International Crimes and Threats to Peace in Sudan are Mounting Rapidly

By Eric Reeves

June 28, 2011 (SSNA) — After so many years of work on Sudan, I thought myself fully braced for the worst the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime might do.  As so often before, I was wrong.  The litany of egregious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law over the past five weeks is simply overwhelming—in South Kordofan, in Abyei, but in other areas along the North/South border as well.  Just in the past two weeks, the regime’s Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and militia allies in South Kordofan have: threatened to shoot down UN humanitarian aircraft in the region; shot, tortured, and arrested national members of the UN peacekeeping mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in Kadugli, capital of South Kordofan; denied freedom of movement to UNMIS personnel in nearly all locations; deployed intelligence officers in Kadugli, disguised as Red Crescent workers, to compel the removal of displaced civilians who had taken refuge at the UNMIS headquarters in Kadugli; denied UN and nongovernmental relief organizations use of the Kadugli airport, thus creating a vast and growing humanitarian crisis; engaged in house-to-house searches for Nuba civilians, arresting or summarily executing all thought to have "southern sympathies"; and engaged in what Amnesty International has called  "indiscriminate attacks, bombing from high altitudes with imprecise bombs in areas which include civilians."  These bombing attacks have extended to territories in South Sudan.

The SAF has also, in violation of international law, laid anti-personnel land mines in areas around Kadugli to control movement in and out of the town, and Military Intelligence has set up numerous checkpoints that are used to arrest Nuba civilians and restrict UN movements.  Reports of mass graves and the use of chemical weapons against civilians are as yet unconfirmed, but continue to emerge with increasing insistence from those on the ground and in the region.  As a recent and compelling article by Dan Morrison in Foreign Policy reminds us, the use of chemical weapons was part of the genocide in the Nuba Mountains during the 1990s.  Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has also documented Khartoum’s use of chemical weapons against civilians in the South:

"The increase of the bombings on the civilian population and civilian targets in 1999 was accompanied by the use of cluster bombs and weapons containing chemical products. On 23 July 1999, the towns of Lainya and Loka (Yei County) were bombed with chemical products. At the time of this bombing, the usual subsequent results (i.e. shrapnel, destruction to the immediate environment, impact, etc.) did not take place. [Rather], the aftermath of this bombing resulted in a nauseating, thick cloud of smoke, and later symptoms such as children and adults vomiting blood and pregnant women having miscarriages were reported."

“These symptoms of the victims leave no doubt as to the nature of the weapons used. Two field staff of the World Food Program (WFP) who went back to Lainya, three days after the bombing, had to be evacuated on the 27th of July. They were suffering of nausea, vomiting, eye and skin burns, loss of balance and headaches ("Living under aerial bombardments: Report of an investigation in the Province of Equatoria, Southern Sudan," February 2000)

MSF rightly "deplored" the fact that no nation demanded an investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—not one government in the world community made the single request that could have set in motion an investigation.  This tells us all too much about the international response to current atrocity crimes in Sudan, committed by the same regime that has used chemical weapons in the Nuba and in South Sudan.

[See also my lengthy archive/report on bombing in South Sudan, Darfur, and South Kordofan over the past twelve years: ]

Elsewhere SAF attacks have been recorded in every state in the South that borders North Sudan.  It has repeatedly bombed the Jau area of Pariang County in Unity State, creating thousands of newly displaced civilians; it has fired artillery at the civilians and UN personnel in the town of Agok, to which so many fled following the May 20 invasion of Abyei; it has massed forces in the remote region where (northern) South Kordofan and White Nile State meet (southern) Upper Nile State (Upper Nile, with Unity, is the great oil production region in South Sudan); it has organized and supported potent militias that have as their sole objective destabilizing the South as much as possible before and after the July 9 independence of the Republic of South Sudan; it has attempted to move troops south of the River Kiir, which separates the forces of the SAF and Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA); it has shelled Banton Bridge, the major route from Abyei to Warrab State (and thus essential for any potential returns).  And on June 26 the regime allowed its Misseriya Arab militia allies to attack a train carrying people returning to their homeland in the South; the attack killed at least one and wounded four according to an UNMIS spokeswoman.  Such an attack could not have occurred unless countenanced by the SAF or Military Intelligence.

This list is not complete, but it is authoritative, based on numerous newswire dispatches, human rights reports, many scores of accounts from Nuba who have escaped to the South, and internal UN internal documents that have been reported by several news organizations.  And astonishingly, in the midst of a news blackout throughout South Kordofan and a shutdown of cellular phone service—with only very limited Internet access—there are many reports, even photographs that have made their way out of the Nuba Mountains and are compelling in their brutal details.  The credibility of a number of sources has been authoritatively confirmed.

But without a humanitarian presence, and without accounts from the now-paralyzed UNMIS, information about Khartoum’s actions in South Kordofan will rapidly diminish, rendering a vast and accelerating humanitarian crisis invisible.  For now, the US and its allies, as well as all Security Council members who wish to know what is occurring, have access to more than enough intelligence to make informed assessments.

It is difficult to focus on a single atrocity crime amidst such massive violence and abuse, but I believe the most telling violation of international law was Khartoum’s use of security personnel in Kadugli, disguised as Red Crescent workers, to compel the movement of displaced civilians who had taken shelter within the UNMIS protective perimeter.  Some 7,000 Nuba civilians (estimates vary) gathered within the protective custody of the UN following Khartoum’s initial military onslaught and ethnically targeted killings (June 5).  But Associated Press reports (June 23) on actions taken by Khartoum on June 20:

"Sudanese intelligence agents posed as Red Crescent workers and ordered refugees to leave a UN-protected camp in a region where Sudan’s Arab military has been targeting a black ethnic minority, according to an internal UN report obtained Thursday [June 23]. The report said agents from the National Security Service donned Red Crescent aprons at a camp in Kadugli, South Kordofan and told the refugees to go to a stadium for an address by the governor and for humanitarian aid. The refugees were threatened with forced removal from the camp if they did not comply.

"The report…does not say what happened to the camp residents after their forced removal on Monday. The report did not say how many refugees were forced to leave the camp. "

These actions violate international humanitarian law on so many counts it requires an analysis unto itself.  But the brutal cynicism that pervades the intelligence and security services in Khartoum, the contempt for the lives of African Sudanese civilians, and the utter disregard for the UN—which learned only indirectly where these people had been taken—seem astounding, though not so astounding, evidently, as to generate a meaningful response.  Despite this public report there was no direct response from any international actor of consequence, including the UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos.  Small wonder that Khartoum believes it may do what it wants with impunity.

And this leaves us to draw the most ominous conclusions about the fate of the hundreds (or thousands) who were led to Kadugli Stadium: their has not been reported because UNMIS is now completely restricted in movement.  Only on June 28 (eight days later) did the UN make its concerns—and its ignorance—known:

"The United Nations has voiced concern at the fate of 7,000 Sudanese civilians last seen being forced by authorities to leave the protection of a UN compound in the tense border region between the North and South. A UN spokeswoman says the global body has asked north Sudan authorities for access to the civilians who are believed to have been taken to the nearby town of Kadugli in South Kordofan province last week. Spokeswoman Corinne Momal-Vanian told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that so far authorities have denied the request." (Associated Press, June 28; emphasis added)

Indeed, the SAF has over the past two weeks made clear its intention to end freedom of movement for UNMIS, despite the guarantees of the "Status of Forces Agreement" Khartoum signed in 2005. UNMIS patrols have been told by SAF officers that their mission is over, and only SAF-supervised administrative movements may take place. To make sure that UNMIS got this message, another utterly shocking episode is reported by The New York Times (June 21):

"Sudan’s forces detained four United Nations peacekeepers and subjected them to ‘a mock firing squad,’ the organization said Monday [June 20, 2011], calling the intimidation part of a strategy to make it nearly impossible for aid agencies and monitors to work in the region."

And in its strategy Khartoum has almost completely succeeded.  The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate rapidly; hundreds of thousands are now cut off from relief aid; and the total displaced population may be greater than 400,000.  But again no international voice was raised to report this extraordinary detention, thereby encouraging further intimidation of UNMIS by SAF and security officers, even as military observation is critical: SAF continues to pour large quantities of weapons, armor, ammunition, and troops into Kadugli and Dilling; military checkpoints continue to target Nuba civilians; atrocities of the most brutal sort continue to be reported in and around Kadugli; and aerial attacks on the Nuba Mountains are unrelenting. Just two days ago sixteen people, including eight women and children, were killed during a bombing attack on three Nuba villages near Kurchi.

Nor is UNMIS encouraged to be vigorous in challenging Khartoum’s restrictions on their guaranteed freedom of movement.  In fact, the UN peacekeepers are deliberately being threatened with military assault: SAF artillery and aircraft have attacked extremely close to UNMIS bases in several locations.  On June 17 the SAF launched an intensive artillery attack on the town of Agok, where so many of the more than 110,000 refugees from Abyei have fled; some shells fell as close as 200 meters from the UN compound.  Again on June 17, SAF attack aircraft bombed near Kadugli, with some bombs coming less that a kilometer away from UN headquarters.  The same was true on June 14, when SAF bombing runs came extremely close to the UN compound in Kauda.  Photographs of the attack, which targeted the airstrip critical for humanitarian transport, show just how close this attack came.  One purpose of these attacks so near to UN personnel is clear: intimidation.  For sooner or later, as the UN well knows, one of the bombs or shells will land on a compound.  The SAF is simply incapable of targeting with sufficient precision so close to UN sites.  In short, the goal is to force withdrawal.

For Khartoum’s largest ambition is to control the civilian populations in South Kordofan and Abyei without the interference of either UNMIS or a humanitarian presence.  The Ethiopian brigade to be deployed to Abyei was authorized by the UN Security Council only on June 27; and despite its robust protection mandate, there are grave doubts about its ability to reverse the ethnic clearances that have already occurred or to create sufficient security for the Ngok Dinka who fled the region to be able to return to their lands and homes. Troublingly, the mission has no human rights mandate, as is typical for UN peacekeeping missions—a clear concession to Khartoum (and Beijing).  UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang, who has recently returned from Abyei, declared in Khartoum that there "was ‘utter devastation’ in the territory and called for a thorough human rights investigation both there and in South Kordofan."  In South Kordofan, Amnesty International rightly finds that civilians are being "coerced to return by the Sudanese authorities to places where their lives and safety could be at risk."  But all evidence suggests that the appropriate phrase is not "could be at risk" but "face the clear and imminent threat of ethnically targeted destruction, much of which is already in evidence."

Terrifying accounts have come from relief workers, a few necessarily anonymous diplomatic sources, and of course the Nuba people themselves: "Yusef" from Kadugli told Agence France-Presse that he had been informed by a member of the notorious Popular Defense Forces (PDF) that they had been provided with plenty of weapons and ammunition, and a standing order: "He said that they had clear instructions: ‘just sweep away the rubbish. If you see a Nuba, just clean it up.’ He told me he saw two trucks of people with their hands tied and blindfolded, driving out to where diggers were making holes for graves on the edge of town." Nuba are being executed in gruesome ways at the hands of the SAF and militia groups, often by having their throats slit. A church source reports that Nuba are being hunted "like animals" by helicopter gunships.  These African peoples, trapped by geography in North Sudan, are haunted by their terrible history and are right to be fearful. As one aid worker has predicted, "if the ground offensive commences, ‘absolute carnage’… could ensue."  This ground offensive could come at any time.

There can be no plea of ignorance about the nature of realities on the ground, such as Obama’s special envoy Princeton Lyman has attempted to make.  Indeed, an American government official told the New York Times last week that, "This is going to spread like wildfire," adding that, without mediation, "you’re going to have massive destruction and death in central Sudan, and no one seems able to do anything about it." "No one seems able to do anything about it"?  Able? … or willing?

To be sure, the emphasis by the Obama administration has been on its "inability"; and in any event, a negotiated solution is certainly the only long-term answer to the present crisis and the viability of Nuba life.  News from Addis Ababa today (June 28) indicates a “framework agreement” will be signed, preparing the way for negotiations between Khartoum and Juba on the future of South Kordofan and southern Blue Nile.  But there is good reason to believe that this decision by Khartoum is just for diplomatic appearances, and will change nothing on the ground.  Thabo Mbeki, who announced the "agreement," has a well-deserved reputation for overselling his diplomatic achievements.

And if the agreement fails—as all the regime’s agreements with Sudanese parties in the past have failed (think Abyei, for example)—does anyone really doubt that there is a good deal more economic leverage to be wielded in compelling Khartoum to halt its military actions and obstruction of humanitarian relief, especially if the Obama administration convinces our European allies join the effort?  The Northern economy is in desperate shape, and the NIF/NCP regime extremely vulnerable in what will be a very difficult economic future.

There is also military leverage.

A No Fly Zone has been called for by many, including many Nuba, as Khartoum’s military aircraft continue to pound away at civilian and humanitarian targets. The Enough Project has called for deployment to South Sudan of an unspecified "medium-range surface-to-air missile system." But as I have argued previously, a NFZ is completely impracticable without the devotion of inordinate resources.  A missile battery in South Sudan might eventually be of use, but not for the Nuba Mountains now.  The third generation of Patriot Missile, for example, is an amazing military engineering achievement; but its range is only about ten miles, and its radar extends only about 60 miles.  These distances are completely inadequate for coverage of South Kordofan from South Sudan.

But with real political will, the Obama administration could threaten to destroy on the ground those military aircraft implicated in attacks on civilians or humanitarians (a dwindling population).  This would minimize the chances for casualties and collateral damage.  But the administration could not merely threaten: it must be prepared to follow up, starting with the destruction of the most expensive and terrifying weapon in Khartoum’s air force, its MiG-29s (there are about 20, each costing roughly $30 million for complete outfitting and maintenance).  Such destruction would create a de facto NFZ.  As it is, these supersonic aircraft are continually upon the people of the Nuba before they can be heard, dropping their ordnance and screaming away with a sound that is utterly terrifying.  The demands that should be made of Khartoum are clear: halt these aerial attacks on civilians, allow humanitarian access—or watch your air force be destroyed seriatim by cruise missiles or drone attack planes.

An overextended and war-weary America might persuade Obama that the politics of this military effort are too costly.  This seems the overwhelmingly likely decision, given comments by Secretary of State Clinton and Obama’s special envoy Lyman.  If so, Obama needs to be prepared to live with voices such as that of Andudu Adam el Nail, the Episcopal bishop of Kadugli and the Nuba Mountains: "Once again we are facing the nightmare of genocide of our people in a final attempt to erase our culture and society from the face of the earth."  Given the genocidal jihad of the 1990s, this nightmare seems all too real.  A correspondent for Time reported last week an interview with a relief worker who had escaped to Juba, South Sudan: "You can see it in all their eyes. They are scared. They see this as a fight for survival."  Is President Obama really prepared to see the Nuba people lose this fight?

Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

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