Abuses of the laws of war in Sudan
2002: Oil, cattle, proxy war and failed peace talksBy John Ryle • April 2002 • Crimes of War • Posted 2016 • 3,460 words
In April 2001 I arrived by small plane at a settlement named Buoth in South Sudan. Buoth is in the former province of Western Upper Nile, an area under rebel authority close to the border between the largely rebel-controlled South of the country and the government-controlled north. This is the heart of Sudan’s oil development zone. Since 1999, the completion of a pipeline from this area to the north and the first exports of oil from Sudan have raised the stakes in the country’s long civil war.
Oil buys weapons for the government; it attracts foreign companies to work in the conflict zone. It also makes the rebels, or some of them, more determined to attack and disrupt the oil installations. Today Western Upper Nile (which the government of Sudan calls Unity State) is the scene of some of the fiercest fighting since the war began eighteen years ago.
From the air Buoth is barely visible: a few huts and an airstrip. Look closer, and large herds of long-horned cattle are visible grazing on the edge of glittering swamps and watercourses. These watercourses are the interconnecting channels of the Bahr-el-Ghazal (Nam River), a tributary of the White Nile, which flows from East Central Africa through Sudan, to the capital, Khartoum, where it joins the Blue Nile, which continues thence to Egypt. In Egypt the Nile is the country’s sole perennial source of water. The cattle in the land round Buoth belong to the Nuer people, the second largest ethnic group in South Sudan, between one and two million strong.
The Nuer way of life, like that of numerous other Sudanese peoples, depends on livestock husbandry, subsistence agriculture and fishing—on the measured seasonal exploitation of the harsh environment of the floodplain of the Upper Nile. In the course of the war, hundreds of thousands of Nuer—and upwards of two million southerners overall—have been displaced from their homes here, mostly into the North of the country. There in the north they are transformed from cattle-rich herders into a landless, assetless, sub-proletariat. They become day labourers or share-croppers on commercial farms, or shanty-dwellers in the sprawling encampments round the capital, Khartoum (and Omdurman, its twin city across the Nile).
A visitor to Khartoum today sees signs of prosperity—modern buildings and newly surfaced roads. Oil wealth has seen to that. Yet Sudan’s capital is ringed with some of the bleakest shanty towns to be found anywhere on the continent. Something like one in seven of Sudan’s population is a displaced person or a refugee. The US Committee for Refugees says that Sudan has the biggest population of displaced people of any country in the world.
Landing in Buoth that day a year ago, I met with one of the chiefs of the Leek Nuer people, Tunguar Kueigwong Rat, a striking man in his mid-fifties. I had last seen him in 1994, when I crossed Western Upper Nile on foot with a rebel commander, Bapiny Tim Chol, to make a film about the life in the war zone. In 1996 Tunguar and his people had already been displaced once, by raids from government-backed Arab tribal militias in the North. By 2001 they had been displaced again, by fighting between rival Nuer militias. One of these militias was armed and supported by the government; the other allied with the SPLM/A, the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army, which since the beginning of the war has been the main rebel group in the South.
Chief Tunguar, sitting in the shade of a thorn tree alongside the man who was now the SPLA area commander, Peter Gatdet, explained how the forces of the local pro-government Nuer warlord, Paulino Matiep, were now doing the work formerly done by Arab militias. They were driving the local inhabitants away from the oil fields as a counter-insurgency measure to avert potential disruption by the SPLA. As before, the houses of the Leek Nuer people had been burned, their livestock stolen, and men, women and children killed.
Attacks violate the laws of war
The indiscriminate nature of these attacks represents a clear violation of the laws of war as set out in Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and the Second Additional Protocol. On this occasion, government forces were directly involved: helicopter gunships based at oil facilities, including those of a consortium involving the Canadian company Talisman Energy and the China National Petroleum Company, joined in the attacks; government ground troops also took part. (For further details, see Report on an Investigation into Oil Development, Conflict and Displacement in Western Upper Nile, Sudan.)
During the first months of 2002 there has been an intensification of government attacks on civilians in Upper Nile and elsewhere. In one instance, at Bieh, a settlement that is not far from Buoth, the attack took place in the midst of a UN food distribution in the presence of expatriate UN staff. Aid agencies report a drastic increase in civilian displacement. The current fighting in Upper Nile may mark a crucial stage in the struggle for control of the oil fields.
Peter Gatdet, the SPLA commander in Buoth, is a recent recruit to the ranks of the rebels. Until 1999 he was deputy to Paulino Matiep, the pro-government militia leader; Gatdet, too, is responsible for attacks on civilians and associated human rights abuses, as are many other militia leaders and rebel commanders in the South. Between 1997 and 2000, not only Gatdet and Matiep, but most of the Nuer rebels in the South were in alliance with the Government against the SPLA, whose core support comes from the Dinka, another Nilotic people.
Ethnic rivalry and a dispute over leadership of the rebel movement provoked a split in the movement in the early 1990s; some years later the former Nuer rebels joined forces with the northern government in Khartoum. The collapse of this alliance with the government and a rapprochement in 2002 between a majority of Nuer commanders and the SPLA has eased the conflict between rebel forces and southern militias; but Upper Nile, in particular, still suffers from internecine fighting.
A constant factor underlies conflict
The war in Sudan is complex. Alliances are made and unmade. All sides practice a policy of divide-and-rule. In western terms, all are abusers of human rights. Some argue that the war is better understood as a number of interlocking civil wars, where southerner is set against southerner and northerner against northerner, as well as northerner against southerner. Yet there is one constant issue which underlies both the current conflict and the earlier civil war (which began before independence in the mid-1950s and lasted until 1972).
This casus belli is the enduring economic and cultural gap between the inhabitants of the central, riverain provinces, Arab Islamic communities whose elites have controlled the state since independence, and the non-Arab, largely non-Muslim peoples of the South—the Nuer and the Dinka being two among many such groups. Northerners have consistently discriminated against southerners on grounds of ethnicity and religion; and the southern region has been marginalized in economic development. Other parts of Sudan have also suffered from this hegemony of the center—notably the western provinces (the majority of whose inhabitants are Muslim but not Arab). But it is the southerners—and, in the current civil war, their neighbours, the Nuba of South Kordofan—who have suffered most. Thus it was southerners who, in the 1950s and 1960s and again in the 1980s, took up arms against the government.
The war is not just about control of resources or access to state power, although these are important factors. There is a conflict over the nature of the state itself. The ruling elites in Khartoum view Sudan as a Muslim country and an integral part of the Arab world. Their opponents—not only southerners—see it as a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, multilingual state, one in which Arabs are a minority (though Muslims are a majority). Today many southerners embrace a more radical solution to the problems of state formation in Sudan: they see the establishment of a separate southern state as the only solution to this seemingly intractable divergence of views. This notion is opposed by most Northern Sudanese and by nearly all neighboring countries, particularly Egypt, whose dependence on the waters of the Nile determines its policy towards all upstream countries.
The burden of history
Modern Sudan was shaped to a great extent by twentieth-century British imperialism, but the contemporary Sudanese state has antecedents in the era before European colonization. Small states that formed in the Nile Valley and Western Sudan in the early modern era came under Islamic influence through commercial and cultural contact with Arabia and the Middle East. By the nineteenth century Islam had spread throughout Northern Sudan and the country fell under the sway of the Turco-Egyptian empire.
To the south, in and around the great swamp called the Sudd (where Buoth is situated), beyond the lands of Islam, and outside the authority of any state, lay the domain of peoples such as the Nuer and the Dinka. The inhabitants of these areas were subject to looting and slave-raiding by armed Arab and European traders from the North. Then, in the late nineteenth century the influence of the Turco-Egyptian empire was displaced by that of European powers, specifically Great Britain.
In 1898 the British defeated an insurgency led by the Mahdi, a millenarian Islamic leader, and moved to end the slave trade and establish control over the entire territory of what is now Sudan, from the desert zone on the Egyptian border to the forests of Central Africa. Nominally under the rule of Egypt, Sudan was administered for the next half-century as an Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, with the British in charge.
One of the British priorities in the North was to make the administration financially self-sustaining. A vast irrigation scheme was constructed on the Blue Nile (which joins the White Nile in Khartoum) and a cotton industry established there. Other commercial agricultural developments included sorghum, the staple grain of Sudan, and gum arabic, today a key ingredient of soft drinks and an important export to Europe and the U.S.
The railroad linking Sudan to Egypt was extended to the Red Sea; and institutions of higher education were established in Khartoum. In the South, though, development was much slower. Northerners were excluded from most southern districts for much of the British period; Christian missionaries from Europe were encouraged to establish schools there. Many northern Sudanese today argue that this British policy interrupted an on-going process of Islamization that would otherwise have brought the peoples of the South peaceably into the Arab-Islamic fold. Few southerners agree with this view; many of them, though, blame the British for failing to develop the South and for not safeguarding the interests of Southerners when the country was granted independence in 1956.
The burden of history, both colonial history and the earlier history of exploitation of the South, means that post-independence Sudan has been marked by cultural divides and regional inequalities in education, economic development and the distribution of political power. By some reckonings, the first civil war began even before independence. It was in 1955, a few months before the Republic of Sudan was declared, that Southern units of the army mutinied for the first time. A low-level insurgency continued for seventeen years, intensifying in the 1960s.
This first civil war ended in 1972 in an agreement in Addis Ababa between the rebels and the government. The Addis Ababa agreement gave the South its own regional government. In the course of the following decade, however, the autonomy of the southern region was progressively curtailed by central government. There was an attempt to redraw the boundaries to include more of the oil-bearing areas in the North; finally the southern regional government was dissolved. Then Nimeiri, who had been a client first of the Soviet Union, then of the United States, instituted sharia law. This move was opposed by non-Muslims, mainly Southerners, who constitute about thirty per cent of Sudan’s population. Though sharia law was not applied in the South, it was nevertheless imposed on the millions of Southerners who had been forced to migrate to the North. Suddenly, they were subject to draconian penalties for traditional practices such as brewing beer.
National Islamic Front gains power
Towards the end of Nimeiri’s regime, in 1983, war in the South began again.
The elected government which was established following Nimeiri’s fall in 1985 tried but failed to bring the war to an end. In 1989 a military coup brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) to power. Despite internal divisions and purges, the NIF has progressively consolidated its hold on the state, asserting control of financial institutions and purging the army of non-Islamists. Up to the turn of the century the civil war continued without significant advances for either side.
Internationally, the Islamizing agenda of the NIF and its support of radical Islamic groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and al Qaeda brought it into conflict with the United States. In 1997 the United States banned US firms from doing business in Sudan (an exception was made for gum Arabic, a crucial ingredient of Coca-Cola, at the behest of the US soft-drink industry).
It was Osama bin Laden’s association with Sudan (he was based there from 1991 to 1996) that brought relations with the US to crisis point. In 1998 bin Laden’s presumed involvement in the attacks on US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania provoked a US missile attack on a Khartoum pharmaceutical factory which was alleged by the US Government to be a clandestine manufacturing plant for constituents of chemical weapons. Bin Laden himself, however, had been forced to leave Sudan two years prior to the attack; and the target was almost certainly a bona fide pharmaceutical manufacturing plant, one with which bin Laden had, by time of the attack, no connection.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S., the climate of international relations changed in a new direction. The Sudanese government moved swiftly to cooperate with the US government in its efforts to track down the al Qaeda network. This rapprochement put the US government in a complicated position, caught between those in the United States who favour normalization of relations with Khartoum, either in order to advance the war on terror or to pursue commercial opportunities, and those—particularly the religious right and the Congressional Black Caucus—who oppose the routinization of relations because of the Sudan government’s human rights record and, in particular, its oppression of Southerners.
Human rights abuse abounds
The existence of abduction, slavery and forced servitude (clear violations of international conventions), has been well documented in Sudan. Slavery, though, is a specific, local phenomenon, affecting a limited area of the country. In the course of the war, Arab tribal militias in Darfur and Kordofan, the westernmost provinces of the North, have been armed and encouraged by the government to attack and loot mainly Dinka settlements in bordering parts of the South. In the course of these raids young men are killed and women, children and livestock are abducted and taken back to the North. There, children are compelled to work as agricultural laborers or as livestock herders. Abducted women and girls are subject to rape and forced into sexual relationships with their abductors (such crimes are all subject to international jurisdiction).
Enslavement is the extreme end of the spectrum of economic exploitation that dominates the lives of southerners who have been forced by war to migrate to the North. And it is part of a panorama of human rights abuse in government and rebel-controlled areas alike. The long-term presence of UN agencies on both sides has done little to diminish this state of affairs.
To grow up in the war-affected parts of Sudan today is to have little chance of an education, legal rights, access to health services or physical security. Those now becoming adults have never known peace. Young people have been pressed into military service by both sides in the war (though the SPLA has now formally renounced the recruitment of child soldiers, and has worked with UNICEF to demobilize several thousand of them).
Not all areas of Sudan, even in the south, have experienced the direct impact of war: it is, for the most part, a low-intensity conflict; poor communications and transportation deter the spread of fighting. But the entire country is affected by the drain on resources, the mass displacement of people, the decay of political institutions and resultant political repression in both government and rebel areas. From the villages and cattle camps of Buoth, in one of the most remote parts of the country, to the outskirts of Khartoum the immiseration of the ordinary people of Sudan is evident.
A failure of the international community?
In 2002 there has been a renewal of international engagement with Sudan. President Bush’s Special Envoy, Senator John Danforth, has negotiated an internationally supervised ceasefire between the government and the SPLA in the Nuba Mountains, one of several conflict zones. Britain has also appointed a special representative for Sudan. And there has been renewed support from western donor nations for the long-stalled talks sponsored by IGAD, the regional Intergovernmental Authority for Development.
But the war in Sudan is littered with failed peace talks. These have taken place under the aegis of Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya and Nigeria. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has tried to broker a cease-fire, as have a succession of U.S. congressmen. There are seemingly intractable differences in the negotiating positions of the warring parties: disagreement, for instance, on the need for a secular constitution and the repeal of the country’s Islamic laws and on the question of self-determination for the South and other marginalised areas.
Over the past twelve years, mainly under the aegis of UN Operation Lifeline Sudan, the country has been the recipient of several billion dollars in emergency aid. Many analysts argue that the aid intervention, while saving lives, has been effectively integrated into the conflict that it is meant to relieve. This can happen in two ways: firstly, through the largely undocumented theft and diversion of money and physical resources; secondly, through the tacit legitimization of the warring parties under whose aegis the aid is distributed. Meanwhile oil revenues are enabling the Government in Khartoum to reequip its army and air force and establish new arms and ammunition factories.
The huge amount of aid that has gone into Sudan has not been matched, until very recently, by a corresponding effort on the part of the main donors—the US and the European Union—to help resolve the political problems that underlie the conflict. Humanitarian aid, it may be argued, has been a substitute for the more difficult work of diplomacy.
Humanitarian aid agencies, for their part, have failed to develop an institutional understanding of the historical realities of the place where they are working. There is no collective knowledge base that could guide their operations. Nor has there been any consistent attempt to understand the effect of the aid presence itself and its role in the crisis.
Sudan has one of the worst human rights records in the world. There has been a resurgence of slavery; both rebels and government militias routinely burn and loot villages and kill civilians; the government has bombed aid centers with impunity. The Geneva Conventions and other international human rights agreements to which the Government of Sudan is signatory are routinely defied —yet there is no human rights monitoring regime supported by a major Western nation or international organization. Until recently it has been left to a few independent human rights organizations, church groups, and individual researchers to try and document these events. While this impasse in the international response to the war persists, the power of gunmen and the seemingly endless suffering of Sudan’s people continues.
Western commercial interests, primarily oil companies, are also implicated. As the oil company most vocal in its claims for the benefits of oil development, Talisman Energy of Canada, despite its vaunted commitment to human rights and good neighbourliness in its area of operation, has neither instituted nor encouraged the establishment of an independent, expert, long-term, field-based monitoring regime. In the absence of such a regime, the self-proclaimed attempts by oil companies and government agencies to mitigate the damaging impact of oil development cannot be adequately measured or assessed. In its absence, all mediation efforts in the war are compromised by lack of accurate information. Finally, without such a monitoring regime and without a concerted diplomatic effort involving coordinated action by donor countries to incorporate the findings of such a monitoring regime into negotiations with warring parties, oil development in Sudan can only continue to contribute, as it does now, to major human rights violations. ★