Hollywood human rights advocacy will always have to contend with the sneering, knowing contempt of many a professional observer, especially when the subject is Sudan. But it would behoove such observers to listen to what George Clooney actually said last week about the border regions of Sudan, first before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; then to President Obama—who is sorely in need of prodding on this issue; and finally to the news media following his arrest for civil disobedience before the Sudanese embassy (Friday March 16). The arrest has predictably been characterized as grandstanding; in fact, however, Clooney felt it to be a moral imperative.
First it should be noted that Clooney has consistently declared that he himself is not and has not tried to become an “expert” on Sudan; he understands that he is a “megaphone” (to borrow one of his own metaphors); he is explicit about all this, and his directness and honesty about what is central in debates about “star power advocacy” deserve to be fully credited. Moreover by contrast, John Prendergast—who has worked closely with Clooney and accompanied him on all his trips to Sudan, including to the July 9, 2011 Independence Day celebration in Juba—has deep Africa experience in the advocacy world, the policy world (International Crisis Group), and the world of the State Department and the National Security Council. He has extensive field experience in Sudan, and few have studied Sudan for more years with a clearer understanding of what is represented by the Khartoum regime.
What Clooney himself said of substance was, in effect, quite simple (I paraphrase):
“I’ve been to Sudan and the region a number of times; this time I made the trip to the highly volatile border between (northern) Sudan and the new Republic of South Sudan. I also traveled to the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, a war zone, and witnessed and recorded substantial evidence of war crimes.”
What Clooney did not say but easily might have is that all his most important substantive points had already been chronicled with devastating authority—and almost no impact—by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Satellite Sentinel Project, and UN human rights investigators who last June were in Kadugli (South Kordofan), the epicenter of widespread ethnic slaughter. And even before these searing indictments of the Khartoum regime, we had numerous news dispatches. These revealed that the signature feature of Khartoum’s operation was a door-to-door roundup of Nuba, who were often summarily shot. The Nuba, the name for the African tribal grouping in central South Kordofan, were also stopped at checkpoints grimly similar to those once seen in Rwanda. One aid worker who had recently escaped from South Kordofan, told McClatchy News, “Those [Nuba] coming in are saying, ‘Whenever they see you are a black person, they kill you.’” Another Nuba aid worker reported that an Arab militia leader made clear that their orders were simple: to “just clear.”
Yet another Nuba resident of Kadugli told Agence France-Presse that he had been informed by a member of the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces that they had been provided plenty of weapons and ammunition, and a standing order: “He said that they had clear instructions: just sweep away the rubbish. If you see a Nuba, just clean it up. … He told me he saw two trucks of people with their hands tied and blindfolded, driving out to where diggers were making holes for graves on the edge of town.”
Mass gravesites, capable of holding many thousands of dead bodies, were identified by the Satellite Sentinel Project by means of grimly unambiguous satellite photography reported on July 14 and August 17. Though greeted with skepticism by Obama’s special envoy for Sudan, Princeton Lyman, evidence continued to pour in, both from the ground and further satellite imagery. And a leaked report from the UN human rights team appeared in early July, offering further eyewitness accounts. Among scores of individual observations the UN report highlights:
“On 10 June, UNMIS [UN Mission in Sudan] Human Rights interviewed residents from Murta village, outside of Kadugli Town, who stated that they saw fresh mass graves located in a valley southeast of the Murta bus station near the Kadugli police training centre.” (§35)
“[Two men interviewed by UNMIS] reported that, following their release from SAF [Sudan Armed Forces] custody, they saw fresh mass graves between the SAF 14th Division Headquarters and Kadugli Market. On 16 June, UN military observers, while on their way between the SAF 14th Division Headquarters and Kadugli Market in an attempt to verify the existence of these mass graves, were arrested, stripped of their clothes, and believed that they were about to be executed when a senior SAF officer intervened.” (§36)
Reports from authoritative sources on the ground reaching SSP revealed that mass graves had been anticipated, as had the need for body bags and tarps to prevent (if unsuccessfully) aerial identification. A July 1 report released by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies confirmed that “the Sudan Red Crescent Society, reportedly acting on instructions from the Government of South Kordofan, has been actively collecting dead bodies in Kadugli town, and had at least 415 body bags and 2,000 plastic tarps recently transferred to it from the IFRC prior to the fighting in June. By the end of June, the SRCS was publicly saying it needed more body bags.” (emphasis added)
The “Government of South Kordofan” is headed by Ahmed Haroun, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on multiple counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. He was appointed by Khartoum to his position in South Kordofan precisely because of his well-earned reputation for utter ruthlessness and brutality.
From the Nuba Mountains, where indiscriminate aerial attacks were concentrated, The Independent reported in July:
“The government in Khartoum insists it is targeting armed rebels but the Antonovs it is using are non-military aircraft and are randomly destructive. ‘The worst injuries are from the Antonovs,’ said Dr [Tom] Catena. ‘This is my first experience of war and you don’t understand the human toll until you see it. These people are being destroyed for nothing.’ The only qualified doctor in an area with hundreds of thousands people, the mission hospital has about 400 patients. The doctor who arrived recently from mission work in Kenya said he was nervous at first about speaking out as hospitals were targets. ‘Why hold back?’ he asked. ‘We should show what’s happening, this is the reality.’”
In his comments Clooney also highlighted, with appropriate urgency, the larger implications of such aerial attacks on civilians in the Nuba—attacks that he witnessed. Here again the world has been warned for many months by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, SSP and others. Moreover, we have known that this same regime in Khartoum has relentlessly bombed civilian and humanitarian targets throughout Sudan for over a decade. In South Kordofan and Blue Nile these widespread and systematic attacks have disrupted and badly compromised both early summer planting and fall harvests, contributing to an extremely dangerous food shortage in both regions. Clooney’s most impassioned plea was that this shortage be addressed on an urgent basis.
And yet despite the nature of these crimes, despite an ongoing “genocide by attrition” in Darfur, despite Khartoum’s campaign of ethnic annihilation in the Nuba Mountains in the 1990s, and despite Khartoum’s barbarous conduct of war against South Sudan, which claimed more than 2 million civilian lives and displaced as many as five million others—despite all this the Obama administration continues to believe that it can negotiate profitably with this cruel and obdurate regime:
“Frankly, we do not want to see the ouster of the [Sudanese] regime, nor regime change. We want to see the regime carrying out reform via constitutional democratic measures.”
The idea that the brutal and ruthlessly survivalist National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime, with its record of serial genocide as a counterinsurgency strategy, can oversee “reform via constitutional democratic measures” is so preposterous as to leave us with no conclusion but that the Obama administration has utterly lost its moral and diplomatic bearings when it comes to Sudan. We have abundant photographic, narrative, and forensic records making unambiguously clear that a wide range of atrocity crimes, including crimes against humanity, have been perpetrated by a regime that has never indicated the slightest interest in democracy.
We have, in short, known for more than nine months what was happening in South Kordofan and Blue Nile; we have known that human beings were again being destroyed and displaced into highly precarious existences because of their ethnicity. But yet again, knowing has meant nothing: knowing has done nothing to mitigate the enormous ongoing risks to many hundreds of thousands of human lives; knowing alone has generated no appropriate policy response—by the U.S. or other international actors of consequence. And that such knowledge has meant nothing—that the Obama administration continues to frame its Sudan policy around the viciously disingenuous expectation that Khartoum will “carry out reform via constitutional democratic measures”—this is why George Clooney was arrested.
[Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, 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.]