May 15, 2003
In a surprisingly frank assessment of the Machakos peace talks, Khartoum’s National Islamic Front foreign minister Mustapha Ismail declared on Tuesday (May 13) that the time-frame for the peace negotiations should be conceived of in terms of a year-end agreement:
“But at the moment, if you assess what is going on now … I would like to say that, hopefully before the end of this year , we’re going to sign a peace agreement.” (“Sudan minister says peace deal could be delayed,” Reuters May 14, 2003)
Significantly, this comment was made during an official trip to Ottawa, Canada, where Ismail met with Prime Minister Chretien. His statement is surely fully informed by the thinking of the National Islamic Front (NIF) leadership, including that of the President (General Omar Bashir) and the powerful First Vice President (Ali Osman Taha), even as it must have been made with the fullest understanding of its inevitable resonance within the international community.
In short, it represents an authoritative NIF assessment of the Machakos process—but one that is remarkably at odds with the assessments that have been recently offered in Washington. In April, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner invoked a June deadline (AFP, April 14, 2003). To be sure this was emphatically declared unrealistic by chief Machakos negotiator Lazaro Sumbeiywo (Retuers, April 17, 2003). (Sumbeiywo was at the time taking stock of a complete failure to make progress on the key issue of “security arrangements” in a just-adjourned session of the Machakos talks.) But this didn’t prevent Mr. Kansteiner from invoking a June deadline again at three separate points in his Congressional testimony of this Tuesday (May 13), though he expediently pegged his assessment to comments that emerged from a brief and contrived meeting between President Bashir and Chairman John Garang of the SPLM/A in early April.
What to make of this disparity in time-frames? Since optimism about Machakos has run so high recently, in so many quarters, it’s perhaps the moment for a sober contrarian willingness to assert fully the worst that may occur if we assume Foreign Minister Ismail is right in his assessment of a Machakos time-frame. He should certainly be pressed on the matter when he travels to Washington next week, but the questions at issue are already clear. What would such an extension of the “diplomatic process” imply? What would follow from an additional six months of “negotiations”? It is of course possible that peace would at long last come, that the war-weariness of the people of Sudan would compel the signing of a just and durable agreement, even on the part of the NIF regime. It is possible.
But despite Mr. Kansteiner’s facile and superficial pronouncements at Tuesday’s House hearing, there has been no truly substantial agreement on any of the key issues that must be addressed if a just peace is to be secured: status of the three disputed areas, security arrangements, and the essential elements of a transitional government (e.g., the status of the Presidency and the capital city). Mr. Kansteiner was reduced at the hearing simply to counting the number of pages to which signatures have been appended. But even if extraordinary progress were made on the issues that Khartoum has heretofore proved obdurate in confronting honestly, the Machakos process could be the occasion for a just and durable peace agreement only if the regime were to keep its word, to respect the various provisions of the agreement to which to it put its signature. In other words, such a negotiated peace settlement would be a diplomatic achievement utterly without precedent. For the Khartoum regime has never—not once—upheld fully any agreement it has ever signed.
There have, to be sure, been occasions when agreements were very partially observed, or observed insofar as convenient. The Nuba Mountain cease-fire is perhaps the best example. It was in its own way a breakthrough, especially in securing humanitarian access for the long-denied people of the Nuba. And the cease-fire has been kept in several important respects since it was signed in January 2002. But the agreement was also used almost immediately by Khartoum as military cover under which to redeploy significant forces (two brigades) to the fighting in Western Upper Nile. This, although authoritatively established, is nowhere mentioned in the recent touting of the Nuba Mountain cease-fire by Mr. Kansteiner, the State Department, or the White House. Also conveniently overlooked is the significant change in the terms of humanitarian delivery that was successfully coerced by Khartoum in October 2002. Equally conveniently overlooked are the various ways in which people in Khartoum-controlled parts of the Nuba Mountains have endured fierce and cruel repression in the last 16 months of the “cease-fire.” Little publicized, this repression has been brutally coercive, especially in some of the so-called “peace towns” that are little more than a means for Khartoum to control populations that might otherwise choose to move to SPLM/A-controlled parts of the Nuba.
Far from being the easy exemplar of what peace would look like throughout Sudan, the Nuba Mountains cease-fire agreement is a singular attainment and a very partial one at that. It should be celebrated most for being the means by which Khartoum’s savage, decade-long humanitarian embargo of the Nuba was finally broken. This embargo was a deliberate attempt to destroy the people of the Nuba, to “cleanse” the area of its African population, and in the process to claim the best of the arable land for those most favored by the regime, as well as to provide additional security for the oil pipeline that passes just to the west of the Nuba Mountains. Moreover, the Nuba cease-fire will be no more than a wisp in the holocaust if full-scale fighting resumes elsewhere in Sudan: it has no critical mass of its own.
If, then, we survey Khartoum’s long history of violating every agreement it has signed, and if we also draw the entirely reasonable conclusion that past behavior is our best guide in predicting future behavior, then we may all too reasonably assume that in late 2003, after talks have failed for one reason or another, or Khartoum’s “agreement” to a peace settlement proves as worthless as past agreements, we will have urgent occasion to imagine the consequences.
This is so clearly a highly likely prospect that we cannot wait for the eventuality to be upon us. We must even now, with the fullest moral honesty and intellectual resourcefulness, imagine the military, humanitarian, and human consequences of this diplomatic breakdown. I believe that these consequences will be of such a magnitude, and will be guided—as they clearly have in the past—by an intent so obscene, that we must now invoke the word that has been used so hesitantly by America in so many moments of the most consequential moral and political decision. The word is genocide.
We should be deeply, if painfully, grateful for the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Samantha Power, “‘A Problem from Hell’: America in the Age of Genocide.” For Ms. Power’s most disturbing conclusion, one compellingly established by her truly magisterial research, is that at every moment of genocide in the 20th century, the American response has been marked by disingenuousness and a construal of national self-interest that was callous, morally cowardly, or worse. Her examples from the Turkish genocide against the Armenians in 1915, the Holocaust of World War II, the Cambodian killing fields, Baghdad’s efforts to destroy the Kurds, Rwanda, and Bosnia all have a sickening familiarity. In each case the question was not what we knew, though there were inevitably serious issues in the gathering of reliable information. Rather, the real question has inevitably, and essentially, been about what we would allow ourselves to know for the purposes of responding.
And so too with Sudan. The litany of numbers that has grown steadily over twenty years of fighting—more than two million dead, more than four million internally displaced, hundreds of thousands of refugees—has been established too authoritatively, by too many different researchers, to be seriously doubted. But precisely because these numbers are at once so disturbingly great and so far beyond reasonable dispute, they have also become victims—victims of an unwillingness to say what they mean.
There has been a studied resistance on the part of the last three administrations to use the word genocide to describe the meaning of these numbers. This resistance has taken various forms in past cases of genocide and is chronicled with a nuanced power by Ms. Power in all the episodes she treats (of course the word was not available until the tireless efforts of Raphael Lemkin saw it included in the 1948 UN Convention on genocide). For example, the behavior of the Clinton administration in the face of genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda offers appalling instances of disingenuousness and sheer incoherence in responding to questions posed at the time about why the word genocide was not deployed to describe the extraordinary realities of these brutalized nations. And the administration behaved little better in coming to terms with the realities of Sudan.
But historical responsibility now belongs solely to the present administration—its State Department, its National Security Council, its President. They must explain why the word has not been used to date (we are well past the half way mark of the present term of the administration). Such a determination is in fact explicitly required by the Sudan Peace Act; but in their recent reports on Sudan neither the State Department nor the White House found cause to say that what has occurred in the south and the marginalized areas is genocide. Indeed, there is not even an explanation of why the word has not been used.
What we have instead are a series of pronouncements that are of a ghastly piece with the behavior of previous administrations in confronting earlier genocides. This is most conspicuous in the insistent effort to create “moral equivalency” between the actions of Khartoum’s National Islamic Front regime and the southern military resistance. For if “moral equivalency” is established, however expediently or factitiously, then there can be no cause for finding genocide: one has only atrocities, massacres, suffering and destruction that are parceled out in a fashion which lays sufficient blame on both sides to forestall the need for the kind of difficult and consequential judgment that a finding of genocide entails. Evidence of an effort to establish “moral equivalency” abounds in the recent State Department report on Sudan and the White House “Memorandum of Justification” (per the certification requirement of the Sudan Peace).
Ms. Power gives us an inkling of how far this tendency can take bureaucrats when she narrates the disgraceful equivocation on the Rwandan genocide by Clinton administration Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who was concurrently equivocating over the use of the word genocide to describe events in Bosnia. In one of the most telling moments of her account, she provides the name for a word-processing file containing an administration intelligence memorandum on the scale of the Rwandan genocide by mid-May 1994: NONAMERWANDAKILLINGS. “No-name Rwanda Killings.” Not the genocidal destruction of Tutsis and moderate Hutus by Hutu fanatics, but nameless Rwandans being killed by the tens, finally hundreds of thousands. Without names or identities, for killer or victims, “equivalency” was the default assumption.
In testimony on Bosnia, Christopher and other officials of the State Department again and again cleaved to the argument—indisputable in
itself—that “atrocities had been committed by all sides” in the conflict. But when it came to articulating a conclusion about larger responsibility, Christopher repeatedly offered weasel-words and semantic dodges:
“[The terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention] seem to me to be a standard that may well have been reached in some of the aspects of Bosnia. Certainly some of the conduct there is tantamount to genocide” [from testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, May 18, 1993]
“May well have been” “tantamount to genocide” in some “aspects” of Bosnia: perhaps, perhaps equivalent to genocide, in some sense, Christopher was saying—but not the thing itself, at least for “legal” purposes and government obligations.
Indeed, equally revealing of the Clinton administration mindset was a discussion paper for the Rwanda interagency working group, which stated: “Be Careful. Legal at State was worried about this yesterday—Genocide finding could commit [the US government] to actually ‘do something.'” For ever since the Genocide Convention was belatedly ratified by the US Senate in 1988, the potency of the term has had the perverse effect of making it less likely to be used. Article 8 of the Convention speaks of actions “appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide.” The legal affairs people at the Clinton State Department, all to aware that using the word—however justified—might have consequences, avoided using it precisely for this reason.
There is a final theme that recurs throughout recent American efforts to avoid coming to terms with the reality of genocide: the argument that genocide as defined by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide requires a determination of “intent.” Of course this is true: the Convention specifies that “genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:
[a] killing members of the group;
[b] causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
[c] deliberately inflicting on the groups conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
[d] imposing measures intended to prevent births with the group;
[e] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
But establishing intent need not entail finding a document or explicit set of instructions ordering the above actions. Intent can be inferred from a pattern of action and circumstances. Considerable caution must be exercised in such inference, but I believe the actions and circumstances that define the conduct of Khartoum’s war in southern Sudan and the marginalized areas reveal a clear intent to commit various of the acts specified by the Convention.
The decade-long humanitarian embargo of the Nuba Mountains, for example, was clearly a “deliberate” effort to inflict on the African groups of the Nuba Mountains “conditions of life calculated to bring about [ ] physical destruction in whole or in part.” The enslaving of thousands of Dinka children from Bahr el-Ghazal by the murahileen that Khartoum had heavily armed for the purpose clearly reflects an intent described in [e] (here Jok Madut Jok’s “War and Slavery in Sudan” provides indispensable field research).
The destruction and displacement of many hundreds of thousands of non-Islamicized, non-Arabized civilians in the oil regions—destruction animated by a vicious racism and religious zealotry, as well as a lust for wealth and power—are clear examples of [a] and [b]. Certainly if we look at how more “Arabized” populations have moved into the “cleared” parts of Ruweng County, we can easily infer that certain kinds of people are tolerated near the oil infrastructure, but not the indigenous African peoples.
Genocide has occurred in Sudan, and the evidence increasingly suggests that it will occur with unprecedented fury within the next nine months. When it begins—when Khartoum’s unchallenged military build-up in Juba, Wau, Bentiu, Adok, and other strategic sites is unleashed—there will be no time for anguished assessments, nor will there be any purpose to such. If we wish to respond to genocide in Sudan, now is the moment. If the time-frame is indeed the one articulated earlier this week by NIF Foreign Minister Ismail, if Khartoum has begun to test the waters for a self-serving, and finally sinister, extension of the Machakos process to the end of the year (and thus well into the dry season that favors Khartoum militarily), then we know that pressure of a sort heretofore absent must be brought to bear on the regime or the chances for progress in the peace talks will evaporate.
A finding of genocide would be an exceedingly important part of that pressure. Here the Bush administration has a chance to break the pattern of American response to genocide, and make clear to Khartoum just how seriously we regard their past (and continuing) conduct of “war.” But there are few signs that the administration is willing to do so. On the contrary, various of the hallmarks of past American failures to respond honestly to genocide are already clearly in evidence. If we wait as we did in Rwanda, in Bosnia, when the Kurds were being massacred in Iraq, when the Holocaust became undeniable, then our pronouncements will be meaningless. Our voices must be heard now, or they will all too likely be overwhelmed by the sounds of agony, wailing anguish, and death throughout southern Sudan.
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