on the verge of all-out war between Khartoum at the center and the peripheral areas it has marginalized, including not only South Kordofan and Blue Nile, but the Beja regions in Red Sea and Kassala states, Nubia in the far north, and of course Darfur. The most urgent question is whether South Sudan will be drawn into conflict: the SPLA/M in Juba is watching developments with deep alarm and intense dismay, as their former comrades in arms are attacked without restraint from the air and on the ground, and their civilian populations denied humanitarian access. It seems unlikely that the South will be able to remain above the conflict if present patterns persist. And active fighting by the South would ensure war throughout Sudan—from eastern Chad in the west to Abyei and South Kordofan, to Ethiopia, and north to the border with Eritrea.
Nothing animates Khartoum’s ambitions so much as a continually sustained sense of impunity. We have known for almost eight years that crimes against humanity and genocide on a vast scale were occurring in Darfur, and yet ethnically targeted violence continues, millions of people remain displaced and at growing risk, conditions of life in camps for those displaced are deteriorating, and the UN/African Union Mission in Darfur—the international peacekeeping response to all this—has been a disastrous failure. Humanitarian access and space continues to contract, and the future is unspeakably grim. A recent study by the Lancet found that 75 percent of all children in Darfur camps suffered from symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. The number of households led my mothers, grandmothers, and young girls has created profound social upheavals. And the epidemic of rape has created an environment of fear and terror so great as to threaten social stability for a generation.
The atrocity crimes in Darfur, including the use of rape as a weapon of war, were referred to the International Criminal Court by UN Security Council Resolution 1593 in March 2005—six and a half years ago. The resolution was based on a UN investigation that, for all its political manipulation, found massive evidence of crimes against humanity, echoing the findings of human rights organizations. To date the ICC has indicted former State Minister of the Interior Ahmed Haroun on forty-two counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur; Haroun presently serves as governor of South Kordofan, following May elections rigged by the regime. Ali Kushayb, a notorious Janjaweed leader (“the colonel of colonels”), has been similarly indicted. President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted on multiple counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. It is only a matter of time until a number of other senior political and military officials are indicted. To date Khartoum has spurned the ICC and all calls for meaningful justice in Darfur.
Certainly nothing said or done by human rights groups, the ICC, the African Union, or other parties has made the slightest difference to Khartoum’s forces, regular and militia. Though there is frequently infighting between the various paramilitary forces that Khartoum has set up—often little more than recycled Janjaweed from particular Arab militia forces—there is nothing to prevent the most appalling acts of violence, against men, women, and children. The notion of an “international responsibility to protect” such vulnerable civilians has died in Darfur, and its post mortem is written almost daily in the dispatches of Radio Dabanga, like this one issued on Monday:
“Three minor girls in Garsila and another in Kas were gang raped by government-backed militia wearing military uniforms in two separate incidents on Sunday, sources told Radio Dabanga. While the three girls in Mando area of West Darfur were aged between 14 and 17 years of age, the victim in Kas, South Darfur was 16 years old. A relative of the three teenage girls in Mando told Radio Dabanga, ‘An armed group wearing military uniforms intercepted the three girls who were on their way from the village to collect firewood. They then arrested them and raped them for an entire day’ The girls weren’t released until the next day.”
“A relative of the 16-year-old victim in Kas also stated that the six gunmen who attacked the girl were wearing military uniforms. ‘Four of them were riding on camels and two others on horses. The girl was with her mother on her way back from the farm to the village,’ the relative told Radio Dabanga. It was then that the armed group intercepted them and arrested them. The group took turns to rape her for the next 12 hours and also beat the girl’s mother.”
As the father of two daughters, I struggle to keep such realities from overwhelming my sense of judgment and proportion. These unspeakably cruel crimes are violent, obscenely destructive assaults on the most vulnerable of civilians, without consequence for the perpetrators. And such instances of rape have been reported continuously, voluminously, and authoritatively for eight years by Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/Holland), and many others. The Amel Center for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture in South Darfur has substantial records of these crimes, and a compelling overview has been provided by the Harvard School of Public Health and the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. There is simply no doubt that rape and sexual violence—on a vast, often systematic, and ethnically targeted basis—have profoundly defined the lives of girls and women in Darfur, and will for many years, and that prosecutions for these crimes are virtually unheard of.
It is time to acknowledge frankly that the ideal of a “responsibility to protect” is merely that—an ideal before its time, or at least before the international community has devised the means to make meaningful the words of the UN World Summit Outcome Document, unanimously endorsed six years ago by all member states voting, declaring that they were
“…prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the UN Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case by case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law.”
Given the time, energy, and institutional and governmental resources devoted to promulgating a “responsibility to protect,” it seems both honest and important to acknowledge that this has not been enough—and that without a fundamental change in the ways in which the world responds to atrocity crimes of the sort we see in Darfur, impunity will continue to prevail in Sudan and throughout the world.
What we are seeing now, whether in the fates of the girls of Garsila and Kass or in the invasions of Abyei, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, are the consequences of impunity—our refusal to confront the brutal regime responsible for all of this, ruthless and cruel men who have learned over many years that words, however strenuous or high-minded, mean precious little. Darfur has been the test case for the “responsibility to protect,” and we have failed terribly.