Slavery, abduction and forced servitude in Sudan

Report of the Eminent Persons Group, 2002

By Penn Kemble, George Moose, Leif Manger, Lars Kvalvaag, John Ryle, Sarah Uppard and Christian Delmet, with Elizabeth Jackson, Mark Bradbury, Georgette Gagnon and Arthur Gaines  •  22 May 2002  •  Posted 2016  •  4,443 words

Summary, Findings and Recommendations

The members of the mission would like to thank the Government of Sudan (GoS) and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) for the help and support we were given in the areas of Sudan under their respective control. We were permitted to visit militarily sensitive regions and given access to officials at the highest levels. This reception confirms our sense of a new willingness among Sudanese in both the north and south to address what have been one of the bitterest and most divisive issues of the civil war: the practices of slavery, abduction and forced servitude.

Our purpose on this mission was to find practical ways to advance peace in Sudan, where nineteen years of civil war and associated famine and displacement have produced one of the worst human disasters of modern times. Our mission was invited to Sudan by the two parties through an agreement mediated by former United States Senator John Danforth. The agreement may be considered an acknowledgement by those directly involved that the problems we have addressed are an important factor in the conflict that divides their country. This itself is an important step forward.

Through the mediation of Senator Danforth, the Government of Sudan and the SPLM/A agreed in December, 2001, to facilitate and support the visit to Sudan of a U.S.-led and internationally supported mission to investigate, on the ground, means for preventing abductions, slavery and forced servitude. Accordingly, an Eminent Persons Group comprised of experts from France, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States was formed to undertake this mission and to make recommendations to the parties to the conflicted, as well as others concerned, on practical measures that could be taken to end these abuses. Progress on this issue was identified by Senator Danforth as one of four key indicators of the seriousness of the commitment by the parties to the pursuit of peace. The agreement notes: “The Government of Sudan categorically rejects the allegation that slavery and forced servitude exist within its borders”. (See Appendices)

Both parties to this conflict affirm their desire for peace. In recent times they have taken steps that, though limited and uncertain, give reason for hope they may actually take that path. For this reason we felt a special responsibility to speak candidly about the character and causes of the problems we addressed. Our description of them is offered as diagnosis, not as judgment. Until these issues are satisfactorily addressed, we believe, peace will prove elusive.

Our Group found a wide array of grave human rights violations in Sudan. Among those that fall under our terms of reference, we found that abduction of civilians and forcible recruitment by the armed forces of all sides in the war was commonplace. Of particular concern are incidents of abduction and associated abuses that occur in conjunction with attacks by pro-government militias known as murahaleen on villages in SPLA-controlled areas near the boundary between northern and southern Sudan. The Group concluded that the Government of Sudan and its predecessors have been responsible for arming murahaleen groups, for using them as auxiliary military forces and for allowing members of such forces to enjoy impunity for a wide range of serious crimes committed in the course of attacks.

The Group concluded that in a significant number of cases, abduction is the first stage in a pattern of abuse that falls under the definition of slavery in the International Slavery Convention of 1926 and the Supplementary Convention of 1956. The Group was unable, however, to establish the scale of abduction and enslavement. Responsibility for the lack of reliable information on this subject lies with the government and the SPLA, both of which have obstructed the necessary research by independent investigators.

The Group notes with alarm the recent intensification of fighting in the oil development areas of Western Upper Nile, and the emergence there of a pattern of human rights abuses similar to that experienced in Northern Bahr al Ghazal, including abductions and large-scale population displacements.

The Group recognizes that a wide range of economic relationships exist between northerners and displaced southerners in the north (including victims of abduction and/or slavery). The majority of these relations, while they may involve economic exploitation, do not fall under the rubric of slavery. Such relationships range from debt bondage at one extreme to benign relations of sponsorship or adoption at the other.

The problems we analyze in this report are the expression of a profound lack of respect among certain Sudanese for the rights of some other Sudanese. Overcoming these attitudes and the conduct that flows from them constitutes a basic challenge in the spheres of politics and law. Beyond this, it involves a reshaping of relationships between those from different cultures and faiths in Sudan. Such changes should not be considered impossible. We encountered people on all sides, in north and south, including members of the government and of the opposition, who spoke of their desire to resolve their problems openly and peacefully.

There are many sources of conflict in Sudan. There are also indigenous practices of mutual cooperation and conflict resolution between neighboring groups. And there are political and religious traditions that are capable of building on these practices to establish a just, democratic and pluralist society. It is the responsibility of the government and of the SPLM/A to encourage such practices and traditions.

Eliminating the abuses described in this report will require, in our view, major political initiatives on the part both of the government and of the SPLM/A. We hope that the same spirit of openness that made our mission possible will be extended to embrace the recommendations we make in this report. The initiatives we propose can only succeed with assistance from the international community. This assistance must be substantial, long-term, carefully conceived and, above all, rigorously monitored.


Finding 1

Changes in the international environment and within Sudan itself have raised hopes for progress toward peace in Sudan.

Finding 2

The United States, other concerned governments and international institutions should engage this possibility with energy on the one hand and rigorous conditionality on the other. Progress in dealing with human rights abuses is a key element in the establishment of a just and durable peace in Sudan.

Finding 3

Many observers note an improved political climate in Khartoum, characterized by a renewed dialogue among political parties and the return of representatives of some northern political parties to Khartoum. The Sudanese Government’s acceptance of, and cooperation with, the mission of Senator John Danforth, and with our own mission, may be regarded as reflections of this change. Recent initiatives by the SPLM/A to encourage the institutions of civil society are also examples of favorable political developments.

Finding 4

Despite these positive signs, the people of Sudan continue to be subjected to a range of serious and sustained human rights abuses. These abuses have been extensively documented in numerous human rights reports, including those of Human Rights Watch, Anti-Slavery International, the Special Rapporteur of the UN Commission on Human Rights on Sudan and other credible observers. They include denial of rights of expression and association, restrictions on press freedom, harassment of certain opposition political groups and independent religious bodies, arbitrary arrest and detention, cruel and unusual punishment and arbitrary interpretation and application of laws.

Particularly serious abuses have occurred in connection with the current civil war. To one degree or another, all of the warring parties have engaged in such practices as the forced displacement of civilian populations, intentional attacks on civilians, abductions, the forcible recruitment of children and other civilians as soldiers and forced laborers, hostage taking, rape, looting, destruction of food supplies and the denial of access to humanitarian assistance. Women and children have suffered especially, both from abduction and sexual violence. All these practices are prohibited by international covenants and conventions.

The causes of these abuses are far-reaching and complex and must be understood and addressed as a whole.

Finding 5

Our Group’s mandate called upon us specifically to examine slavery, abduction and forced servitude. We found a wide range of economic relationships between northerners and persons from the south who have either been displaced or have migrated to the north. Such relationships range from debt bondage to benign relations of sponsorship or adoption. The majority of these relations, while they may involve economic exploitation, do not fall under the rubric of slavery. However, we also found evidence of exploitative and abusive relationships that, in some cases, do meet the definition of slavery as contained in international conventions, which Sudan has signed. This evidence is confirmed in interviews conducted by the Group, which is consistent with reports and interviews carried out by other credible agencies and organizations.

Of particular concern is the pattern of abuses that occurs in conjunction with attacks by pro-government militias known as murahaleen on villages in SPLA-controlled areas near the boundary between northern and southern Sudan. These are characterized by: capture through abduction (generally accompanied by violence); the forced transfer of victims to another community; subjection to forced labor for no pay; denial of victims’ freedom of movement and choice; and, frequently, assaults on personal identity such as renaming, forced religious conversion, involuntary circumcision, prohibition on the use of native languages and the denial of contacts with the victims’ families and communities of origin.

Many of those who are abducted and enslaved remain with their abductors in the areas of South Darfur or West Kordofan; some escape or are returned; and others are sold or transferred to third parties. The Group was unable to establish the extent of the onward sale of slaves. It received no information that would confirm the existence of actual slave markets. The Group also found evidence of ways other than abduction in which persons are put into conditions of slavery, which include being lured by false promises of employment. There are reports, which the Group was unable to confirm, that some abducted children are detained in institutions misleadingly described as Koranic schools.

In Ed Da’ein the Group interviewed a number of Rizeigat men, women and children who had been detained after the SPLA capture of Yei. We concluded that these particular individuals were not victims of abduction.

Finding 6

The Group was not able to establish the number of persons who have been abducted and/or enslaved. There are vast divergences among available estimates. (See table under Research Priorities in the Supporting Analysis section.) The Government of Sudan and the SPLM/A have obstructed efforts by independent organizations from within and outside Sudan to investigate the problem of contemporary slavery and related issues.

Finding 7

The resurgence of slavery in contemporary Sudan differs both from the historical slave trade of the nineteenth-century and from the small-scale inter-tribal abduction (or “hostage-taking”) that is endemic among many pastoral peoples in East and North-East Africa. The pattern of slave taking that has developed since the start of the civil war is, to a substantial degree, the product of a counter-insurgency strategy pursued by successive governments in Khartoum. This strategy involves arming local militias from northern Sudan. These militias attack villages in SPLA-controlled areas, principally along the boundary between northern and southern Sudan. They burn villages, loot cattle, rape and kill civilians, and abduct and enslave men, women and children. Such attacks are frequently carried out by militia members while employed by the government as auxiliary guards on military rail convoys traveling through SPLA-controlled areas.

Finding 8

The government acknowledges that abduction of civilians occurs. Its 1999 decision to create the Committee for the Elimination of Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC) was a significant step in its recognition of the problem and its effort to address the plight of abducted persons. (See the discussion of CEAWC, including concerns about its effectiveness, in the Supporting Analysis section). However, the government has failed to acknowledge its own responsibility for acts committed by militias and other forces under its authority. The lack of judicial control and appropriate structures of military accountability means that militia members are able to act with impunity.

Finding 9

The challenges of dealing with the issues of slavery, abduction and forced servitude are made much greater by an absence of democratic institutions and practices, both in areas controlled by the government and in those controlled by the SPLM/A and other armed groups. Specifically, there is an absence of pluralism, the rule of law, freedom of the press and other means of exchanging information, accountability in government and public administration, and independence of the judiciary. In government-controlled areas, this lack of transparency and accountability has severely limited the ability of citizens to voice grievances or seek judicial redress for a range of abuses, including abduction, slavery and forced servitude. In SPLM/A controlled areas, the lack of democratic governance, the obstruction of free inquiry, and the constraints imposed on civil society have hampered the ability to learn the truth about alleged abuses of human rights, and to obtain remedies for them.

Finding 1o

The Group notes with alarm recent reports from credible sources, including the Special Rapporteur on Sudan of the UN Commission on Human Rights, regarding increasing levels of fighting in areas of oil development in Western Upper Nile. The Group, while not able to visit this area, interviewed persons displaced in 2002 from Western Upper Nile. They report a pattern that includes the use of militias, attacks on civilians, forced displacement of large local populations, abduction and associated abuses. (See Selected Bibliography).

Finding 11

Bringing about an end to the practices of slavery, abduction and forced servitude will require Sudan’s national political and military leaders to speak out forcefully and to act vigorously against these practices. Denials of the existence of slavery and rationalizations for its existence may be interpreted by some as indifference or, worse, license to continue these abuses.


Recommendation 1

Ending the practices of slavery, abduction and forced servitude will require a new demonstration of leadership. Accordingly, our Group urges General Omer el-Bashir, the President of Sudan, to take the lead in launching a campaign to make clear to all in Sudan his government’s firm opposition to these practices in all their forms. This should include statements calling for the immediate release of all such victims (persons holding slaves might be given a date after which prosecution will be certain), an announcement of the government’s intent to prosecute persons who commit these abuses, the enactment of new criminal legislation and military regulations, and the provision of greater resources and support to programs to trace and return victims. A campaign of this kind, backed by effective action, could help greatly to move the peace process forward and restore international confidence in Sudan. For his part, Dr. John Garang, Commander-in-Chief of the SPLA, should take more vigorous action to end abductions by SPLM/A forces, particularly in Western Upper Nile.

Recommendation 2

The government has taken a public stand against the practice of abduction through the formation of the Committee for the Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC). Recent steps by the government to strengthen the authority of CEAWC are positive, but progress in the identification, retrieval and return of abducted persons has been slow. Therefore, international support for CEAWC must now be contingent on the government taking verifiable action to: increase its resources for CEAWC, in particular the work of the Joint Tribal Committees (JTCs); protect the activities of the JTCs in identification and retrieval of abducted persons; support the cross-line reunification of families; strengthen the professional management and leadership of state-level CEAWC; improve systems of identification of abducted persons and family tracing; establish clear guidelines for the identification and retrieval of abducted persons; strengthen systems of financial control, and accountability; and ensure that persons found responsible for abduction and slavery are brought to justice. The establishment of the Foundation for Rehabilitation, Education and Development of Children Affected by Armed Conflict (FREDCAC) by the SPLM/A could help facilitate improved tracing and monitoring of abductions. Conditions on international support to CEAWC should also be applied to programs under the aegis of the SPLM/A.

Recommendation 3

There is an urgent need for a policy framework covering all aspects of the processes of retrieval and reintegration that is agreed to by all actors in the north and south (the government, SPLM/A, SRRA, CEAWC, JTCs, Dinka Chiefs Committee, FREDCAC, international organizations and indigenous NGOs). Such a framework should outline overall policy and guidelines for good practice, providing a set of standards for donors and implementers. The Convention on the Rights of the Child should serve as a basis for policy development, although the policy framework must also address the needs of adults. Attention must be given to protecting and encouraging those who have taken people into their households as legitimate employees or in genuine acts of good will. A mechanism for co-ordination and information sharing will also be required. Resources will be required to support the implementation of these guidelines, and for necessary training. This policy framework can be developed by a lead agency or agencies, and further shaped and agreed to at a cross-line meeting of all actors.

Recommendation 4

Recent local peace agreements between Dinka and Baggara communities demonstrate an indigenous capacity for conflict resolution that could contribute to the mitigation of these abuses. The government and SPLA must allow legitimate tribal leaders and other elements of civil society the freedom to practice informal methods of consultation, negotiation, mediation and conciliation. The international community should provide appropriate support.

Recommendation 5

The Sudanese government’s law enforcement agencies and the judiciary must vigorously pursue, apply and enforce existing laws and legal procedures that address slavery, abduction and forced servitude. Laws and procedures that proscribe these abuses should be strengthened to include, in particular, guarantees of protection to victims and informants. Civil and military authorities and private persons must be encouraged, empowered and free to initiate proceedings against violators. Our Group emphasizes, however, that serious deficiencies in the judicial system as a whole – the absence of an independent judiciary and the lack of access to justice – need to be addressed for slavery, abduction and forced servitude to be effectively remedied through the legal process. Both the government and the SPLM/A must respect and enforce relevant international agreements and conventions that apply to internal armed conflicts, as well as those prohibiting the conscription of children for military service. The SPLM/A’s recent cooperation in programs to demobilize child soldiers is a welcome step.

Recommendation 6

Abduction and enslavement, and related practices, while much discussed, have been inadequately researched. This is due, principally, to obstruction of such research on the part of both warring parties. It is essential that precise information concerning incidents of abduction and enslavement, the identity of victims and their present whereabouts be developed on an urgent basis. The need is threefold: to establish the scale of the phenomenon, to confirm or modify understanding of its nature, and to facilitate the work of agencies involved in the release of abducted and enslaved persons and/or their reunification with their families. Research is also needed into economic relationships in Darfur and Kordofan and the political economy of western Sudan in general, with a view to a better understanding of the social groups from which the abductors come. And more information is required on patterns of abduction between other groups in the south and west of the country.

Recommendation 7

A monitoring group drawn from both international and indigenous organizations should be established with the mandate to monitor any new occurrence of abduction and slave taking. A capacity for monitoring is essential for prevention and is required to record full details of any new incidents, both to document individual cases (for the purposes of tracing and advocacy) and to establish a pattern of events. Should a date be set after which prosecutions will be initiated for new cases of abduction, such records would provide critical evidence. The monitors would need free access to affected locations in government, SPLM/A and other non-government controlled areas and full co-operation from the local administrations in these areas. The monitoring regime should be designed in consultation with other emerging human rights monitoring efforts in Sudan, in particular the verification mechanism agreed to by the government and the SPLM/A under Senator Danforth’s mediation for protecting civilians from attacks. It will also be important to take account of the presence and activities of other organizations that may be involved in monitoring human rights violations, including abduction and slave taking.

As one of its activities, this monitoring group should establish a means of communication restricted to non-military use that could facilitate the exchange of information among local communities. This information network could help prevent human rights abuses and cooperate in tracing, returning and re-integrating victims.

Such a monitoring group might be established under the auspices of an international organization, such as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, or of a donor government (or group of governments) active in supporting efforts towards peace in Sudan.

Recommendation 8

In addition to the pattern of abuse, including abductions, that occurs in areas controlled by the SPLM/A, militias associated with the government have also been responsible for a wide range of human rights abuse in government-controlled areas, particularly in garrison towns such as Aweil and Wau. Civil and political authorities at all levels must be held responsible for violations of international and domestic laws committed in their spheres of authority. Military commanders must assume responsibility for all violations of international covenants and the laws of war committed by such forces under their authority and in areas that they control. The military laws of the armed services and the internal regulations of the Popular Defense Force should include a prohibition on abduction and enslavement. The government should also take measures to ensure that its armed services adhere to the terms of the small arms convention to which it is a party.

Recommendation 9

There is an established connection between a pattern of systematic and repeated human rights abuses, including slave taking, and the passage of the train from Babanusa, via Aweil, through SPLM/A-held territory, to Wau. It is not possible to assure effective monitoring of the activities of militias employed to accompany the train, and which are largely responsible for this pattern of abuses. Our Group sees no alternative to the suspension of the use of the train in Bahr-al-Ghazal pending the establishment of peace.

Recommendation 10

All those concerned about the fate of persons abducted and enslaved can agree that the preferred solution is for them to be released without payment. As a matter of principle, no person holding another who has been abducted or enslaved should be paid to secure that person’s release. We accept the humanitarian motives of those who have supported and promoted the practice of offering payment for the release and return of persons who have been abducted and enslaved. However, we believe that some legitimate concerns about this practice have been raised.

Recommendation 11

The Sudanese government – including federal, state and military authorities – and the SPLM/A and other armed groups all have a responsibility to facilitate and guarantee the safe and unhindered passage of all abducted persons who seek to return. The international community should both encourage and assist in this process.  The government, the SPLM/A and other armed southern opposition groups must assist all such persons and respect their informed decisions to exercise their right of return. All parties should agree on modalities for the return of persons who have been abducted and enslaved.  Direct air routes should be used for initial transport until an agreed framework for the use of secure land routes can be established. There is an urgent need for a strategy for return by land routes, to be developed and agreed by all concerned parties. The cross-line meetings of all actors proposed in Recommendation 3 could serve as a forum for agreeing on such land routes.

Recommendation 12

Organizations and individuals that can contribute to the prevention and redress of human rights abuses should be provided with resources and encouraged. These may include local authorities, tribal leaders, Muslim and Christian religious organizations, and legal support groups. The improvement of the human rights situation requires a long-term perspective, a sustained commitment and continual presence in the area by implementing organizations, free access, and rigorous monitoring and auditing by donors. Support should be provided for building the administrative and program capacities of the entities engaged with this work, to include the provision of training on the ground and abroad, help in establishing more effective means of communication and information gathering, and assistance in removing obstacles created by either the government or the SPLM/A to the conduct of their work.

Recommendation 13

Enhancing economic and social development in the affected areas can also contribute to addressing the problem of human rights abuse. This includes assured access to migration routes and grazing areas for all pastoral groups in accordance with existing agreements, as well as general protections of the rights of local farmers and pastoralists. Programs focusing on economic and social development could encourage peaceful coexistence among peoples living along political and ethnic boundaries. They could be integrated with activities that safeguard the movement of civilians across military lines and support the return of displaced populations to their places of origin.

Recommendation 14

In view of concerns about increased fighting and human rights abuses in areas of oil development, including recent reports of abductions, oil companies operating in Sudan must ensure that their operations do not cause or contribute to human rights violations. The Government of Sudan, governments of countries whose nationals or companies are engaged in oil development, the companies themselves, and international organizations operating in the area should support independent and impartial human rights impact assessments by experts on human rights in those areas and should act on the recommendations made.

Recommendation 15

In view of the initiatives they have taken and their ability to play a leadership role, the United States and concerned European governments should establish a permanent mechanism to monitor the efforts of the Sudanese parties to address the issues of slavery, abduction and forced servitude. As part of that effort, they should actively engage the understanding and support of other governments, particularly those with direct interests or involvement in Sudan.

Recommendation 16

The US Government, with the collaboration of other concerned governments and the agreement of the parties to the conflict, should establish a mechanism to follow up the recommendations of this Group. The findings of this review should be published within one year of the issue of our report, at the latest. ★