Eric Reeves •
President Clinton’s State of the Union address eagerly claimed credit for America’s enviable peace and prosperity. It passed silently over the fact that more than 2 million human beings have perished in Sudan’s ongoing civil war.
Americans seem insatiably interested in where Elian Gonzalez will find a home; and yet few seem to care that in Sudan, as many as 5 million have been made homeless, and are acutely at risk from disease, famine and human depredation. In the summer famine of 1998 in Sudan, the U.N. estimates that 2.6 million people were at risk of starvation.
Despite these dispiriting contrasts, the moment of truth for Sudan is upon us. The reality of a brutal civil war that has continued for so many years must be confronted now–or the present slim chances of rescue through a negotiated peace will be lost. Either America’s conscience awakens to the staggering enormity of human destruction that has been going on for 17 years or history will record this as a moment of unrivaled prosperity and a commensurate indifference.
Sudan’s civil war is, quite simply, the most destructive conflict of its kind since World War II. It is a humanitarian crisis without rival. That U.S. leadership has done so little in response is a disgrace to our nation. The only hope for Sudan is a negotiated peace. But this will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve without vigorous, fully committed leadership from President Clinton. And that seems unlikely. Though Congress has spoken clearly and, with the Sudan Peace Act, has a chance to act, and though the administration has people fully engaged with the Sudan crisis, Clinton himself has been disturbingly silent. And this is so despite his promise to Elie Wiesel last April that he would never again allow an African nation to suffer the horrific destruction that Wiesel had argued could have been prevented in Rwanda.
“I will do my best to make sure that something like this does not happen again in Africa,” Clinton said in response to Wiesel’s unsparing assessment of the administration’s failure to respond to the urgent reports from Rwanda in spring1994. In the end, as many as 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in a little more than 100 days. The U.N. force commander on the scene indicated that 5,000 troops could have halted the carnage.
So what has this promise meant for Sudan? What effort has Clinton made publicly to demonstrate firm U.S. commitment to bring an end to the war? What decisive moral resolve has he demonstrated to the Khartoum regime largely responsible for the human destruction? What diplomatic leverage has he exerted to urge U.S. allies to cease immediately all oil development in Sudan pending successful peace negotiations? What outraged acknowledgment has he made of the horrific suffering in southern Sudan?
None and nothing. The promise to Wiesel has proved hollow.
No one denies the tortuous difficulty of achieving a just peace in Sudan. The issues that divide the two sides–religious, racial, cultural–have created a chasm of mistrust and animosity. But nothing could be clearer than the fact that the brutal and illegitimate National Islamic Front, which dominates the government in the north, will not negotiate with the rebels in the south unless it sees no alternative. If the regime does not believe that America is dead serious about halting the war, if it does not believe that America is willing to offend those who care more for oil profits than human life, if the regime thinks that it can with impunity use oil revenues to purchase military victory, then a just peace will not come.
As a nation, Sudan is all too obviously cursed by the greatest form of poverty: geopolitical inconsequence. Only its oil prospects have commanded the serious attention of most Western nations. We are a nation more than rich enough, however, to urge a forgoing of oil development and war-sustaining economic commerce when human suffering is so great. We have the power to orchestrate irresistible economic pressure on Khartoum to engage in making peace. Every day that our political leadership fails to embody this great national moral and economic strength is a day that Sudan will suffer further and that our national legacy is diminished.
[Eric Reeves, Professor of English at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., is on extended leave to research and write on Sudan.]