President Obama Promised to Prevent Atrocities but Remains Mum as the People of the Nuba Mountains Starve to Death

By Samuel Totten

July 27, 2012 (SSNA) — An untold number of people (certainly thousands and possibly tens of thousands) in the Nuba Mountains are suffering severe malnutrition and many have already begun to perish from starvation. Huddled in mountain caves and crevasses as they seek security from the ongoing bombings from Government of Sudan airplanes, the Nuba Mountains people are resorting to eating insects, weeds, and leaves in a desperate effort to remain alive. The international response to this latest crisis instigated by Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for the atrocities perpetrated in Darfur, Sudan, has been anemic.

In late January, rumors began circulating that both the United Nations and the United States were discussing the possibility of establishing a humanitarian corridor in order to truck foodstuff to the people in the Nuba Mountains. Purportedly, both the UN and the US approached al Bashir about such a possibility but he categorically refused to allow such a corridor to be established. This is exactly what he did in the early- to mid- 1990s when he, for the first time, purposely withheld food from the Nuba Mountains people, which resulted in genocide by attrition. Very few in the world knew about that tragedy, and as a result al Bashir and his cronies were never held responsible for their murderous actions. In other words, impunity reigned. (Tellingly, not ten years later the Sudanese Government carried out another genocide, this time in western Sudan in a place called Darfur.) And now the nightmare has started all over again in the Nuba Mountains, but this time the tragedy has been well documented from its outset.

To allow a dictator, who is an accused genocidare, to dictate to the UN and US what they can and cannot do in regard to saving thousands, or more, from imminent starvation is not only ludicrous, it’s unconscionable.

The time to halt genocide is before it happens. In other words, when it is evident that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated the international community must staunch them immediately. When such crimes are allowed to fester not only does it result in an ever-increasing number of deaths but it suggests that the killers enjoy impunity. That, obviously, sends the wrong signal to the perpetrators. When not held accountable for their actions some perpetrators are emboldened to kill again and again, all the while believing that no matter what they do they are above the law.

Standing by and doing little to nothing in the face of genocide is nothing new to the international community. Indeed, as noted in a book I recently co-edited, Centuries of Genocide: Essays and Eyewitness Accounts (New York: Routledge, 2012), the international community largely stood by and did nothing during the Ottoman Turk genocide of the Armenians (1915-1919), the Nazi extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge slaughter of its own people in Cambodia (1975-1979), the 1994 Hutu genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda, and the 1995 Serb slaughter of Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica. Be that as it may, President Barack Obama promised that his administration would be more proactive in preventing genocide than previous administrations had been. In fact, at a talk this past April at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum during which President Obama announced, and touted, his administration’s establishment of the Atrocities Prevention Board, he said: “Last year in the first ever presidential directive on this challenge, I made it clear that preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States of America.” And yet, President Obama’s Administration has seemingly taken no action other than engaging in a lot of diplomatic jibber jabber. And, as a result, the situation in the Nuba Mountains has slowly but surely morphed, first, from the forced dispersal of the people of the Nuba Mountains as a result of Government of Sudan aerial and ground attacks to malnutrition and, now, from severe malnutrition to starvation or what Yassir Arman, the Secretary General of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement-North, has recently referred to as “the imminent starvation of thousands of people in the Nuba Mountains.”

What is particularly ironic about the Administration’s inaction vis-à-vis the imminent starvation in the Nuba Mountains is that Ms. Samantha Power, who, for years, in one magazine article, editorial and speech after another, berated one U.S. presidential administration after another for being weak in the face of genocide, now serves as Obama’s Special Assistant and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights and the Chair of the newly minted Atrocities Prevention Board.  But, she, like her boss, has largely been silent about the critical need to stanch the incipient starvation in the Nuba Mountains. As far as can be ascertained, she has done little to nothing to urge, prod and cajole Obama to apply sustained pressure on al Bashir to immediately allow for the implementation of a humanitarian corridor from South Sudan to the Nuba Mountains.

In a 2001 article entitled “Bystanders to Genocide,” which appeared in the Atlantic Magazine, Power asked a series of questions aimed at the administration of Bill Clinton:  “Why did the United States not do more for the Rwandans at the time of the killings? Did the President really not know about the genocide, as his marginalia suggested? Who were the people in his Administration who made the life-and-death decisions that dictated U.S. policy? Why did they decide (or decide not to decide) as they did? Were any voices inside or outside the U.S. government demanding that the United States do more? If so, why weren’t they heeded? And most crucial, what could the United States have done to save lives?” One has to wonder whether Power, who certainly has President Obama’s ear, has had the integrity and gumption to posit the same sort of questions to her boss (or, for that matter, herself) vis-à-vis the tragedy that has been unfolding in the Nuba Mountains over the past twelve months.

Indeed, one has to wonder whether Power is better at criticism and wielding the pen than she is at heeding her own advice. More specifically, back in 2002 while speaking about the need for individuals to stand up and be heard whenever genocide rears its ugly head, she said: “… Unless regular people and not just human rights people start to identify with upstanders, we’ll always be saying ‘never again’… Instead of marginalizing upstanders as soft and irrational, we have to send a message that there will be a political price to be paid for looking the other way” (quoted in Kirst, 2002). Thus far, instead of being an “upstander” within the Obama Administration, Power has seemingly been the loyal bureaucrat who does not, for whatever reason, make waves. In her fiery days as an “upstander” she would more than likely have deemed such a stance nothing less than “hypocrisy.”

Also in 2002, while speaking to the graduating class at Swarthmore, Power said: “How many of us do not believe that the presidents, senators, bureaucrats, journalists, and ordinary citizens who did nothing [during the Holocaust years], choosing to look away rather than to face hard choices and wrenching moral dilemmas, were wrong? And how can something so clear in retrospect become so muddled at the time by rationalizations, institutional constraints, and a lack of imagination? How can it be that those who fight on behalf of these principles are the ones deemed unreasonable?” Again, one has to wonder: has Ms. Power asked herself this very question as she sits in a seat of power in Washington, D.C.?

Quite frankly, President Obama and Ms. Power seem little different than the presidents and bureaucrats, respectively, who proceeded them; that is, they, like their predecessors, seem to more readily gravitate to realpolitk than humanitarian action.

That said, there are two distinct differences between Obama and Power and their predecessors: first, the former are much more slick in their effort to appear caring (i.e., saying the “right words” and establishing this and that job title/position or agency to purportedly fight genocide); and second, they are far more inclined to pat themselves on the back for ostensibly being proactive vis-à-vis the prevention of genocide. But, as we all know, actions speak louder than words.

For those U.S. citizens who truly care that tens of thousands of innocent men, women, children and infants are facing imminent starvation, it is time to stand up and be counted. And in doing so, it is imperative for them to flood their members of Congress, President Obama, Ms. Power, and Ms. Hilary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, with the demand to act now to establish a way to get food to the people of the Nuba Mountains.

What we, the people, cannot do, is allow more time to pass without our voices being heard. For as time passes, the people of the Nuba Mountains shall continue to die horrific deaths.

Together, we must hold Obama to honor his words and promises, starting with the following utterance he made at the USHMM at the 2012 Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony: “On this day, and all days, we must do more than remember. We must resolve that ‘never again’ is more than an empty slogan. As individuals, we must guard against indifference in our hearts and recognize ourselves in our fellow human beings.”

Samuel Totten is a genocide scholar based at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Over the past two years has conducted research in the Nuba Mountains. His latest book, Genocide by Attrition, Nuba Mountains, Sudan (about the genocidal actions of the Government of Sudan in the 1990s) was published last week by Transaction Publishers.

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