Sudan's Unpunished Atrocities
December 8, 1998
by Mary Ann Glendon
The oratory is soaring as world leaders mark the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights this month. The Declaration is rightly praised for its role in focusing the world's attention on crimes against human dignity committed by nations.
"The life of all those who scorn human rights is much more difficult with the declaration in place than before," Vaclav Havel has said, "because for the first time in history, there has been a valid and globally respected standard to which we can point and in whose name we can act to combat injustices." Over the decades, the Declaration has been used to oppose apartheid in South Africa, Communist repression in Eastern Europe and many other nationally sponsored human rights violations.
Why, then has the United Nations failed to make Sudan the focus of world condemnation even though its military dictatorship is arguably the worst human rights violator in the world today? National Islamic Front Government has been conducting a genocidal campaign, increasingly driven by religion against rebels in the predominantly Christian southern part of the country that has already claimed more victims than the conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo combined. The overwhelming majority of the casualties are not rebels, but civilians who do not share the regime's radical Islamic ideology.
In a study that will be published this week, U.S. Committee for Refugees has estimated that 1.9 million men, women and children have died since 1983 from the war or war-related causes. An additional for and a half million have been displaced in the battleground of southern Sudan or fled the country according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Another two million are threatened by starvation and disease from a famine that has been largely created by the government and the warlords it supports. Political dissidents have been tortured. Government forces have raided villages and sent people to "peace camps" in the Nuba Mountains, in central Sudan, which is blockaded by the government, and in parts of Bahr-el-Ghazal in the south.
Tens of thousands of women and children deemed "infidels," have been captured as war booty, taken from their families and forced into unpaid labor. Many are routinely beaten and abused, Some have been forced to convert to Islam and given Arabic names. This year, the government bombed a Sudanese refugee camp in Uganda and has bombed humanitarian targets - hospitals and feeding centers - at least 40 times. (A favorite target has been a hospital in Yei, a southern rebel area in southern Sudan.) Two Roman Catholic priests were tortured while detained on suspicious charges of sabotage. They may face the death penalty, which could mean crucifixion, under the Sudanese penal code.
These atrocities have been widely documented. They have been subject of detailed reports by Gaspar Biro, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Sudan, who resigned from his post last spring after his life was made miserable by the Sudanese Government and he received little support from the United Nations.
American silence on Sudan may be making the situation worse. Senator Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and one of a handful of leaders to speak out on Sudan, has said that "American policy may be a contributing factor in the horrendous prospect of widespread starvation." He was referring to the Clinton Administration's recent acquiescence in the Khartoum Government's blatant manipulation of humanitarian relief in which the United States Participates.
Under an arrangement the United Nations made in 1989, Sudan was given power to veto when and where aid could be delivered by operation Lifeline Sudan, the consortium of relief groups working under the United Nations flag. Earlier this year, Sudan used this veto to ban relief to rebel-controlled areas for weeks on end, while simultaneously raiding farmlands. For half a year, the world averted its eyes from this use of food as an instrument of war, until 2.6 million Sudanese suffered from famine.
Finally, in the spring, the Sudanese Government lifted a two-month flight ban, permitting food and medicine to flow again for a time, apparently in response to publicity generated by World Vision, a Christian relief group. In September Khartoum briefly reimposed the ban.
By calling the world attention to Sudanese terrorism rather than to the regime's human rights abuses, the Administration has failed to organize the kind of campaign of conscience that was so effective in ending apartheid in South Africa.
Perhaps we will never know the reasons it has taken so long for the horrors in the Sudan to gain world attention. But whatever those reasons, they cannot outweigh the commitments made by the nations of the world in 1948 to put an end to the idea that how a nation treats its own citizens is that nations own business.
In presenting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the United Nations General Assembly 50 years ago this Thursday, Ambassador Charles Malik, of Lebanon expressed confidence that it would "serve as a potent critic of existing practices and help to transform reality." To an impressive extent, those hopes have been realized. With American leadership, they can also be realized in Sudan. What better way to mark the anniversary of a document born of the determination that mass suffering should not have been in vain.
This article originally appeared in the New York Times. Reprinted with Permission.