Genocide in the Nuba Mountains
14 Jun 2012
This article is a summary of points raised in two talks that took place in London recently concerning ongoing attacks against civilians in the Sudanese state of South Kordofan. The first took place at the Frontline club with Baroness Cox and Mukesh Kapila of the Aegis Trust (former head of the UN in Sudan). The second was held by Royal African Society and featured Kairunissa Dhala from Amnesty International, Osman Hummaida of the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies and Mukesh Kapila.
Since June 2011 the government of Sudan has been attacking civilians in the Nuba Mountains in the state of South Kordofan, under the pretext of fighting the region’s rebel movement the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – North (SPLA-N). The conflict spread to Blue Nile state in September last year. Footage gathered by the few reporters and agencies who have found ways to access the areas have shown that a scorched earth policy is being pursued by government forces with whole villages razed to the ground, crops burnt and whole populations dispersed if not killed. Attacks have only got worse over the last year. With food supplies destroyed the people of the Nuba Mountains face severe hunger which will result in starvation for hundreds of thousands of people in the coming months. If the Sudanese government attacks continue to prevent this year’s crops from being sown and harvested, and humanitarian assistance from reaching the Nuban people, the already existing human disaster will only get worse.
Aerial bombardment with helicopters and Antonov bombers, antipersonnel land mines and illegal cluster bombs are being used against civilians, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled either as refugees into South Sudan, or to hide in caves and holes between boulders in the mountains to avoid the bombing. The UN estimates that a quarter of a million people may be hiding in the mountains. Entire communities have no food, water or sanitation. The Khartoum government continues to refuse access to the area to international humanitarian aid agencies. Any aid that can be sent must be channelled through the government and witnesses claim this is given to the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) rather than civilians.
Mukesh Kapila, former head of the UN in Sudan who resigned from his position over the lack of international action concerning the Darfur genocide in 2004 and is currently working with the Aegis Trust, explained that what is occurring in South Kordofan now is like Darfur with an additional ten years of technological advancement. There a similar scorched earth policy was followed. The Nuba now see Khartoum’s attacks as nothing less than a clear attempt to wipe out their entire culture.
That the fact that the Governor of South Kordofan, Ahmed Haroun, is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur chillingly emphasises the similarities between what happened in Darfur and what’s occurring now. The same leadership is using the same tactics. This has heavy implications for the effectiveness or even the meaning of the ICC. Not only have other states refused to arrest indicted Sudanese President al-Bashir when he has travelled to their country, but those indicted are continuing to open up new frontiers and commit the same crimes with impunity. Al-Jazeera’s special programme ‘South Kordofan: Unfinished Business’ includes footage captured by the rebel groups the SPLA-N who are fighting the SAF and seeking regime change in the country. The footage clearly shows the governor Haroum issuing orders to fighters to clear the place of the Nuba people, not to bring any back alive but to shoot to kill to ‘avoid administrative burdens’ that would be incurred by bringing live prisoners.
Under the claim of fighting armed insurgents the government has declared a state of emergency in southern border areas of Sudan. Osman Hummaida of the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies spoke of a new bill that has been put forward in Khartoum recently ensuring impunity to armed forces who are able to shoot to kill when ‘responding to aggression’. He suggested there is a risk this could effectively be applied to anyone trying to enter the rebel area with humanitarian supplies as they may be accused of aiding the SPLA- N.
The al-Bashir government has a legacy of opening up new frontiers war against the peripheries as others close. Hummaida emphasised that as the war with the South was winding down in the lead up to the signing of the CPA in 2005, so the war in Darfur was building. Now, as negotiations in Doha appear to be making headway for peace in Darfur, and as the South has successfully succeeded so the assaults in South Kordofan and the border regions known as the ‘Three areas’ are being stepped up. In part this might be explained as a way for Khartoum to mobilise patriotism in Sudan, at least in the centre of power, through a sense of ‘defending themselves from the peripheries’.
The UN has estimated more than 418,000 people have fled from South Kordofan and Blue Nile since the fighting began with 35,000 arriving in South Sudan in the last three weeks. Khairunissa Dhala of Amnesty International described the situation she witnessed facing thousands of refugees who have fled the Nuba Mountains to camps just across the border in South Sudan. She estimated there were 90,000 refugees in Upper Nile state and 30,000 in Unity State. Recent reports tell of increasingly malnourished new arrivals in the lead up to the rainy season. Aid agencies scrambled to get enough food, water and medical supplies to the camps before the rainy season made the area impassible. Recent indiscriminate bombing and the targeting of camps by the Sudanese government forces meant that NGOs pulled their staff out of some areas before essential pre-rain jobs could be completed compounding food shortages and insecurity in the camps. Young unaccompanied girls reported the prevalent threat of sexual attack. The refugees are located in parts of South Sudan that are very difficult to reach and aid agencies have been reluctant to provide aid so close to the border due to fears of militarisation of the camps. Dhala noted that the presence of SPLM-N soldiers in some of the camps compromised their civilian character, worried that this could give al-Bashir reason to attack the camps. The UN has constructed new camps further inside Unity state in South Sudan, to accommodate 9,000 individuals which at the moment only hold 600 people. The UN hopes to relocate refugees from Yida camp which lies very close to the conflict-prone border. Refugees are understandably reluctant to go further from home and the new camps are placed in an arid land considered inhospitable to human beings.
At the Frontline club it was noted by Baroness Cox that larger British aid agencies, who do not wish to jeopardise their other projects in Sudan by angering Khartoum, have failed to attempt to get humanitarian assistance into the Nuba Mountains. While this is on the one hand may seem an understandable choice it effectively means that the needs and lives of the Nuba are being sacrificed at the cost of other causes. In addition to the decision not to enter the Nuba Mountains, large aid agencies have been back-door lobbying the UK government aid provider the Department for International Development (DFID) to urge them not to support organisations who are willing to go against Khartoum and take aid to the Nuba. Such lobbying could be construed as anti-humanitarian.
An interesting point was raised during the discussions regarding not only the lack of informed and sufficient coverage in Western media about what has been unfolding in the region – though since January the story has been reported on more widely- but concerning the lens of ‘moral equivalence’ through which the hostilities between Sudan and South Sudan. It was argued that the conflict which erupted over the oil producing town of Heglig in April was widely condemned among politicians and the media in the West (as well as the African Union) as an unjustifiable incursion of the South Sudanese army (SPLA) into ‘northern’ territory. It was presented as an act that was ‘morally equivalent’ to the aggressions of the Sudanese army in South Sudan. However, it was highlighted by Kapila that the SPLA had attacked the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in Heglig to drive them away from the border, from where the SAF had been crossing into South Sudan and attacking civilians and market towns in Unity State. It was noted both by authoritative reports from the ground as well as by an oil worker from the area quoted in the Guardian that the Sudan Armed Forces in fact attacked first in Heglig initiating the border hostilities. There can be no ‘moral equivalence’ between the two when the SAF is targeting civilians, and the SPLA responded to military aggression initiated by the SAF. In addition and importantly the area of Heglig has not been demarcated as lying in Sudan, so claims made by Western governments, the UN and the AU that South Sudan has committed a cross-border incursion are erroneous.
The Government of Sudan claims it is defending itself against armed insurgents and targeting the armed rebel group SPLA-N who are themselves fighting for regime change in Sudan. Meanwhile, attacks against civilians are only aiding recruitment in the SPLA-N. In response to accusations that the SAF have been targeting civilians claiming Advisor to the President of Sudan Mustafa Osman Ismael interviewed on Al-Jazeera suggested they were the type of civilian casualties witnessed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The excuse of ‘collateral damage’ coined by the US has been utilised to explain a genocidal tactic in Sudan.
Given the British government’s apparent willingness to intervene elsewhere – Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya – it has been distinctly inactive in the face of decades of abuse of the citizens of Sudan at the hands of their government. Instead they have attempted to remain on cordial and ‘diplomatic’ terms with the Al-bashir regime. Kapila placed great emphasis on the responsibility to protect as outlined in the UN resolution and suggested that the Nuba are paying the price now for the failure of the international community to act effectively to prevent genocide in Darfur. He added that there will be no solution to the problems in Nuba Mountains without resolving the problems facing Darfur and the hundreds of thousands of refugees from both conflicts.
Baroness Cox has been attempting to get the British government to pay sufficient attention to the plight of the Sudanese for the past two decades. Her own eyewitness experiences have testified that the Nubans are in a worse position today than they were 10 years ago. Yet unlike other matters of state in the UK which get chewed up and spat around in parliament before policies are passed, British foreign policy, unlike that of the US, is not subjected to the same scrutiny and debate. Instead it is decided by a few, behind closed doors, and debate only occurs to explain their actions rather than inform their decisions.
While intervention of any kind is mired with dilemmas, not least in terms of underlying motives and consideration of a state’s sovereignty, under the Right to Protect Britain and the international community have the duty and responsibility to intervene to halt genocide and mass atrocities. Kapila suggested the British government should act to carry out the ICC indictment against al-Bashir and emphasised that more targeted sanctions such as freezing the assets of those indited would be more appropriate than continuing to try to pursue diplomatic relations with war criminals. The foreign office has been well aware of what is taking place in South Kordofan. Dhala from Amnesty International expressed frustration at the lack of action, including investigations into what is taking place. Amnesty has been calling for Humanitarian Assistance to be allowed into Nuba as well as for a full investigation of the atrocities taking place.
Kapila emphasised that silence or ambivalence to war crimes such as those perpetrated in South Kordofan is equivalent to support for those crimes. He suggested it should be the right of a Darfuri, or a Nuban to decide whether those who failed to act should be subject to legal processes as well as those carrying out the crimes.
While the UN continues to ‘negotiate’ to allow access for humanitarian aid agencies to the region, the al-Bashir government continues to inflict atrocities on the Nuba people who will only continue to suffer further. Awareness of the situation has grown in recent months in the media. But this is already very late in the day – the attacks have been going on for a year already. The African Union has been slow to respond, and the response of the UN Security Council has been criticised as ‘toothless’. Dhala expressed criticism towards the Security Council for turning a blind eye to the mounting crises.
Last week the SPLM-N leadership met with the African Union mediation team to discuss ceasefire conditions and demand that humanitarian assistance be allowed in the region. However, al-Bashir has so far refused to enter talks under the framework of an agreement signed between the two parties on the 28 June 2011 despite the agreement dictating that his government must do just that. In the face of his blatant overriding of obligations like this the diplomatic world appears to simply watch.
The resolution to the conflicts and human rights abuses in Sudan will obviously be complex and require not only a solution to the Nuba crisis, but to the crisis in Darfur and the general problem of marginalisation in Sudan and the divide and rule tactics used by Khartoum in pitting communities against one another. In terms of improving international responses to human rights abuses and genocide on matter seems vital: foreign policy, at least in the UK, needs to be made more accountable and subject to democratic processes. In the mean time, Baroness Cox emphasised that the media must play its role in raising awareness of the situation on the ground and initiate public pressure so that the government takes more decisive action, rather than continuing business as usual with the government of Sudan.
 The Guardian, 11 April 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/11/sudan-south-border-war-crisisaccessed 04/06/2012
A border determining the position of Heglig was neither defined on pre-independence maps, nor under the mandate of the Permanent Court of Arbitration which decided the borders concerning Abyei. See Douglas H Johnson’s article ‘Note on Pathou/Heglig’ 02/05/2012 available at http://www.sudanreeves.org/2012/05/03/sudan-historian-douglas-h-johnson-on-the-location-of-hegligpanthou/