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Longer, analytical article.  "Ethnic cleansing" in Darfur: Systematic, ethnically-based denial of humanitarian aid is no context for a sustainable peace agreement in Sudan

Summary & Comment: The last issue in the Naivasha peace negotiations -- the status of the "marginalized areas" -- is in many ways the most difficult, even as it is fraught with immense implications for the rest of Sudan and the other marginalized regions, argues Sudan analysts Eric Reeves. Nowhere is this truer than in Darfur Province, in the far west of Sudan.

Author: Eric Reeves Date Written: 30 December 2003
Primary Category: Sudan and South Sudan Document Origin: Eric Reeves
Secondary Category: Eastern Region Source URL:
Key Words: Darfur, western sudan,peace process, ethnic cleansing, humanitarian aid

Printable Version

"Ethnic cleansing" in Darfur: Systematic, ethnically-based denial of humanitarian aid is no context for a sustainable peace agreement in Sudan

Peace talks in Naivasha (Kenya) between the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) are now addressing the last major issue outstanding, the status of the three brutally marginalized areas of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue Nile.  The indigenous peoples of these regions along the historic north-south border identify themselves as "African" and have long been allied militarily, politically, and culturally with southern Sudan.  The Khartoum regime has responded accordingly, and as a result the argument for genocide in Sudan can be made nowhere more compellingly than in the context of the Nuba Mountains, the largest of the three areas, where the civilian population endured years of an immensely destructive humanitarian aid embargo and relentless, deliberate destruction by Khartoum's military forces.

Despite the importance of the issues involved in resolving the status of these three areas in a truly just fashion, there is intense international pressure, especially from the United States, to see a peace agreement signed within the next week, a time-frame publicly reiterated by NIF President Omer Beshir yesterday ( Reuters , December 29, 2003).  But this last issue in the Naivasha negotiations is in many ways the most difficult, even as it is fraught with immense implications for the rest of Sudan and the other marginalized regions.  Nowhere is this truer than in Darfur Province, in the far west of Sudan.

In recent weeks there have been a series of extremely ominous statements from senior UN officials about the impending human catastrophe in Darfur.  In addition to declaring that the humanitarian crisis in Darfur is probably the "worst in the world today" (Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs), UN officials have put in place all the evidence necessary for us to draw the inevitable conclusion: destruction of primarily African peoples in Darfur---through deliberate attacks on civilian noncombatants by Khartoum-backed Arab militias (the Janjaweed ) and by means of deliberate denial of urgently needed humanitarian relief---amounts to "ethnic cleansing."

Indeed, this very phrase was recently used explicitly by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, in a radio interview for "The World" ( BBC/Public Radio International , December 18, 2003). Although Kapila was making the point that the many reports of "ethnic cleansing" cannot presently be confirmed because of Khartoum's denials of humanitarian relief and international observers, other UN officials and Sudan analysts have been explicit in speaking of the "systematic" denial of humanitarian relief, as well as the "systematic" nature of militia attacks on noncombatant civilians (the word was twice highlighted in a memorandum by Tom Vraalsen, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Humanitarian Affairs for Sudan, in a memorandum to Kapila, "Sudan: Humanitarian Crisis in Darfur," December 8, 2003).  Such a "system" in Darfur is nothing less than the "organized" destruction of sedentary African agriculturalists---the Fur, the Masseleit, and the Zaghawa tribal groups.

It is thus both deeply appropriate and timely that next week, the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will declare in a newsletter that Darfur, in far western Sudan, has given new urgency to the Committee's longstanding "genocide warning" for Sudan, heretofore focused appropriately on southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains.  This continues the vigilance that has characterized the Committee on Conscience since it first issued a "genocide warning" for Sudan in October 2000.  At the time, the Committee on Conscience indicated that its "warning was based on the following actions of the [military government] of Sudan:

*a divide-to-destroy strategy of pitting ethnic groups against each other, with enormous loss of civilian life;
*the use of mass starvation as a weapon of destruction;
*toleration of the enslavement of women and children by government-allied militias;
*the incessant bombing of hospitals, clinics, schools and other civilian and humanitarian targets; *disruption and destabilization of the communities of those who flee the war zones to other parts of Sudan; and
*widespread persecution on account of race, ethnicity and religion."

The Committee on Conscience concluded that, "taken individually, each of these actions is a disaster for the victims. Taken together, they threaten the physical destruction of entire groups." (Sudan "Genocide Warning," the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, October 2000; http://www.ushmm.org/conscience/index.utp?content=sudan/sudan.php)

Because so many of the tactics instanced in the "genocide warning" are now variously in evidence in Darfur, it is entirely appropriate that the forthcoming Committee on Conscience newsletter highlight again the realities that have so relentlessly defined the military strategy of the Khartoum regime, as well as make fully explicit the relevance of this unprecedented "genocide warning" for the crisis in Darfur.

Certainly issues of race and ethnicity in the conflict in Darfur have been highlighted in a number of quarters over the last month.  According to the BBC and Deutsche Presse Agentur (dpa), diplomats are now speaking explicitly of "ethnic cleansing" in Darfur (BBC, December 11, 2003; dpa, December 10, 2003).  The International Crisis Group (ICG) declares in its most recent report on Sudan that Khartoum-backed Arab militias are attacking "unprotected villages with no apparent link to the rebels other than their ethnic profile" (ICG, "Sudan: Towards an Incomplete Peace," Dec. 11, 2003; http://www.crisisweb.org/home/index.cfm?l=1&id=2416).  Amnesty International has warned that "the situation in Darfur is at risk of rapidly degenerating into a full-scale civil war where ethnicity is manipulated" ( Amnesty International , November 27, 2003; full report available at: http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engafr541012003).

And there are the very few voices from Darfur that have managed to find their way into the larger world.  As the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported from Junaynah (Darfur): "'I believe this is an elimination of the black race,' one tribal leader told IRIN (UN IRIN, Junaynah [Darfur], December 11, 2003)

It is intolerable that the international community continues to allow what all evidence suggests is genocide.  For surely if we are honest with ourselves we will accept that the term "ethnic cleansing" is no more than a dangerous euphemism for genocide, a way to make the ultimate crime somehow less awful.  As Samantha Power has cogently observed, the phrase "ethnic cleansing" gained currency in the early 1990s as a way of speaking about the atrocities in the Balkans---"as a kind of euphemistic halfway house between crimes against humanity and genocide" (page 483, "'A Problem from Hell': America and the Age of Genocide").  But linguistic half-measures are not enough when the question is whether an "ethnical [or] racial group" is being destroyed "in whole or in part"---"as such" (from the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide ). 

The present realities in Darfur must urgently be rendered for the world to see and understand---fully, honestly, and on the basis of much greater information than is presently available.  In turn, these realities must guide a humanitarian effort that will not allow Khartoum's claim of "national sovereignty" to trump the desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians caught up in a maelstrom of destruction and displacement.  That no such efforts are presently being undertaken---Ambassador Vraalsen declared (December 8, 2003) that humanitarian operations in Darfur have "practically come to a standstill"---is of the gravest concern.

Indeed, the logic of the situation is so compelling that one can only surmise that the failure of the international community even to speak of the possibility of a humanitarian intervention in Darfur derives from some morally appalling failure of nerve, and an unwillingness to roil the diplomatic waters with a peace agreement so close between Khartoum and the SPLM/A.  But this latter concern represents exactly the wrong way to view both Darfur and its relation to the last major issue outstanding in the present peace negotiations between Khartoum and the south, viz. the status of the three contested areas of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue Nile.  For unless the international community shows its concern for the various marginalized peoples of Sudan, peace will be only very partial and ultimately unsustainable.

In fact, we may be sure that the long-aggrieved and marginalized people of Darfur, as well as such other marginalized populations as the Beja in the east of Sudan, are watching closely the fate of the three contested areas along the historic north-south border.  These people have also suffered, at the hands of Khartoum's tyranny, terrible brutality, discrimination, and lack of representation and a share of the national wealth.  If the peace talks in Naivasha do not produce justice for the people of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue Nile, it is extremely unlikely that Sudan's other marginalized people will see in diplomacy a means to secure basic rights and representation or an end to repression.  The invitation to armed insurrection is likely to be irresistible.  Indeed, this is precisely what we are seeing in Darfur presently, and armed resistance will almost certainly intensify if diplomacy at Naivasha fails to offer justice to these three key areas of Sudan.

At the same time, if Khartoum sees that the international community is willing to respond expediently to the massive humanitarian crisis in Darfur, if the world is unwilling to challenge Khartoum despite clear evidence that the denial of humanitarian aid is "systematically" based on race and ethnicity, then the regime may conclude that it need only remain obdurate in Naivasha and the status of the three contested areas will be decided on its terms. 

Again, there is immense pressure to get a peace agreement signed.  Just today (December 30, 2003) US Secretary of State Colin Powell called both National Islamic Front President Beshir as well as First Vice President Ali Osman Taha (chief NIF negotiator in Naivasha) and John Garang, Chairman of the SPLM/A .  There have been previous such calls from both Powell and President Bush, giving peace in Sudan an extraordinary foreign policy profile for this administration. 

But while pressure alone may produce a peace signing, it will not produce a just peace, and only a just peace can be meaningful.  The US, the other countries in the "troika" (Norway and the UK), as well as IGAD countries, should all be looking comprehensively at Sudan's problems if the goal is to secure a just peace.  If it is too late to incorporate Darfur formally into the Naivasha negotiations, it is certainly not too late to demonstrate a concern for the fate of the people of the three contested areas.  This in turn will be a powerful signal to the people of Darfur that they may also be the beneficiaries of meaningful international concern.

At the moment, it is all too reasonable for the people of Darfur---and other marginalized regions in Sudan---to conclude that the international vision of peace for Sudan is focused only on Khartoum and the south. Such myopia may indeed produce a peace agreement, but it will not produce peace in Sudan.

Eric Reeves Smith College Northampton, MA  01063

413-585-3326 ereeves@smith.edu 

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