Civil war in Sudan: the paradox of human rights and national sovereignty.

Author:Mayotte, Judy
Position:Refugees and International Population Flows


For more than a quarter century the countries of the Horn of Africa have served as a revolving door for refugees. Eritreans and Ethiopians fled to Sudan and Somalia; Sudanese, to Ethiopia and Eritrea; and Somalis to Ethiopia. Djibouti received Somalis and Ethiopians. Each country in the Horn, save Djibouti, has produced as well as hosted refugees. Today, civil strife in Ethiopia and in the newly recognized nation of Eritrea has ended and those who fled, some as early as the 1960s, are beginning to return home. In Sudan and Somalia, however, brutal civil conflict still continues. Large numbers of citizens from both these countries are internally displaced. Yet, because they have not crossed an international border, they are not classified as refugees and are refused the international protection granted those who do cross into another country. Throughout the world more than 25 million civilians are internally displaced. The international community, including the industrial democracies as well as developing nation states, is forced to grapple with the complex issue of conflict between national sovereignty and protection of the basic human rights of and humanitarian access to the internally displaced.

In 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War, while Kurds and Shi'ite Muslims fled Iraqi bombardments, the international community debated the legality of any form of foreign intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. Article 2 of the U.N. Charter clearly prohibits such interference: "Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter."(1) Arguing that some degree of interference was justified in the face of the potentially brutal genocide of a people, European Community leaders proposed intervention to create safe havens for Iraqi Kurds under U.N. supervision in Iraq's northern territory. The creators of the concept justified it as humanitarian intervention based on the statutes of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

In April 1991, intervention was justified and implemented. The U.N. Security Council Resolution 688 of 5 April 1991 condemned Saddam Hussein's repression and called on the international community to do what was necessary to conduct relief operations. This resolution "for the first time in history determined that humanitarian suffering within a given member state was a threat to international peace and security."(2)

On 16 April, invoking Resolution 688, President Bush announced to the nation and to the world:

Consistent with United Nations Security Council's Resolution 688,

and working closely with the United Nations and other international

relief organizations and our European partners, I have

directed the U.S. military to begin immediately to establish several

encampments in northern Iraq, where relief supplies for these

refugees will be made available... and distributed in an orderly


With the president's announcement and the subsequent unilateral intervention by the United States, the leaders of U.N. member nations ended the debate over whether the creation of such enclaves would interfere in Iraq's internal affairs and national sovereignty. Clearly, with this U.N. resolution and the Gulf War, President Bush challenged the right of nations to absolute national sovereignty. However, neither principles for the bases and extent of future interventions nor the means to be used were defined, as is evident in the cases of Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti.

Today, the situation in Sudan challenges the international community to act once more. For more than a decade, the sovereign government of this nation has been set on a course of eradicating a particular segment of its population. A principal weapon in this civil war instigated by the government of Sudan (GOS) and followed by the rebel factions of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) is the withholding of food from civilian populations, an action which causes them to flee to survive. The internal displacement of people and the interference with food distribution is not a by-product of the war, but an intentional military strategy targeting civilians. Can the international community tolerate warring parties obstructing international relief? Can a government punish with impunity its people for being who they are -- ethically, religiously or racially? Do other nations have a responsibility to act? Are there basic human rights such as access to food, shelter, water, clothing and medical assistance that cannot be violated, particularly when the denial of such rights is used by a government to eradicate a segment of its population? Is there a point beyond which a government cannot be permitted to go in abusing those citizens it is bound to protect?

Although Sudan generously opened its doors as wide as any country in the world to more than a million refugees seeking asylum from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Chad, Uganda, Zaire and Somalia, a significant portion of its own population has not benefited from the government's generosity. Laji, the Sudanese term for refugee meaning "downtroden," does not apply to the more than five million southern Sudanese who scattered to other parts of the country, fleeing a brutal 10-year civil war. Since 1983 (the second phase of a much longer conflict), the predominantly Arab Muslim north has fought to impose Islamic law and politics on the predominantly black, Christian and animist south. hi this conflict, political, economic, religious, ethnic and racial issues are all intertwined. It is estimated that since 1983 at least 1.3 million southern Sudanese noncombatants have perished.(4)

Background to Sudan's Civil War(5)

Sudan is the largest country on the African continent and its nationals are among the poorest and least literate in the world. Spreading over one million square miles, twice the size of Alaska, the vast majority of its 26 million people has lived with a per capita income of less than US$400 per year for more than a decade, along with floods, locusts and war battering both the country's fragile economy and the land. The war between the north and the south has been particularly devastating. Since independence from Britain in 1956, Sudan has been embroiled in civil strife for 27 of its 38 years as a sovereign state. The 11-year hiatus from gunfire and military maneuvers occurred between 1972 and 1983.

Like most of the civil conflicts on the African continent during the second half of the twentieth century, the roots of Sudan's civil war lie in its colonial past. Egypt set the stage for animosities between the predominantly Arab Muslim north and the minority African Christian and animist south when it invaded and subdued Sudan in 1821. Under British tutelage and funding, Egypt opened trade routes in northern Sudan and paved the way for unprincipled plunderers to move into the south and take not only material goods and natural resources, but also humans whom they arrantly sold into slavery.

The Anglo-British Condominium of 1898 effectively gave political power in Sudan to the British. Fearing the spread of Islamic social nationalization to their other African colonies, the British formulated separate policies for northern and southern Sudan. The focus of economic development was in the north with the seat of government in Khartoum.(6) Under the "southern policy," however, the south was insulated from the north and virtually ignored economically, politically and socially. In fact, the British required outsiders to carry special permits to travel to the south.(7) What negligible attention Britain gave to health care, education and community development in the south came through missionaries, whom the British encouraged. The British promoted Christianity as well as the English language. While Arab culture and Islam united the north, tribal diversity precluded the threat of a united opposition to British rule in the south.(8) Lack of education among most of the southern people prevented development, and an absence of good transportation ensured isolation. But civil unrest prevailed throughout both north and south, and Britain eventually acceded to Sudan's push for independence in 1955. On 1 January 1956, Sudan became a sovereign nation.

The seeds of civil war between north and south, though, had already taken root, and independence did not forestall its escalation. When the British "Sudanized" the government in 1953, only four posts out of 800 went to southern Sudanese. With independence in 1955, no more administrative positions were allocated to the south.(9)

In fact, the north tried to impose both Islam and Arabic on Sudan's southern population. Such actions were the immediate cause of the north-south conflict that finally broke out in 1955, after festering for years. Several hundred thousand Sudanese died and thousands fled to neighboring countries. The 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement provided some peace, according the south limited regional autonomy with its own government and parliament. But the underlying hostility and intrusion by the Khartoum government into the constitutionally granted powers of the south remained an obstacle to recognized federation.

Although Colonel Jafaar al-Nimeiri, who took power in 1969, achieved peace for a time, his actions renewed military hostilities in 1983. During the 14 intervening years, Nimeiri launched ambitious -- and flawed -- development schemes, moving Sudan from socialist nationalization to western capitalism. Neither brought prosperity to the nation. Instead, the country plunged into an $8 billion debt, exacerbated in part by the 1973 to 1974 oil crisis. Total Sudanese exports did not even meet the interest payments on the debt. While a few powerful Sudanese lined their pockets with gold, the...

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