Eric Reeves, Northampton, Mass. •
Yesterday’s policy statement on the crisis in Sudan by Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy is both promising and troubling. It suggests, belatedly, an awareness of the Canadian corporate role in the oil-driven destruction in that torn African nation. But it does too little to address with sufficient urgency the plight of hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese who are at present the victims, directly and indirectly, of the vast oil-development project in which Talisman Energy (Calgary) is a key partner. The Greater Nile Oil Project might, in ordinary circumstances, be an opportunity for great economic development in one of the world’s poorest countries. But Sudan’s civil war, as Mr. Axworthy repeatedly notes, is anything but ordinary. In its continuing destructiveness, it is without rival in the world today.
The number of dead, who are overwhelmingly civilians, probably exceeds two million. There may be as many as five million people displaced internally and in the hinterlands of Eastern Africa. And famine continually stalks the population in the south. According to the United Nations, as many as 2.6 million were at risk in the famine of summer, 1998 — a famine that has been authoritatively tied by Human Rights Watch to human-rights abuses of the grossest sort.
And yet, oil has begun to flow toward Port Sudan in the north, and all revenues from this oil that do not go Talisman Energy and its partners (the state-owned oil companies of China and Malaysia) go directly to the Khartoum regime. And despite some bluster on paper to the contrary, these revenues are fully available for that regime (dominated by the National Islamic Front) to use however it wishes. All too evidently its wish is for military victory over its armed opposition, mainly in the south.
In an all-too-revealing coincidence, on the very date in late August that the first 600,000 barrels of Sudanese crude left Port Sudan for refining in Singapore, 20 Russian-built T-55 tanks supposedly bound from Poland to Yemen — entered Port Sudan. For the bankrupt Khartoum regime, with an economy in tatters, only anticipated oil revenues could have been used for the purchase of those tanks.
In fact, it has long been clear to all observers of the 16-year-old war that Khartoum has been able to borrow against these revenues in conducting a war that costs $1-million (U.S.) a day. China in particular, a 40-per-cent partner in the oil project (and, significantly, as of this year a net oil importer), has long shown an eagerness to trade arms for oil. Reports from the ground in southern Sudan indicate Chinese markings on as many as 80 per cent of abandoned or recovered armaments.
Mr. Axworthy’s statement rightly notes that “these [oil] revenues should be shared equitably by all regions of Sudan and verified through a formal, independent monitoring system.” But at the moment this is merely wishful thinking. There is no mechanism in place to ensure that the revenues, or expected revenues, will not continue to be used for the war effort, which is being conducted with shocking ferocity in the oil regions, especially the Western Upper Nile.
There are, as Mr. Axworthy again notes, reports of immensely destructive fighting south of Bentiu in southern Sudan. (The Unity Oil Field, one of two major operational fields, lies just north of Bentiu.) It is impossible to dissociate the location of this fighting from the value of the natural resources so concentrated there.
Mr. Axworthy indicates that he is seeking “assurances” from the Khartoum regime and Talisman Energy that “international humanitarian and human-rights laws are being upheld and that oil extraction and export is not exacerbating the conflict in Sudan.” But seeking useful assurances from such obviously interested parties again seems an exercise in wishful thinking. The National Islamic Front “assures” the world that there is no slavery in Sudan; and yet Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN’s Special Rapporteurs to Sudan, the U.S. State Department and Mr. Axworthy himself before the UN Security Council (on Sept. 29 of this year) have declared emphatically that the brutal practice exists and is abetted by Khartoum.
And how valuable are “assurances” from Talisman in responding to the catastrophic human destruction in Sudan? In a column in The Ottawa Citizen on Oct. 21, James Buckee, CEO and president of Talisman Energy, declared that “Sudan is becoming a source of relative regional stability.” Such bizarre distortion hardly bodes well for the value of any “assurances” coming from Talisman. In a CBC radio broadcast from Calgary on Oct. 12, Mr. Buckee declared that the Carter Center in Atlanta, Ga., “took his view” on Talisman’s presence in Sudan. The Carter Center vigorously denies having said anything that could possibly offer support for Mr. Buckee’s views. Talisman shows a dismaying willingness to put oil profits before both human life and the truth.
Promisingly, Mr. Axworthy has asked John Harker to lead an “independent and unhindered Canadian mission to Sudan” to investigate allegations of slavery and other human-rights abuses. But even within the statement announcing the appointment of Mr. Harker, the Foreign Minister says that there are “well-documented” violations of humanitarian and human-rights laws. He also declares Canada’s continued willingness to vigorously support UN resolutions “condemn[ing] Sudan for widespread human-rights violations.”
In short, it would seem that Mr. Harker has been asked to look for something that Mr. Axworthy has already declared exists.
To be sure, as Mr. Axworthy again rightly notes, there have been terribly disturbing violations of human rights and humanitarian obligations by the rebel parties in the south. And these, too, deserve the harshest condemnation. But the simple fact of the matter is that the Khartoum regime alone orders the bombing of civilian hospitals, refugee stations and emergency feeding centers. It is the Khartoum regime that has for years refused all humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains, creating a desperate and continuing famine. It is the Khartoum regime that has encouraged the slave traders and raiding parties who travel on the infamous death train that runs from central Sudan to Wau (southwest of Bentiu).
Too much in Mr. Axworthy’s statement suggests a timetable that is only now beginning. But Sudan’s human destruction has gone on for much too long, and all too clearly oil development is sustaining that destruction. The time for invoking sanctions, which Mr. Axworthy puts vaguely in the future as a possible action, has long since passed. Unilaterally or multilaterally, sanctions must be invoked immediately against Sudan to bring an end to Canadian complicity in Sudan’s agony.
[Eric Reeves is a professor of English at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and has published extensively on the role of oil development in the Sudanese crisis.]