“Is the US State Department Truly Committed to Peace in Sudan?”
The nominal is answer is “yes,” but a real commitment to peace in Sudan requires much more than verbal gestures. It entails a willingness to commit significant US diplomatic, political, and economic resources to a credible peace process. It entails sober, clear-eyed assessment of statements and professed commitments coming from the ruling National Islamic Front regime in Khartoum. And it entails a respect not simply for the terrible suffering and destruction endured by southern Sudan and other marginalized areas of the country, but for the wholly legitimate aspiration of these people to escape Khartoum’s tyranny once and for all. In this light, there is considerable cause for concern in recent US statements—and silences.
Eric Reeves [February 6, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
Walter Kansteiner, US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, met this week with Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Mustafa Ismail. In the immediate wake of that meeting, a senior US official is reported to have said:
“[Khartoum’s] willingness to proceed on the peace process seems to be genuine,” a senior U.S. official told United Press International Tuesday. “They are prepared to make a deal.” (UPI, February 5, 2002)
It is perhaps useful to recall, in assessing Ismail’s credibility, that he is one of the members of the National Islamic Front who has in the past shamefully defended the bombing of civilian and humanitarian targets in southern Sudan, declaring preposterously that such bombing attacks were justified because the southern military opposition was using civilian sites as “human shields.” As reports from numerous humanitarian and human rights organizations have made abundantly clearly, the attacks have typically been on sites with no military presence whatsoever.
For example, when all humanitarian aid flights into southern Sudan were suspended in August of 2000 because of intense, repeated bombing attacks on hospitals, field workers, and refugee stations, reports of these attacks came from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres, the International Rescue Committee, and many others. All made clear the absence of any military presence in the areas where humanitarian efforts were underway.
More recently this same Foreign Minister Ismail, whom the State Department now finds so “genuine,” perfunctorily denied authoritative reports on civilian bombings, saying that such charges were “repetitive, not new, and baseless” (text of report by Sudanese newspaper Al-Ra’y al-Amm website, August 30, 2001). This outrageous dismissal flies in the face of sustained and assiduous research on Khartoum’s bombing of civilian population and humanitarian relief. Such research, conducted by the distinguished US Committee for Refugees, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres, and a number of other respected organizations, has chronicled hundreds and hundreds of confirmed bombing attacks on civilians and humanitarian efforts in recent years.
Yet Mr. Ismail dismisses all this as “repetitive, not new, and baseless.”
It should be recalled that there was a time when these bombings mattered a good deal to the US. In responding to Khartoum’s June 2001 bombing of the UN’s World Food Program efforts in Bahr el-Ghazal province, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said:
“Attacks on civilian areas, and particularly on food (programs) for civilians, are an outrage and they threaten the welfare of many, many innocent people. If confirmed, these reports will raise serious questions about the assurances that we’ve heard from the government of Sudan.” (Agence France-Presse, June 8, 2001)
The attacks were of course confirmed, and by the United Nations World Food Program itself. Presumably such repeated confirmations are why US special envoy for Sudan John Danforth made the ending of such barbarous attacks a key test of Khartoum’s readiness to negotiate peace in good faith—to negotiate “genuinely,” we might say. And so it is important to recall again just how bluntly Khartoum has refused over the last several months to accept international monitoring of a halt to civilian and humanitarian bombings. Despite highlighting civilian bombing as one of his key concerns, special envoy Danforth declared last month that he had made “no real progress” on this issue.
In a feckless response to Khartoum’s intransigence, the US—unable to secure acceptance of a verifiable bombing halt from the regime—is evidently looking for a way to finesse the issue. United Press International reports that, “Ismail has not agreed to accept third-party monitors to the conflict, despite promises from the United States to make them unobtrusive and to even to call them something less than monitors” (UPI, Feb 5, 2002). This absurd verbal groveling by the US has come to substitute for the robust condemnation that should meet all deliberate targeting of civilian and humanitarian targets, whenever and wherever they occur. There could be no issue morally more compelling. Moreover, this is an issue on which we should demand of our allies unambiguous support, both in the United Nations and other forums.
Instead, Foreign Minister Ismail—who has both defended civilian bombings and denied their existence—is described by the US as “genuine” in his search for peace.
That such a characterization could be tendered reflects nothing so much as a growing policy of appeasement that seems the only way out of what the Bush administration evidently feels is its “Sudan dilemma.” On the one hand, the administration is acutely aware that very large, diverse, and growing constituencies in the US have rallied to the cause of Sudan. These include human rights activists, a wide range of African-American political constituencies, an equally wide range of faith-based advocacy groups, churches, and other religious organizations. These constituencies are defined by neither ideology, faith, race, nor geography. Politically they are unignorable.
At the same time, Sudan’s catastrophic civil war will demand resources—diplomatic, political, and economic—that the administration seems so far unwilling to commit. It requires an ability to see beyond the value of whatever terrorist intelligence the Khartoum regime has expediently offered (intelligence it possesses only because of its long-time support for international terrorism, support which continues in various forms, and which previously took the form of hosting Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda for five years). It certainly requires a willingness to confront squarely the consequences of irresponsible oil development in southern Sudan by companies like Talisman Energy (Canada), Petronas (Malaysia), and China National Petroleum Corp. On this latter score, it is significant and disturbingly revealing that an analysis of oil-related issues, requested of the State Department by special envoy Danforth in September, has still not been provided.
This suggests an absence of strategic thinking by the Bush administration, an inability to match resources and vision in developing an effective means of supporting the peace process. Indeed, despite the high-profile appointment of Danforth in September (significantly, he was by all accounts a very reluctant appointee), and despite the signal success of the Nuba Mountain cease-fire, there is still no evidence that the Bush State Department has fashioned anything that resembles an effective and coherent peace process, or figured out how to augment the presently moribund IGAD process.
Consultations between the US and Norway and Britain are reliably reported to be underway, and these two European countries are likely to be critical in any peace process. In fact, European assistance in other forms simply must be forthcoming, and the Bush administration needs to make clear to EU countries that Sudan is indeed a foreign policy priority. But the Bush administration seems either to have been surprised by the European Union’s decision to resume development aid to Khartoum—or unable to stop it. In any event, there has been no official US comment on this very significant development, despite the serious obstacle it presents in bringing international pressure to bear on Khartoum. It is important to ask just how seriously the State Department is engaged in these reported European consultations.
Domestically, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Walter Kansteiner is now briefing some members on Capitol Hill on US policy—but so far only Republicans, suggesting an unfortunate politicizing of Sudan as an issue. Such politicization is already dismayingly in evidence, with the Senate Republican leadership still holding up conferencing of the Sudan Peace Act. In its House version the bill offers very serious, arguably unique leverage through US capital market sanctions against the oil companies operating in Sudan and so conspicuously sustaining the conflict. The Senate Republican leadership is evidently acting at the behest of, or in concert with, the White House. The common denominator is a refusal to see the central role of oil development in exacerbating Sudan’s civil war and providing a powerful disincentive for the Khartoum regime to negotiate in good faith.
This politically calculated response is no answer to the immense challenge posed by any serious engagement with Sudan, an engagement that has as its goal a just peace for this torn land. Such a peace cannot be reached without good faith negotiations, and such negotiations are not encouraged by various forms of appeasement. If Khartoum is rewarded for its continuing tyranny and its appalling conduct of the war with renewed EU development aid; if the US expediently finds Foreign Minister Ismail “genuine” despite his continuing defense of civilian bombing and his refusal to allow for international monitoring of a cessation; if the US slowly slides towards a view of “moral equivalency” between Khartoum and the southern opposition; if these various developments represent a new Bush administration “Sudan policy,” then further devastating war is assured.
For the people of the south and other marginalized areas know perfectly well what Khartoum represents, and what the terrible ambitions of the regime are. Unless checked by a forceful international response, led by a serious, committed US effort, these ongoing ambitions will convince the people of the south that they must fight or be destroyed. The Bush administration makes a terrible mistake if they believe they can finesse away this desperate choice.