“Genocide in Sudan: The Imperative to Act”
The Sudan Peace Act passed by unanimous consent in the US Senate yesterday, and is now awaiting the President’s signature before becoming governing legislation for the US. This important bill defines our national policy toward Sudan in variously important ways, but is especially significant in declaring, emphatically and unambiguously, that the actions of the Khartoum regime in Southern Sudan constitute “genocide” as defined by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). Such declaration is far from merely hortatory; indeed, Article One of the Convention states that: “The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” With the Congressional and Executive branches committed to an unambiguous finding of genocide, the only question remaining is what the US will actually do.
Eric Reeves [October 10, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
Nothing could be more dangerous to our linguistic currency than debasing the value of such a potent term as “genocide.” If we use the word without designating something of extraordinary moral importance, or if we fail to respond with appropriate moral urgency to the terrifying reality designated, then we are contributing to a process that will attenuate and ultimately destroy the word’s meaning.
Thus the bluntly explicit language of the Sudan Peace Act must command our particular attention, and more especially that of the US State Department. Finding (10) of Section 2 (“Findings”) declares in its entirety:
“The acts of the Government of Sudan, including the acts described in this section, constitute genocide as defined by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (78 UNTS 277).”
What, in turn, follows from the United States’ being a “Contracting Party” to the UN Convention on Genocide? In fact, the language of Article 1 of the Convention is fully explicit:
“Article 1. The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.”
How will the US “undertake to prevent and to punish” the crime of genocide that has for years been relentlessly pursued by the National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum? It is hardly sufficient to say that we are now engaged in a peace process that may, or very well may not, yield an end to a civil war that for so long has been decidedly genocidal in character. Is the ongoing commission of “acts that constitute genocide” to receive only this indirect, and perhaps ultimately ineffectual, attention?
What are we prepared to accept as our present and immediate obligation to prevent genocide that is ongoing? The aspects of Khartoum’s genocidal policy are many, generating in turn a number of corresponding questions. What of the regime’s deliberately destructive manipulation of humanitarian aid for military purposes, a policy that is massively in evidence at the present moment? What of the continuing in-flow of oil-funded weaponry, including helicopter gunships, that so clearly enables the genocidal clearances in the oil regions? What of Khartoum’s deliberate aerial assaults on civilians, civil society infrastructure, and humanitarian relief efforts? The US, as a Contracting Party to the Convention, is obliged to prevent genocide—not simply to hope that the issue might disappear if at some time in the future a just peace is possibly negotiated.
Where is the urgency that comes from such a finding, a finding of “genocide”?
The realities of the present demand the immediate attention of the US administration. And what can be done? There are many possibilities, some of which are contained in the Sudan Peace Act for potential future Presidential action. But the six-month time-frame for Presidential determination envisioned in the Sudan Peace Act (Section 6) need not constrain US pursuit of a variety of actions now. There is no need, for example, to wait to “seek a United Nations Security Council Resolution to impose an arms embargo on the Government of Sudan” (Section 6 [c]). Such a resolution should be sought immediately, since we know all too well how the Khartoum regime relentlessly uses oil-funded weapons against civilians in Southern Sudan
Article 8 of the Convention on Genocide also gives clear guidance as to how the US, and those for whom genocide matters, should proceed:
“Article 8. Any Contracting Party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.
Why has no such action been previously proposed by the US? Will such proposal now occur with the finding of genocide so explicitly rendered in the Sudan Peace Act? Sudan is, of course, not a Contracting Party to the UN Genocide Convention. But the International Court of Justice has issued a clear advisory opinion that the principles underlying the Convention are part of “customary international law.” Because Khartoum is not a Party to the Convention does not give it free rein to commit genocide. Moreover, in the preamble to the Convention, the Contracting Parties (including the US) “confirm” that genocide is a crime under international law (echoing the UN General Assembly Resolution 96 (I) of 1946, which “affirmed” that genocide is a crime under international law).
Why has the US not sought with its allies to impose a “no-fly zone” over Southern Sudan to interdict Khartoum’s Antonov bombers as they seek out civilian and humanitarian targets? Why has the international community, including the US, allowed a pattern of humanitarian aid denials by Khartoum to become entrenched policy? Why has Operation Lifeline Sudan not been offered whatever security measures it feels are necessary for the safe delivery of their food and medical assistance? Why has a US-brokered monitoring force for attacks on civilians still not become operational? Khartoum’s actions in threatening civilians and humanitarian aid in the south are animated by a vicious racism—by a desire to destroy or convert the peoples of the south because of who they are and what they believe. This is the reality that lies most fundamentally behind the finding of genocide.
So again, the most basic question is simple, even as the answer offered will be deeply revealing: do the words of the Sudan Peace Act mean what they say? Is this a serious and governing piece of legislation, or merely a verbal gesture toward human suffering and destruction so great that it that has numbed the conscience and policy imagination of US officials?
Here our thinking should be guided by a sober and realistic analysis from Jerry Fowler, Staff Director for the Committee on Conscience of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (the Committee on Conscience recently “strongly reiterated” its genocide warning for Sudan):
“The erroneous assumption that the legal determination of genocide must be made before there is an obligation to respond led in 1994 to the appalling spectacle of State Department spokespersons using verbal gymnastics to avoid using the term genocide while hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were being slaughtered.
“The legal determination of genocide only becomes necessary for punishing the crime. An appropriate judicial body can sort through intent and other issues presented in the Convention’s definition of genocide and assess charges against the perpetrators. Debating these issues, however, cannot and must not be allowed to divert from the imperative of preventing genocide or responding to threats of genocide.
“The threat in Sudan is only getting worse, especially because of the growing role of oil. The presence of extensive oil reserves, mostly in the South, provides both increased means and increased motive for genocide.” (From a “Crimes of War” website discussion of genocide in Sudan:
We have no further need of State Department “verbal gymnastics,” given the explicit language of the Sudan Peace Act. What we need are concerted actions that respond urgently and forcefully to the reality represented by this finding. If this most solemn of moral responsibilities is ignored, if the State Department confesses itself fully satisfied with the all too tenuous possibilities for a just peace emerging from the Machakos process, then it will be washing its hands of clear obligations under international law. For an administration trying so desperately hard to find a basis for attacking Iraq under the auspices of international law, this dismissal of the unambiguous claims of Southern Sudan will become an act of supreme hypocrisy.
[For further discussions of genocide in Southern Sudan, see articles by:
[a] Francis Mading Deng, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the CUNY Graduate Center-Brookings Project on Internal Displacement; Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons:
[b] Helen Fein, Executive Director, Institute for the Study of Genocide at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York
[c] Sondra Hale, Adjunct Professor of Anthropology and Women’s Studies, UCLA