The stench of hypocrisy and expediency is in the air wherever one turns in assessing international responses to recent events in Sudan. The deeply imbalanced reactions to the seizure of Heglig by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) give us our starkest picture to date of how selective and tendentious the world is prepared to be in creating a narrative for the present multiple crises that threaten war in Sudan and South Sudan. And in their attempts to achieve a factitious “even-handedness,” various actors—including the UN, the U.S., the AU, and the EU—have encouraged Khartoum to believe that it has somehow gained the diplomatic, even moral upper hand. It is difficult to imagine a more dangerous response to have encouraged, and the currently ongoing offensive military actions against South Sudan by the regime’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) stand as stark confirmation.
Notably, international reaction has worked to encourage the most vehemently bellicose language on the part of Field Marshal and President Omar al-Bashir, who has very recently declared that (northern) Sudan is now essentially at war with South Sudan, and that Khartoum’s military ambition is to destroy the “insect” government in Juba. We have heard such language of racial contempt many times from al-Bashir’s regime; in this instance it is difficult not to recall the infamously ubiquitous calls in Rwanda in 1994 for the destruction of Tutsi “cockroaches.”
Certainly during the widespread ethnic slaughter in Kadugli (South Kordofan), beginning in June 2011, we repeatedly heard reports of similar racial contempt. “Yusef,” a Nuba from Kadugli, told Agence France-Presse and The Independent (UK) that he had been informed by a member of the notorious Popular Defense Forces (PDF) that they had been provided with 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.”
This racial contempt and hatred, combined with a jihadist rhetoric, has already proved a potent brew in Khartoum, where on Saturday (April 21) various news agencies have reported the destruction of the Presbyterian Evangelical Church. Following an incendiary sermon by a nearby Muslim cleric during Friday evening prayers, hundreds of Muslims attacked and destroyed the church. Reuters offers the most authoritative account:
“Hundreds of Muslims stormed a Christian church complex used by southerners in Khartoum at the weekend, witnesses said, raising fears that recent clashes between Sudan and South Sudan were stoking ethnic tensions in the city. The attackers ransacked buildings, knocked down walls and burned Bibles on Saturday, Youssef Matar, secretary general of the Presbyterian Evangelical Church told Reuters.”
“The attack on the church came a day after South Sudan’s army pulled out of the key Heglig oilfield, an area it seized from Sudan in the worst violence between the two countries since secession. Sudan quickly declared victory over its former civil war foe, prompting widespread celebrations in Khartoum. A Muslim preacher known for fiery sermons took advantage of the excited climate to call for ‘jihad’ against Christians during Friday evening prayers, prompting hundreds to attack the church complex the next day, Matar said.”
The attack represents a terrible precedent in Khartoum, especially given the ineffectual presence of security forces:
“‘No one could believe it. Nothing like this has ever happened before,’ Matar said. While Sudan is known for long and bitter conflicts fuelled by religious and ethnic animosity, communal violence in the capital is relatively rare. But communities also live separately for the most part and distrust between them often runs deep. Ethiopians, Eritreans and Indians, as well as Christians from Sudan and South Sudan, use the church, Matar said. A Reuters witness on Sunday saw smoke rising from some of the trees on the church compound, and security vehicles waiting nearby.” (Reuters [Khartoum], April 22, 2012; http://af.reuters.com/article/commoditiesNews/idAFL5E8FM2Q320120422?sp=true (emphasis added)
We should expect to hear very little about this terrible incident from the unctuous UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon or other feckless international actors, certainly no condemnation commensurate with this state-sanctioned attack on a place of worship. What we may sure of, given the details of this dispatch, is that this assault was tacitly sanctioned by the regime’s security forces, who in turn have no difficulty discerning what they are to do in restraining, or allowing, racially and religiously motivated attacks on Southerners.
In fact, the ethnic culling of Southerners has been looming for many months, and on April 8 became regime policy, stripping as many as 700,000 “Southerners” of their nationality solely on the basis of ethnicity. No internationally recognized standards for de-nationalizing citizens have been observed or even promulgated. And yet again, there has been no urgent or appropriately forceful international condemnation of this ruthless policy of de-nationalizing those judged ethnically “Southern.”
Sadly, our best guide to the world’s responses to Khartoum’s current multiple violations of international human rights and humanitarian law can be discerned in previous perfunctory responses to cross-border aerial assaults on South Sudan, going back to November 2010. These attacks include multiple, deliberate bombings of civilian targets, including the refugee camp at Yida (Unity State) on November 10, 2011. International response has been equally indecisive in the face of Khartoum’s campaign of ethnic annihilation by means of starvation in northern border states, a campaign that has been underway in the Nuba Mountains for over ten months and in Blue Nile for almost eight months. Khartoum’s campaign is a ghastly reprise of the genocidal assault on the Nuba in the 1990s, a fact that seems to inform almost none of the present desultory discussions about the future of these people, even as heavy and isolating seasonal rains are impending.
Of a piece with the this perverse diffidence is the refusal to credit fully the massive evidence of atrocity crimes committed by Khartoum’s regular and militia forces in Kadugli, including definitive evidence of mass graves that may hold many thousands of Nuba—evidence that includes both substantial satellite photography and eyewitness accounts gathered by a wide range of sources, including the UN human rights team present in Kadugli in June 2011. Skepticism on this matter by the Obama administration, and special envoy Princeton Lyman in particular, has been a shameful episode in U.S. Sudan policy, which has been conspicuously misguided from the beginning of Obama’s presidency.
There is a grimly revealing and familiar history leading to current international failures, one that may be readily traced. Certainly at key moments in the build-up to Khartoum’s military seizure of Abyei (May 20-21, 2011) the international community refused to condemn the clearly impending assault—or to respond subsequently with anything approaching the misguided fervor that has defined international reactions to SPLA actions following SAF military assaults originating in Heglig. There has been, for example, no meaningful demand that Khartoum demilitarize Heglig, or allow deployment of a UN buffer force, as requested by Juba as the basic condition for its military withdrawal. Instead, there has been merely rhetorical posturing; and again the Obama administration—and President Obama himself—have seemed especially culpable, particularly in light of earlier deeply misguided administration efforts to compel Juba to “compromise” further on the nearby Abyei region (fall 2010).
At the time, such efforts—by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, special envoy Scott Gration, and part-time envoy and prevaricator Senator John Kerry—attempted to foist on Juba more “compromises” than were already embodied in the Abyei Protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA, 2005) and the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on Abyei’s boundaries (July 2009). Nor, we should recall, did the U.S. object meaningfully when the findings of the Abyei Boundaries Commission were peremptorily rejected by Khartoum (July 2005), or when Khartoum’s regular and militia forces mounted a brutal assault on Abyei town and its surroundings (May 2008). Failures of U.S. policy in Sudan have been thoroughly bipartisan, despite the critical U.S. role in securing the CPA.
Given the tense history of the region, SAF military seizure of Abyei represented an extraordinary provocation, as did the consequent forced displacement of more than 100,000 Dinka Ngok into South Sudan. Juba did not respond militarily, and yet watched in deepest anger. For the international community was in effect sanctioning the permanent displacement of these indigenous people; certainly in the significantly reduced area defined as “Abyei” by the PCA, the Dinka Ngok were unquestionably the only “residents” and thus the only ones guaranteed (by the CPA) the right to vote in the self-determination referendum scheduled for January 9, 2011.
Encouraged by misguided U.S. policy expediency on Abyei, Khartoum all too predictably refused to allow the Abyei self-determination referendum to take place. Unsurprising, given its previous diplomatic posture, the Obama administration largely ignored this abrogation of the Abyei Protocol, evidently in the interests of preserving at all costs the self-determination referendum in the South. Southerners, for their part, may be forgiven for believing that the U.S. justified such acquiescence before Khartoum’s unilateral decision on the basis of Juba’s “refusal to compromise” yet further on Abyei in fall 2010.
With its unerring nose for hypocrisy, Khartoum watched this history of Abyei unfold over a period of six years and calculated—all too accurately—that there would be minimal consequences for a final abrogation of the Abyei Protocol. And after its military seizure of Abyei, the regime also calculated that it could sign an agreement on June 20, 2011—committing it to withdraw its forces from Abyei with deployment of an Ethiopian peacekeeping brigade under UN auspices—and then simply renege on the agreement, also without consequences. Yet again, this cynical calculation proved all too accurate.
If we turn from these obtuse and expedient responses to Khartoum’s annexation of Abyei—and annexation is precisely what the international community has countenanced, despite various pro forma objections—and examine in this context the international response to the SPLA’s retaliatory and defensive occupation of Heglig—from which it has now withdrawn—it is impossible not to be struck by the radical asymmetry.
Certainly the leadership in Juba has taken stock of what has transpired over the past ten days, and is even now re-calibrating what it can and cannot count on from the international community. The Southern leadership has seen its extraordinary military forbearance over the past eighteen months essentially dismissed, even as Khartoum continues to test that forbearance by means of ever more provocative actions (multiple sources report SAF attacks across a range of territory in Unity State today). These re-calibrations by Juba will be tough-minded, fully prepared to encounter future international hypocrisy, and even more determined to protect the territorial integrity of South Sudan. Certainly the international community will no longer have the influence it had even a month ago.
Khartoum of course is also recalibrating its military policies, and the largest conclusion the regime has drawn is that it may continue its longstanding military policy of aerial attacks on civilian and humanitarian targets in the sovereign territory of South Sudan without meaningful consequences, and that it can continue is campaigns of annihilation in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The regime has been persuaded, on the basis of ample evidence, that even South Sudan’s putative friends regard “sovereignty” as one thing for Khartoum and quite another for Juba.
It is hard to see a greater encouragement to war.