Eric Reeves •
This week the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) demanded a thorough UN investigation of events in South Kordofan, Sudan over the past two months. During this period the Khartoum regime has engaged in widespread ethnic targeting of Nuba civilians, using roadblocks and house-to-house searches to make arrests and engage in extrajudicial executions. Aerial attacks on civilians have been reported repeatedly since early June and continue to this day.
But despite the authority of an early July UN report detailing many of these egregious human rights violations—which once leaked compelled the calls for investigation—and the accounts of independent journalists reporting from bombing sites in the Nuba Mountains as well as hundreds of Nuba people who have fled their homes, it is highly unlikely that China and Russia will permit a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the investigation to move forward. Just last Friday the United States failed to get even a much weaker, nonbinding “presidential statement” from the UNSC, which condemned deliberate aerial attacks on civilians and humanitarians in South Kordofan. Both China and Russia made clear that they would not support any mention of bombing. The UNSC, in turn, is making clear its inability to respond to even the most authoritative reports of atrocity crimes.
This gives an air of absurdity to the UNHCHR’s call for an “independent, thorough, and objective inquiry with the aim of holding perpetrators to account.” Even if the UNSC gets around to condemning violence in South Kordofan (and any adopted language would hardly be more specific than this), it (specifically China and perhaps Russia) will never authorize an investigation without Khartoum’s permission, which the regime there will never grant. Khartoum has already prematurely expelled UN peacekeepers and officials from the region and is now excluding humanitarian relief organizations, journalists, and human rights investigators. The regime will not repeat the “mistakes” that allowed Darfur to become a genocide reported in real time.
The United States seems unprepared for this looming and apparently inevitable moment of political truth at the UNSC. There is no meaningful compromise position, as there appeared to be when Khartoum objected to the peacekeeping force authorized for Darfur in August 2006 (UNSC Resolution 1706). The UN/African Union Mission in Darfur that was eventually accepted by Khartoum—and authorized in August 2007, by UNSC Resolution 1769—has proved a disastrous failure in fulfilling its mission of civilian protection, but it at least has the appearance of responding to genocidal violence. There will be no equivalent in South Kordofan—no peacekeeping force, no major humanitarian response of the sort that began in Darfur during the summer of 2004, and no human rights investigation. The preposterous nature of the arrangement that confers UNSC veto-power on each of the five major powers that emerged victorious in the Second World War will be inescapably evident.
Navi Pillay, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, has tried to minimize the findings of the leaked UN report in various ways, but the contents of the original report (not just the redacted version released publicly this week) reveal the overwhelming cruelty and destructiveness of Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces and its Arab militia allies. (Pillay has also dismissed the reports of Nuba civilians and journalists, including the New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman, and photographic evidence from the Satellite Sentinel Project that reveals what can only be mass gravesites in and around Kadugli, capital of South Kordofan.) In the end, the leak, likely made by someone frustrated with UN inaction, forced Pillay to acknowledge some of what UN investigators had reported.
This wasn’t the first time Pillay had downplayed reports by UN investigators during this crisis: she and the UN Secretariat were responsible for revising a UN report finding that actions “tantamount to ethnic cleansing” occurred during Khartoum’s late May invasion of Abyei. In the final version of the report, that language had been transformed: “The Sudan Armed Forces attack and occupation of Abyei and the resultant displacement of over 30,000 Ngok Dinkas from Abyei could lead to ethnic cleansing…” Even at the time it was clear that far more than 30,000 Ngok Dinka had been displaced; the figure used by humanitarian organizations working south of Abyei is now 120,000, virtually the entire Ngok population of Abyei.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was even more abject in accommodating Khartoum’s sensibilities, saying that it was “far too early to claim that ethnic cleansing is taking place.” The evidence gathered meant nothing to Ban. He went as far as to claim that “Khartoum pledged to pave the way for thousands of residents to ultimately return to their homes.” Of course, no Ngok Dinka have returned, nor will they in the foreseeable future. The very slow deployment of an armored brigade of Ethiopian peacekeepers (the third UN-authorized peacekeeping force in Sudan) has no human rights mandate and is unable to secure an area as large as Abyei for returning Ngok civilians, who will be acutely vulnerable to Arab militia attacks.
Fortunately, among the generally cowardly UN officials, the deputy high commissioner for Human Rights, Kyung-wha Kang, has been impressively outspoken, including during a recent trip to Darfur. Of South Kordofan she is reported to have said that “despite the difficult conditions and restrictions on access to areas affected by the clashes in South Kordofan, information availed reveals serious violations of human rights.” She has also used the phrase “crimes against humanity,” of considerable significance as a term of art in international law. Her push for a human rights investigation may be much more vigorous than Pillay’s, but it will encounter the same obstacles: an obdurate Khartoum and a veto-wielding China.
Khartoum’s first response to an official call for an investigation was predictable: “The Sudanese Foreign Ministry rejected on Tuesday [August 15] the UN report on violation of human rights in the state of South Kordofan. Mona Rishmawi, the head of Sudan’s Rule of Law, rejected the UN report as baseless and malicious.” Khartoum’s second response was to initiate an “investigation” of its own, headed by an Orwellian-sounding ad hoc office:
Mohamed Bushara Daus, Sudan’s Minister of Justice, formed a committee on Monday to assess the human rights situation and international humanitarian law in the state of South Kordofan. The minister was assigned the chairmanship of the committee on the decision of advisory council of the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR).
If UN demands are doomed to irrelevance, what of U.S. officials and human rights organizations? Will they demand a non-consensual deployment, which, given China’s stance, would necessarily be without UN authority? Or calls for sanctions of the sort that were supposed to have confronted Khartoum whenever it violated UNSC Resolution 1591 (March 2005), banning all military flights over Darfur?
In fact, there have been hundreds of such military flights, and attacks, mainly against civilian targets in Darfur, over the past six and a half years. But Beijing has been hostile toward the UN Panel of Experts on Darfur, created by the same Resolution 1591 to monitor aerial military flights and uphold a ban on arms flowing into Darfur. This might be because the panel, which is to make recommendations to the UNSC “sanctions committee for Darfur,” found that large quantities of Chinese weapons and ammunition—manufactured after March 2005—have moved into the region, in violation of the embargo. There have thus been no UN-authorized sanctions against Khartoum, nor a reprimand of China.
The victims of mass atrocities of South Kordofan, like those in Darfur, are now subject to the broken political instrument that is the UNSC. China continues to ignore the “responsibility to protect” civilians endangered by their own government, even though its delegation was part of the unanimous vote for the language of the “Outcome Document” of the September 2005 UN World Summit, where all member states declared 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.
This language was ratified unanimously in UNSC Resolution 1674 (April 2006). But we have long known the Chinese officials are shameless hypocrites, happy to vote only for resolutions that are meaninglessly hortatory.
The real issue here is what the world will do when China vetoes or forestalls investigation of atrocity crimes in South Kordofan. Guided by its self-serving principle of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other nations, China has no compunction about such action. And because there is no fig-leaf “compromise” possible here—there either is or is not an independent and unfettered human rights investigation in South Kordofan—this could bring a rare moment of real moral and political clarity in world affairs. What will democratic governments do in this moment? The question, sadly, forces a number of unhappy answers.
[Eric Reeves 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.]