Khartoum and the Language of War: Who’s Really Listening?

By Eric Reeves

May 11, 2012 (SSNA) — Every day it becomes clearer that unless Juba buckles before Khartoum’s extortionate demands, on a range of issues, then the regime will settle matters militarily—as it did in Abyei precisely one year ago.  Yet in a remarkable display of obtuseness, the international community, putatively concerned with peace between Sudan and South Sudan, refuses to hear what the regime is actually saying.  This obtuseness is apparent in the toothless UN Security Council resolution of May 2nd, which contains a cease-fire demand that has already been repeatedly violated by Khartoum; in the African Union roadmap, which (though backed by the Security Council) Khartoum accepts only "provisionally," claiming the roadmap is "full of shortcomings and outright bias in favor of the SPLM"; and in the vehement and geographically ill-informed condemnations of the Southern "invasion" of Heglig along the contested North/South border, a profoundly misguided effort to accommodate Khartoum’s tendentious territorial claims (April 10 – 20). 

The failure of comprehension is also apparent in the now increasingly perfunctory condemnations of Khartoum’s relentless bombing of civilian targets inside sovereign Southern territory, even as these bombings are meant by Khartoum to bring both political and military pressure on Juba. And perhaps the most telling sign of policy myopia is the refusal by the Security Council to do more than "urge" Khartoum to allow humanitarian access to those starving in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, where civilian bombings have been relentless for over eleven months.  Without securing humanitarian access from the regime in the very near term, the international community is likely consigning tens of thousands of people to death by starvation as Khartoum continues its genocidal counter-insurgency tactics.

A distorted narrative

Despite its furiously bellicose rhetoric—which contrasts sharply with what we mainly hear from the Southern leadership (see Deng Alor’s recent comments below)—Khartoum is continually depicted as simply the northern obverse of a South now depicted misleadingly as intransigent, aggressive, and thoughtless.  Despite displaying extraordinary restraint in the face of repeated, authoritatively confirmed military provocations over the past year and a half, Juba is held equally responsible for the current military crises along the border region. Despite the absence of any evidence that Juba is supplying the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North with significant military supplies, the international community repeatedly equates what is at most relatively small supplies of fuel and food—which can also be used for humanitarian purposes—with Khartoum’s confirmed provision of major weapons and ammunition supplies to renegade militias operating in the South, and indeed providing these deadly militia forces with transport, logistics, and sanctuary in northern Sudan.  Despite this fundamental asymmetry, the international community relentlessly demands that "both parties cease supplying opposition groups" in the other’s territory—a way of avoiding coming to terms with the implications of Khartoum’s deliberately destabilizing use of these brutal militias.

Here it also useful to look closely at the language and actions recently reported from Khartoum, as well as the emerging outlines of a grim end-game that now governs the regime’s larger strategy in its confrontation with the South.  For there are, in fact, clear patterns and priorities in this larger strategy, despite occasional rhetorical modulations.  And the first priority is defined by the urgent need to confront the growing military threat represented by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North, under the leadership of General Abdel Aziz el-Hilu.  There is strong evidence that after almost a year of fighting, Khartoum’s regular and militia forces in South Kordofan have been badly mauled, and the loss of weaponry and ammunition has been extraordinary (one reason Juba has no incentive to provide military assistance to the SPLA-N).  The reports are consistent, and reveal that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) are both demoralized and in danger of losing control of even more of South Kordofan. 

What Khartoum wishes to do is make this potential military disaster the primary diplomatic issue in negotiations with Juba.  The regime is in effect demanding that Juba use its putative influence with the SPLM-N leadership to end conflict in what has become Khartoum’s "new south Sudan" (notably, Khartoum has increasingly taken to referring to the SPLA-N as a "foreign army").  This is what President Omar al-Bashir meant by declaring that, "In the coming negotiations, if we don’t solve the security problems … there will be no talk over any other clause—not oil, not trade, not citizenship, not Abyei, or any other file."  By "security problems" al-Bashir is referring to the military threat posed by the SPLA-N—and to Juba’s refusal to accept Khartoum’s untenable claims about the 1956 North/South border.  In short, the regime is insisting that peace will be preserved only if two conditions are met:

[1]  Juba is to be made the point of international leverage in compelling capitulation by the SPLM-N leadership.  For Khartoum refuses to negotiate directly with the SPLM-N, despite a Framework Agreement committing the regime to do precisely this.  It was signed by Khartoum on June 28, 2011 in Addis Ababa under African Union auspices.  Unsurprisingly, three days later—using language that referred to the "military cleansing" of the Nuba Mountains—al-Bashir renounced the Agreement under pressure from increasingly aggressive generals in Khartoum.

The UN Security Council resolution conveniently ignores this declaration by the regime head, and simply "decides" that "the Government of Sudan and the SPLM-North shall extend full cooperation to the African Union [mediators] and the Chair of IGAD, to reach a negotiated settlement on the basis of the June 28, 2011 Framework Agreement on Political Partnership between the National Congress Party and SPLM-N and Political and Security Arrangements in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan States" (§3).  It is as if the Security Council is either unaware of al-Bashir’s renouncing of the June 28 agreement, or has simply chosen to pretend that it never happened.

But Khartoum hasn’t forgotten, and has made as much clear:

"The leadership council of the ruling National Congress Party chaired by president Omer Hassan al-Bashir announced late Wednesday [May 9] that it does not agree to elements of a recent United Nations Security Council resolution regarding negotiations with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N)." (Sudan Tribune, May 9, 2012)

Following this leadership council meeting, Foreign Minister Ali Karti "totally rejected" the clause concerning negotiations with the SPLM-N. The regime has considerable experience in ignoring UN Security Council resolutions (more than 20 on Darfur alone), and there is no evidence that the response of the Council to current recalcitrance from the regime will be more vigorous.  But ignoring Khartoum’s defiance will not help; indeed, as on so many occasions previously, refusing to take responsibility for "demands" and "decisions" and "urgings" encourages the regime to believe that the international community simply will not hold it accountable, not matter how outrageous its actions—including cutting off humanitarian assistance to many hundreds of thousands of starving civilians.

[2]  Khartoum is also demanding—in effect as a pre-condition—that contested border areas be delineated on the basis of the regime’s distortion of the 1956 border. And if we want evidence of just how outrageously distorted Khartoum’s vision of the border is, we need only look to the telling example of the Kafia Kingi enclave in the far west of Western Bahr el-Ghazal.  The "enclave" is the product of two very different borders: the border at the time of independence in 1956 (the constant geographic determinant throughout the Comprehensive Peace Agreement), and another drawn by Khartoum in 1960 that sweeps steeply south of the 1956 border at Radom (see maps on pp. 8 – 9 and pp. 168 – 169 of The Kafia Kingi Enclave: People, Politics, and history in the north-south boundary zone of western Sudan, Rift Valley Institute, 2010).  In short, Kafia Kingi was arbitrarily moved into the north by the military regime of Ibrahim Aboud (the regime of General Jaafer Nimeiri reneged on a promise to return to the 1956 border).

In various ways, Khartoum is insisting—despite the explicit terms of the CPA—that Kafia Kingi is part of the North, and declares any SPLA presence to be an "invasion" and hence one of the "security issues" that al-Bashir refers to: "In the coming negotiations, if we don’t solve the security problems … there will be no talk over any other clause—not oil, not trade, not citizenship, not Abyei, or any other file."

Khartoum’s increasingly aggressive re-redefinition of the border accounts for the intense hostility to the Security Council resolution, accepted originally only "in principle" and now reduced by Khartoum to an irrelevant exhortation.  The most telling comment by al-Bashir is that reported by Reuters ([Khartoum] on May 10: "The clauses we want to implement, we will implement. And what we don’t want to implement, we won’t. Neither the Security Council, nor the [AU] Peace and Security Council, nor the whole world will make us implement it." 

This is not the first time al-Bashir has expressed strong views of a UN Security Council resolution: of Resolution 2003, reauthorizing the UN/African Union force in Darfur and its civilian protection mandate, he declared bluntly: "’They can shove the new resolutions’ Al-Bashir said, reiterating his threats to expel whoever is tempted to implement Resolution 2003" (Sudan Tribune, October 13, 2011).  The May 10 Reuters dispatch also reminds us that Khartoum views the Southern leadership as "insects," an ominous reminder of the racial contempt that animated the Rwandan genocide: "Bashir vowed to play hardball with South Sudan, whose ruling party he branded ‘insects.’ ‘We tell them if you want a second lesson, we will give you a second and third lesson because you (the South Sudan government) do not understand.’"

In declaring that his regime will "implement only the clauses we want to implement," al-Bashir is objecting in particular to Security Council efforts to produce a disengagement of forces along the border.  As Agence France-Press reported from Khartoum (May 10, 2012), "The UN resolution also ordered Sudan and South Sudan to pull troops back from their disputed frontier [ ], but Khartoum said it could not comply until there was a border agreement."  But of course it has been Khartoum, not Juba, that over the past several years has refused to engage in good faith efforts to delineate and demarcate the North/South border.  The UN Security Council and the rest of the international community, having failed to make border delineation/demarcation a priority, are now obliged to refer to a border that Khartoum does not acknowledge.  This failure undermines the Security Council "decision" (under chapter VII authority of the UN charter) to demand that Khartoum and Juba "unconditionally withdraw all of their armed forces to their side of the border." 

A dispatch from Agence France-Presse (Khartoum, May 5) is one of the very few to connect these two issues as they play out in Khartoum’s strategy in responding to the Security Council resolution: "[Khartoum] maintains that South Sudanese ‘aggression’ continues in the form of direct occupation of other disputed areas along the border, and by support for rebel groups inside Sudan. In its letter to the UN and the African Union, Sudan again repeated an allegation that South Sudanese troops occupy three points along the Darfur border."  Of course the most conspicuous of these "three points" is Kafia Kingi (Khartoum names in particular Kafen Debbi and Kafia Kingi town, which are both well inside the Kafia Kinga enclave).  And yet Khartoum claims that Southern presence, in an enclave clearly within South Sudan, amounts to an "occupation." This illustrates perfectly how "security issues" are actually being defined by Khartoum. 

Other examples are not so dramatic as that of Kafia Kingi (which has promising mineral and other resource deposits, especially copper), but they all are governed by the same extortionist logic on the part of the regime: "either we get our way with border issues or we will declare that our ‘security’ is threatened and respond militarily."  The justification, of course, will be "self-defense."  And until the international community does more than pass hortatory resolutions at the UN Security Council, until it actively engages in pressuring Khartoum to accept what has so far merely been "urged," this pattern will persist all along the border, where some 20 percent remains undelineated, and a vastly higher percentage undemarcated.

Yet again, that there has been no such international response to this conspicuously outrageous violation of the CPA terms for border delineation only encourages the regime to believe that it can behave similarly in other areas where the border is disputed.  And Abyei stands as a stark reminder that what the regime can’t achieve through negotiations, it is perfectly well prepared to achieve militarily.

Aerial military assaults on civilian targets 

Especially in light of recent military conflict in the border regions, there has been far too little done by the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to confirm in timely fashion aerial attacks on civilian and military targets on sovereign Southern territory, including the bombing of Bentiu, the capital city of Unity State.  While certainly facing constraints and obstacles, UNMISS must make verification of aerial attacks a significantly higher priority for the resources it has. Otherwise, Khartoum will continue to send out military spokesman army spokesman al-Sawarmi Khalid to declare with shameless mendacity, "’We affirm completely we have no airplanes nor bombardments that have attacked inside South Sudan’s territories, even before a month ago. These are just accusations’" (Reuters [Khartoum], May 5, 2012).

In fact, UNMISS has confirmed many more attacks than the UN has declared publicly, and we must ask in turn why the UN has decided not to publicize the findings of the Mission.  It is difficult not to conclude that the refusal to release the results of investigations confirming aerial attacks is politically motivated—part of a larger pattern described in this brief. 

Notably, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, declared today that she "was ‘saddened and outraged’ at bombing raids that broke a UN ceasefire order" (Agence France-Presse, May 11, 2012).  But we also catch in her remarks a glimpse of the excessive caution and politically motivated skepticism that resulted in Pillay’s deliberate evisceration of the UN human rights report on atrocity crimes committed by Khartoum’s forces in Kadugli, South Kordofan (June 2011).  Today Pillay would say only that," Deliberate or reckless attacks on civilian areas can, depending on the circumstances, amount to an international crime." 

Why this mincing of words when Pillay knows perfectly well that many of the bombings, including that of the Yida refugee camp, are clearly violations of international humanitarian and human rights law?  She acknowledges that Khartoum has engaged in "indiscriminate bombing without consideration that civilians are living there," and yet cleaves to the language of "can, depending on the circumstances …"— even as those circumstances have been repeatedly confirmed in the most damning detail.  Yet again, it is difficult not to discern political considerations here—considerations entirely inappropriate for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

Indeed, how else to make sense of Pillay’s preposterous claim of August 2011 that "while there is much disturbing information coming from the region [South Kordofan], we are regrettably not in a position to verify it"?  The "information" was even then confirmed by countless interviews with survivors of atrocity crimes, conducted by journalists and human rights organizations; it was confirmed by multiple authoritative reports from the Satellite Sentinel Project; and it was confirmed, in detail, by a UN human rights team that had prepared the report that Pillay subsequently distorted in her briefing of the Security Council.  As UN correspondent Colum Lynch reported at the time, there was an eerie similarity to the UN’s earlier response to violence against civilians during Khartoum’s military seizure of Abyei:

"The remarks follow a pattern by the United Nations of minimizing Sudanese excesses. Last month, UN officials in New York watered down an internal draft that accused Sudan of engaging in practices that were ‘tantamount to ethnic cleansing’ in another Sudanese hot spot, the border region of Abyei. But UN officials in New York dropped the claim that ethnic cleansing had occurred, according to UN sources." (Foreign Policy, August 4, 2011 ["Why is the UN soft-pedaling its criticism of Sudan?"])

Pillay also knows, or certainly should know—on the basis of countless human rights reports, news dispatches from the region, and the UN human rights team present in South Kordofan in June 2011—that Khartoum has essentially destroyed the agricultural economy of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan by means of relentless.  The bombing attacks—by Antonov "bombers," military jet aircraft, and helicopter gunships—have left the people of the Nuba essentially without food, creating a large and rapidly growing refugee population in South Sudan. 

Why does Pillay she not speak out about this brutal campaign—continuously, forcefully, with clear representation of the international crimes embodied in these attacks?  Why doesn’t she speak out about the crimes against humanity embodied in Khartoum’s deliberate and calculated denial of food and humanitarian relief to the people of Blue Nile and the Nuba?  Has the UN decided to "de-couple" South Kordofan and Blue Nile from the diplomatic efforts to prevent a resumption of North/South war? Are we seeing a repeat of the Obama administration’s "de-coupling" of Darfur from larger issues of Sudan policy?  (Excepts from the UN human rights reporting of aerial assaults on civilians in South Kordofan, leaked in early July 2011 and still available, appear as an appendix below.)

The Khartoum regime should be well known as it approaches the 23rd anniversary of its seizure of power through a military coup (June 1989)—the 23rd anniversary of the deliberate aborting of Sudan’s most promising chance for a North/South peace agreement since independence in 1956.  But judging by the expediency and disingenuousness of what is said, and by the failure to act on what we know, such knowledge continues to be insufficient to produce appropriate policy responses.

The view from the South

Here it is useful to consider the rather different tenor of very recent comments by Deng Alor, Minister of Cabinet Affairs for the Republic of South Sudan: "Alor said the new attacks alleged by his government [in Juba] did not affect its commitment to resume talks with Sudan on the thorny issues of oil exports, security, border demarcation and citizenship that have remained unresolved since South Sudan became the world’s newest independent nation last year. ‘We are ready to go the extra mile to negotiations,’ he said. ‘Nobody is interested in war, we don’t want it, the international community doesn’t want it and the region doesn’t want it.’ Alor said South Sudan was waiting for former South African President Thabo Mbeki, the head of a high-level AU panel tasked with resolving the disputes between Khartoum and Juba, to formally call the two sides to resume talks on a specific date."

Alor continued: "The AU road map for talks made resolving the dispute over oil a priority, Alor said. ‘It’s a priority for everybody, for us, the government of Sudan, for investors and for the AU,’ he said. ‘We are committed to negotiations and discussing everything.’" (Reuters [Juba/Khartoum], May 10, 2012)

Until there is an informed and determined international resolve to weigh the relative commitments to peace on the part of Juba and Khartoum, the lurch toward war will continue.  If we are to judge by recent commentary on the part of regional and international actors of consequence, including supposedly "informed" diplomats (typically speaking off the record), we are far, far indeed from such resolve.

APPENDIX: Excerpts on civilians bombings from UN human rights report (2011)

United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS)


8. On 6 June, SAF commenced aerial bombardments and intensified ground assaults on civilian populated areas in Um Dorein and Talodi localities. Many civilians fled the towns taking up refuge in the Nuba Mountains. Civilians wounded by the bombardments flocked to hospitals in Kadugli. Civilian movement was curtailed further east in Heiban and Kauda localities, as SAF and SPLA roadblocks from the north and south prevented residents from leaving the town. In Kadugli town, residents in the largely SPLM-inhabited Kalimo area were warned by both the SAF and the SPLA to evacuate the area. In the late afternoon, SAF heavily bombarded the west of town in Al Messanie which continued until the early morning of the 7 June. Residents in the Kalimo neighbourhood reported that the SAF was indiscriminately shelling homes where it suspected SPLA elements were hiding. There were also reports that the SAF was conducting house to house searches and systematically burning houses of suspected SPLM/A supporters.

12. The security situation continued to deteriorate from 9 June onwards with further reinforcements of the SAF and the SPLA that spread the fighting to other localities. The fighting led to the withdrawal from Kadugli of the SPLA component of the JIU. Meanwhile the SAF persisted with daily aerial bombardments and attacks in Kadugli, Dilling, Rashad, Heiban, Kauda, Talodi and Um Dorein localities deep in the Nuba Mountains where civilian populations had sought refuge. Aerial bombardments reduced after 14 June but continued although with less intensity and frequency. However, civilian casualties continued to be reported in Kadugli, Umm Dorein, Um Serdeiba, Heiban, Kauda, Dilling, Salara areas, where many civilians were trapped due to the fighting. UNMIS Human Rights also received reports of abductions, arrests, detentions and executions of civilians throughout the Kadugli region. By 30 June, when this report was being finalized, UNMIS noted that aerial bombardments were still on-going, with continuing SAF and SPLA artillery exchange, as well as SAF and militia shelling, house to house searches for Nubans and pro-SPLM supporters and continued human rights violations.

39. Since the eruption of the conflict, the SAF has carried out daily aerial bombardments into the Nuba Mountains and in several towns and villages populated by Nubans. The consequences of these bombardments on the Nuban people and in particular civilians, including women and children, are devastating. They have resulted in significant loss of life, destruction of properties, and massive displacement. UNMIS Human Rights has received photographs of mangled and mutilated bodies of civilians, some cut into halves, including women and children.

40. Starting from 5 June, the SAF has conducted daily aerial bombardments in Kadugli, Kauda, Dilling, Talodi, Um Dorein and other parts of the State populated by Nubans including Heiban, Kauda Julud, Kudu and Kurchi. These bombardments often start from early evening at about 18:00 and last until daybreak. The bombardments have also targeted civilian facilities such as airstrips. On 14 June UNMIS personnel from the Kauda Team Site reported that the SAF launched air strikes on the airstrip and areas close to the UNMIS compound causing damage to structures inside the Team Site. The bombing rendered the airstrip unusable and impeded humanitarian organizations from re-supplying their stocks from Kadugli town or relocating/rotating staff in these areas. On 25 June, SAF air-strike dropped two bombs on Julud airstrip, just 350 metres from a school, and three kilometres from UNMIS Julud Team Site. As of 27 June, according to UNMO reports from Kadugli and other Team Sites, the SAF was intensifying aerial bombardments in Southern Kordofan. On SPLA positions. Following the SAF aerial bombardment of Shivi village, in Dilling locality on 8 June, UNMIS Julud Team Site reported two civilians were killed, one male and one female. Bombs have also been dropped very close to UNMIS Team Sites. On 19 June, UNMIS Kauda Team Site confirmed that seven bombs dropped in Kauda hitting areas south and northwest of the Team Site.

72. Accounts of aerial bombardments with significant loss of civilian lives including women, children and the elderly, targeted killings, house-to house searches and reports of mass graves are some of the most grave human rights violations taking place in Southern Kordofan. The alleged use of chemical weapons has not been substantiated. The International Community cannot afford to remain silent in the face of such deliberate attacks by the Government of Sudan against its own people. If the current conduct of the SAF, especially the aerial bombardments, does not stop, it will dissipate the Nuban population in Southern Kordofan.

Eric Reeves, a professor at Smith College, has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

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