An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

Dear President Obama,

March 28, 2011 (SSNA) — I write to you out of a desperate concern for the present consequences of U.S. Sudan policy under special envoy Scott Gration. On February 11 of this year General Gration declared that, “The Government of Sudan has taken great steps to lift restrictions on UNAMID [UN/African Union Mission in Darfur].”   This assessment is sharply contradicted by facts on the ground. General Gration went on to say, “We’ve seen great improvement of access for UNAMID and for the international NGOs [nongovernmental humanitarian organizations].” But again all evidence—including that provided by the organizations themselves—makes clear that both claims were gross misrepresentations, governed more by an expedient desire to present an artificially encouraging picture of the situation in Darfur than by anything actually achieved in negotiations with the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum.

As if to underscore the significance of General Gration’s misrepresentations of humanitarian realities in Darfur, Catholic Relief Services announced Friday, March 25, 2011, that the Khartoum regime has forced the organization to cease its life-saving activities in West Darfur. The regime first suspended CRS operations in late January, even as it was in the process of expelling the important French medical relief organization Médecins du Monde. Both are substantial losses of humanitarian capacity in Darfur, but in remote and war-ravaged West Darfur, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) was the essential actor in providing food to more than 400,000 people in the populous corridors north and south of el-Geneina, the state capital. There have been no food distributions since January: both February and March distributions were missed, and CRS has now removed its international staff and let go its large Sudanese national staff—the key workers in a challenging and often very dangerous environment.

As Darfur approaches this year’s hunger gap—April/May through October—the situation for the people in West Darfur looks increasingly grim. There are reports from the ground of people already dying from malnutrition-related causes, especially among children under five. People who have gone two months without regular food distributions will soon become desperate, and more likely to abandon the displaced persons camps in search of other sources of food. Closing down the camps and forcing displaced persons to return “home,” by any means necessary, has long been apriority for the Khartoum regime, and this was confirmed all too clearly in its ominous “New Strategy for Darfur”—promulgated last September, and enthusiastically and repeatedly endorsed by your envoy, General Gration. That endorsement has served to encourage the regime in pursuing its highly threatening policies towards the camps.

Again, what is most worrying about CRS’s departure from West Darfur is that they have been the only significant organization enabling the UN’s World Food Program to distribute food: there is no back-up capacity. Indeed, CRS was already the back-up to previously expelled international aid organizations: thirteen of the most distinguished humanitarian groups in the world were expelled by Khartoum in March2009, representing roughly 50 percent of aid capacity in Darfur. General Gration, whom you appointed the same month to his present position, has consistently misrepresented the extent of lost capacity and overstated what has been replaced. He has been joined in this dismaying disingenuousness by your frequent ad hoc envoy to Sudan, Senator John Kerry.

By failing to accept the seriousness of the situation, by failing to pressure Khartoum adequately on the need for unfettered and unimpeded humanitarian access, General Gration has over the past two years allowed the situation to degenerate badly. But the withdrawal of CRS and its very substantial capacity is especially worrisome: there is now simply no replacement capacity available, no organization in the humanitarian theater that can assume responsibility for distributing food to more than 400,000 needy human beings. Given the rampant insecurity that Khartoum allows to prevail throughout West Darfur—by means of its brutally rapacious militia and paramilitary forces—farming is unlikely. Moreover, the CRS programs to provide seeds and agricultural assistance have also been ended—along with other humanitarian programs in Darfur serving an additional 100,000 people.

The potential for catastrophe here, Mr. President, is extraordinary—dwarfing in prospective loss of life anything we have seen in Japan or the Middle East. And yet your special envoy has not spoken about this crisis—even as it has been clearly in evidence for several weeks prior to the official announcement by CRS—nor is there any evidence that he appreciates the need for an extremely rapid emergency response. His blithe assessment of last month—“We’ve seen great improvement of access for… the international NGOs”—is a shocking example of either ignorance or disingenuousness; either would be culpable in the extreme.

Even as Darfur faces unprecedented humanitarian shortfalls because of insecurity, lack of access, and obstruction by the Khartoum regime—the worst overall situation since 2004 is the current assessment by a number of independent observers—the rest of your Sudan policy lies in shambles. The Doha (Qatar) peace process has become irrelevant; Darfuris in all quarters have come to despise General Gration; and the belated appointment of Dane Smith cannot change the current dynamic in peace negotiations without a great deal more commitment from higher up in your administration.

This is especially true because Khartoum feels that having allowed for a generally peaceful South Sudan self-determination referendum, it has completed its part of a deal fashioned by General Gration, whereby the U.S. for its part will normalize relations and remove the Khartoum regime from the State Department list of terrorism-sponsoring nations. But this deal is as cynical, or misguided, as General Gration’s claim about humanitarian access in Darfur. For leading up to and following the referendum, Khartoum has made of the Abyei region an acute and highly dangerous crisis—one that threatens to bring war again to the South, especially in the oil regions. Recent information from the UN force on the ground (UNMIS), as well as imagery from the Satellite Sentinel Project, reveals a military posture by Khartoum’s forces in and around Abyei that can have only one goal: taking control of most of Abyei, including Abyei town, in order to negotiate the final status of Abyei on basis of military seizure.

This seizure may take place gradually, with ground forces and militia elements moving incrementally southward—as appears to be the case presently—or with a much larger and more rapid military offensive, using the substantial armor, mechanized infantry power, artillery, advanced rocket launchers, and air power that are either deployed in the region currently or a short distance away. Such a large offensive would certainly be triggered by any effort on the part of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) to bring significant defensive military pressure to bear anywhere in Abyei. Khartoum’s actions to date—including yet again bombing areas in South Sudan—have brought the SPLA to the point where it feels it must respond, which is in all likelihood Khartoum’s goal.

How did Khartoum come to believe that it could seize Abyei and negotiate further the region’s final status and boundaries? Here again your special envoy, General Gration, has badly misread the character and instincts of the NIF/NCP regime. Last October he signaled U.S. support for a proposal from Khartoum to divide Abyei yet further between the North and South. Although the State Department subsequently tried to suggest that there was no U.S. proposal on Abyei, several participants in the negotiations—including SPLM minister of regional cooperation Deng Alor—are quite clear that General Gration quickly and eagerly sided with the proposal to divide Abyei yet again. This directly contradicts the terms of the Abyei Protocol (2004), a linchpin of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005), and also the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (The Hague, July 2009)—accepted in advance by both the Khartoum regime and the Southern leadership as “final and binding.”

Khartoum, perceiving that the U.S was willing to compromise yet further, has undertaken its extremely dangerous military gambit in Abyei, and yet there has been only bland, even-handed exhortation by your White House, which does nothing to convince Khartoum that your administration understands the very different diplomatic and moral equities of the two parties. The lack of a truly principled commitment to the Abyei Protocol and the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration reveals too much about the expedient fashion in which General Gration has formulated his policies, or more accurately his reactive decisions.

This absence of a clear policy, other than accommodating the Khartoum regime at every possible moment of dispute, has had a profound effect on the perceptions of U.S. policy by Sudanese from all walks of life and all corners of Sudan. I know from many scores of conversations and communications with Sudanese—especially from the South and Darfur—that General Gration has brought your administration into disgrace, and left U.S. policy going forward with the burden of Sudanese skepticism and bitterness at how they have been treated over the past two critical years.

The bill of indictment for General Gration’s tenure is much longer, Mr. President, but all too consistent with the key issues I’ve highlighted here. Expediency and disingenuousness have been his diplomatic tools, and they have all too predictably worked to create a set of circumstances in which vast human suffering and destruction may be precipitated at any moment. Darfur has been effectively “de-coupled” from the largest bilateral issue between the U.S. and Khartoum—certainly from the regime’s point of view—even as atrocity crimes of the worst sort continue to be perpetrated by Khartoum and its militia proxies. The coming famine in West Darfur—and famine is the word that seems most appropriate at the moment—has been engineered by Khartoum, with no resistance from your special envoy. Parts of Abyei are already in flames, and escalation seems inevitable. And the U.S. has nothing more to show for its efforts than a Southern self-determination referendum that is even now being actively and dangerously undermined by Southern renegade militia forces supported by Khartoum.

Nor has there been any progress in democratizing governance in Khartoum, where flagrant human rights abuses are the order of the day. As SPLM leaders have recently told me in the most direct fashion possible, unless the process of democratization begins in the North—unless the NIF/NCP regime is forced to open political space for opposition parties and forces—it is highly unlikely that peace will be sustained after Southern independence on July 9, 2011. And yet this pressure on Khartoum over its brutal domestic repression has been entirely missing during the tenure of General Gration, signaling to the regime that there will be no costs in relations with the U.S. no matter how appalling its human rights record or how politically ruthless it chooses to be.

General Gration is soon to leave his position, though I believe his appointment to be ambassador to Kenya is deeply mistaken, especially given the important challenges facing our diplomatic leadership in Nairobi. But the damage he leaves behind, the threats he leaves unaddressed, the dangers he has allowed to fester—all oblige on your part, Mr. President, a sober recognition of General Gration’s destructive legacy, and a near-term commitment to ensure that officials from the highest levels of your administration conduct an urgent review of the consequences of the past two years of our Sudan policy. It is far past time to re-set the U.S. course of action vis-à-vis Khartoum, and this should begin with a suspension of any process of normalization or change in the present regime of sanctions and the status of diplomatic relations. The immediate demands should be that the regime fully abide by agreements it has already signed, both for Abyei and for humanitarian access in Darfur. A strong and unambiguous signal is required, given the immediacy of dangers faced by many Sudanese populations—in the South, in Darfur, in the Nuba Mountains, and in southern Blue Nile. I believe you personally should send that signal, Mr. President.

If your administration simply continues on the course set by General Gration, your administration will bear increasing moral responsibility for the many hundreds of thousands of lives presently acutely endangered by his actions and decisions of the past two years.


Eric Reeves, Professor of English Language and Literature
Smith College
Northampton, MA 01063
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