Eric Reeves, Northampton, Massachusetts •
How should the United States and the international community respond to a brutal, despotic regime in an Arab country, one with clear ties to international terrorism? And what if this regime, located in one of the world’s most volatile regions, has honed its ruthlessly survivalist instincts for years, and in the process developed weapons of mass destruction? And what if the regime possesses great oil wealth, rendering its moral character invisible to those bent on further exploitation of promising oil reserves and the pursuit of petrodollars? And if this regime is also a threat to its neighbors, reneges on various internationally brokered commitments, and regularly attacks its own citizens in ways that violate the Geneva conventions, how should we respond?
These questions seem worth asking at the present moment since they have been answered in such starkly different fashion for Iraq and Sudan.
While Iraq is presently enduring a punishing and spectacularly visible military assault, the government of Sudan is on the verge of being quietly rewarded at the UN’s annual Human Rights Convention in Geneva with a human rights “upgrade.”
Previously an “Item 9” nation (a category indicating “countries with special problems”), Khartoum’s National Islamic Front seems on the verge of enjoying a new and relatively untroubling status (“Item 19”). This essentially absolves the regime of responsibility for its egregious and ongoing human rights violations. Indeed, it makes the regime eligible for new UN funding.
Most notably, there will no longer be a UN special rapporteur for human rights in Sudan. The last three such special rapporteurs (from Hungary, Argentina, and Germany) have done a superb job of highlighting the nature of Khartoum’s human rights abuses and the direct connection to devastating oil development in the south of the country. Their annual reports have been one of the few means by which Sudan’s agony, its savagely destructive 20-year civil war, has been kept before the eyes of the international community. Now the international community seems prepared to say it has seen and heard enough, and there will be no further mandate for a special rapporteur in Sudan.
There are significant differences between the Baghdad and Khartoum regimes, but all show that the situation in Sudan is more serious.
Saddam has been responsible for the deaths of a great many of his own countrymen, especially non-Arab Kurds. But whatever the number may be, it is dwarfed by the numbers in Sudan: over 2 million have been killed in the war, overwhelmingly non-Arab civilians in the south. Many people have been displaced at various times in Iraq, but Sudan has by far the world’s greatest population of internally displaced persons, estimated at over 4 million.
Saddam has deployed his weapons of mass destruction on several occasions, and may yet do so in the present conflict. By contrast, Khartoum has long and consistently deployed its own peculiar “weapon of mass destruction,” and to immensely devastating effect. The regime has regularly denied humanitarian assistance to southern civilians so as to insure the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
The great famine in Bahr el-Ghazal in 1998 was only the most successful of Khartoum’s recent efforts. Last summer – during the “year of record” for deliberations by the Commission on Human Rights – Khartoum at one point denied all humanitarian access to over 3 million human beings. Though more crude than VX nerve gas and other weapons of modern fighting, Khartoum’s weapon of mass destruction is considerably more potent.
What accounts for the different responses to the regimes in Baghdad and Khartoum? One essential element of the travesty in Geneva is Libya’s chairing of this session of the UN Commission on Human Rights. A more grotesque spectacle is difficult to imagine. But Libya has been ably helped by the European Union, and France in particular.
France’s oil giant TotalFinaElf has enormous, but presently inaccessible, concession rights in southern Sudan. Perversely, upgrading Khartoum’s human rights status makes it much more likely that the regime will be able to extend its scorched-earth tactics to “secure” these concessions for TotalFinaElf.
Other EU countries – Germany, Britain, Italy, Sweden – have also had their appetites whetted by Khartoum’s relatively recent petro-wealth.
It should fall then to Washington, as well as to African nations represented at Geneva, to halt this outrage – this vitiating of any possible claim to legitimacy by the UN Human Rights Commission.
Instead, African nations seem content with acquiescence. And the U.S. State Department – obsessed with Iraq – has sent to Geneva a delegation that seems largely unprepared to work effectively against the resolution on Sudan. Indeed, it is not at all clear that any serious diplomatic groundwork has been undertaken by the State Department in anticipation of the move by the European Union.
When the costs of the Iraq war are reckoned, this will not be the least consequential.
The writer, on leave from the faculty of Smith College, is preparing a book on Sudan.