More to Sudan than meets the West’s eye

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Despite its reputation for war and violence, there is more to Sudan than meets the West’s eye.

24 September 2010

Huge, harsh, desolate, with bloody borders and regions wracked by genocidal conflict, listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism and under an international embargo, led by the only sitting leader to be indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, Sudan, Africa’s largest country geographically, is the quintessential pariah state. But there is much more to this land of violence and extremes than the religious fanaticism, gun-toting militias and rebel groups, famine and poverty that is frequently portrayed in the Western media.

Despite having the odds and much of the international community stacked against it, Sudan’s northern region, the largely violence-free area where the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashir faces little opposition, is developing at breakneck speed. New roads are carving their way across the vast stretches of desert, glass and steel buildings are climbing skyward in Khartoum, and, at least for some Sudanese living away from the country’s many conflict zones, living standards are slowly improving.

“Here there was nothing but dirt before. Now there are paved roads, all in just a few years,” Hagg Said, the brother of the owner of a roadside café near the northern town of Abri, told me during a recent visit. “We can get around and trade more easily, it’s much better.”

The road running past Hagg Said’s brother’s café, like many roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects in Northern Sudan, was built by Chinese contractors, using local laborers, Chinese foremen and imported Chinese equipment. Some locals are enthusiastic about China’s growing influence – one store owner in the area has proudly hung a photo of Chinese President Hu Jintao alongside one of al-Bashir on his wall. In contrast, many northern Sudanese view the United States with disdain. They see Washington (which bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Khartoum suburb of Omdurman in 1998 on the spurious grounds that it was producing chemical weapons and had links to al-Qaeda) and Western nations’ policies as holding the country – and their own lives – back.

While the West has sought to isolate Sudan, banning investment and blocking trade in response to the al-Bashir government’s dire human rights record, China has seized the opportunity to expand its influence. Chinese investment in Sudan accounted for a large chunk of the $5 billion the country received last year and China is one of Sudan’s largest trading partners, a relationship that has helped the Sudanese economy quintuple in size over the last decade, one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Clearly, Beijing is not just interested in selling cheap consumer products, construction equipment and completing infrastructure projects. Sudanese oil – the country is now the third-largest producer in sub-Saharan Africa – accounts for around 10% of China’s oil needs, and Chinese investment in the country’s mineral and resource-rich regions is growing. And it is precisely those regions that have put Sudan under the international spotlight.

Darfur, whose inhabitants rose up against decades of government neglect only to be slaughtered in their tens of thousands at the hands of government-backed Janjaweed militiamen, remains a dangerous flashpoint in the west of the country – one that spread across the border into neighbouring Chad in 2005.

In the south, where 70% of Sudan’s oil is pumped, a two-decade civil war between government troops and separatist rebels representing the area’s Christian-Animist population, claimed the lives of more than 1.5 million people until a 2005 ceasefire brought an uneasy end to hostilities. A referendum on independence for the south, scheduled for January 2011, is likely to be a new flashpoint in the near term.

Just recently, the Abyei border region, an area of rich pasture lands close to key oil fields where a separate referendum is to be held next year on whether the territory should join the currently semi-autonomous south, has been the site of several killings linked to conflicting territorial claims.

In all these regions, people are dying, killed not just by the bullets of soldiers, militiamen and rebels, but by the consequences of those conflicts: famine, poverty and disease. The United Nations recently warned that places such as Akobo, a town in the south-eastern region of Jonglei, is the “hungriest place on earth” with almost half of all children suffering malnutrition. The international humanitarian aid that does get to where it’s needed is essential for millions of Sudanese living in the worst areas of conflict, but international political pressure has so far had only limited impact. Killings continue in Darfur and Abyei, the south is still tense, al-Bashir remains in power – he won a widely ridiculed election in April after opposition parties boycotted the poll – and has yet to be hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Away from Sudan’s many areas of conflict, those countries willing to deal with Sudan and al-Bashir’s regime, such as China, India and some Gulf Arab states, are having far more impact, helping not only their own interests but, by proxy, also the lives of more than 20 million Sudanese (out of a total population of around 40 million) living outside the conflict zones.

Khartoum’s souqs and commercial districts bustle with activity, traders hawk cheap Chinese-made clothes and consumer products, internet cafés abound and mobile phone shops line every other street. New buses now ply paved roads previously only served by bone-rattling pick-up trucks, and satellite dishes beam channels from across the Arab and Western world into rural and urban homes. In the city’s squares, shops and cafes, where economics, rather than politics, governs daily life, people from Sudan’s many disparate ethnic groups mingle with apparent ease.

“I go to Cairo to buy from the warehouses and bring things back to sell in Khartoum. Everything is more expensive in Sudan, but people are buying so I can make a good profit. I’ve been all over for goods,” said Ibrahim, a trader from the capital, as he sat among boxed-up washing machines, flat-screen TVs and ceiling fans on the deck of the weekly ferry across Lake Nasser from Aswan in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in Sudan.

Much of the world has sought to isolate Sudan in order to punish its political rulers. But entrepreneurial Sudanese and the few countries still willing to deal with the pariah regime, regardless of their underlying intentions, have ultimately ensured the world economy and economic opportunity have become more accessible to the average Sudanese.

Nonetheless, the unbalanced development of the country, largely based on oil wealth and with a large disparity between the center and periphery, remains a potential source for conflict and political instability, especially if oil-rich south Sudan moves to secede from the north next year.

Andrew Eatwell is currently travelling through Africa. His journey has so far taken him through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over the last two months. He has found the experience interesting, taxing, fun, tiring, exhilarating and saddening in almost equal measure. Sudan and Ethiopia stand out as the two most intriguing countries he has visited.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s website at QorreO.

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The ICC and Darfur

 
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By Tom Kenis*

The ICC indictment of Sudan’s leadership merits a balanced appraisal.

September 2008

In July 2008, the International Criminal Court submitted, upon the request of the United Nations Security Council, charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, having already done so for Sudanese Humanitarian Affairs Minister Ahmed Muhammad Harun and a local militia leader. None have so far been brought into custody, nor is this likely to happen in the near or even remote future.

“Politically motivated,” cried the Sudanese government. “Double standards, and neo-colonial bullying,” charged African, Arab and many European commentators. The tacit welcoming of the ruling by America, itself not a signatory and fierce opponent of the ICC, surprised few, given Sudan’s oil-laden geology. This, in turn, explains the eerily quiet wind blowing from China, which meets close to seven percent of its oil imports from the regime in Khartoum. (Credible) conspiracy theories aside, many analysts fear a Sudanese backlash, a hardening of positions, undermining a tenuous peace process, and turning out more harmful in the end to the very people the court ruling is supposed to rush to the aid of.

All of the above is true. The ICC, set up in 2002, has picked out small fry, a sitting leader of an Arab state at that, the adverse connotations of which have not gone unnoticed in the region. In many ways, the ICC merely ups the ante, shielding behind the cloak of internationalism self-interested policies and the chess game of jostling powers that weaker states have historically been victims of and at best spectators to.

And yet we cannot dismiss the notion that the voices raised against the ruling, and hence in defence of a government that at best utterly fails to act in defence of its own citizens, with horrible consequences, are all but devoid of ulterior motives. The court’s ruling is indeed a heavily politicised one, but so would a now hypothetical decision to the contrary. At one extreme, currying favour with the regime in Sudan inculpates one to the charge of wishing to secure access to the nation’s natural resources, while proponents of the ruling are accused of wishing a regime change for the sake of gaining a toehold to those same resources. Concurrently, some advocates of the court’s decision aspire to divert attention from their own misdeeds in the human rights arena, while detractors fear the legal dire straits such a precedent might put them in. Worse infringements occur in other places, so why intervene here? Indeed, arguments and ammunition are easily found in support of either position.

To those with no material stake in the imbroglio, the question then boils down to one of inclination, optimistic or pessimistic, as to the ability of the mechanisms hitherto employed to alleviate and ultimately solve a question of extreme human suffering. Do the actions of the ICC represent something new, or should such an instrument be seen as merely the sum of its constituent parts, a continuation of old policies, lorded over by self-interested nation states? Can the ICC transcend the balance of powers? Is the ICC, in plain English, capable of saving lives? The wider question should, but perhaps given the inchoate state of the institution, cannot easily be disentangled from the concrete case of Darfur before it.

International bodies are only as effective as their participating countries allow them to become. A prime example is arguably the United Nations, once paralysed by the Cold War stalemate, somewhat invigorated since, but stilly hamstrung by its veto-wielders’ reluctance to reform and adapt to changing international relations. Perhaps the ICC, an organisation that is legally speaking not part of the UN, can play a reinforcing, complementary role, hand-in-glove with the trend of expanding international laws. Whether the challenge of justice-over-the-weak v justice-for-all can be overcome, only time will tell.

The shifting of the balance towards universal success v a quick demise of the ICC will take place in the penumbra of smaller nations, between ardent supporters and stern detractors. Those countries seeking an advantage in opposing the court now, might one day find themselves in need of more robust international policing. The inverse, one should add, will arise just as easily. The clear choice for governments here and now is between short-term self-interest and its long-term variant. The difference is significant. Today, two very passionate foes of expanded international jurisprudence, Israel and the United States, already find themselves applauding the court’s ruling on Darfur. A verdict according to double standards will only serve to accentuate those double standards and increase the pressure to address other, more complex, even more intractable conflicts. Alas, small fry first.

The ruling appears not yet to have unleashed the feared deterioration on the ground, despite one senior Sudanese official reacting furiously, threatening to turn Darfur into a graveyard. On the contrary, the initial response of the Sudanese government has been one of increased responsiveness, at least in tone, to international pressure. With perhaps a cynical stretch of the imagination, white faces, too, will soon pop up in the dock at The Hague. If we include the ad hoc tribunal for Yugoslavia this has already happened. Of course, all gains, especially as modest as these, can be reversed. However, one must also recognise even modest gains for what they are: timid beginnings, but beginnings nonetheless.

*Tom Kenis is a Belgian NGO worker. Published with the author’s permission. ©Tom Kenis.

This is an archived article from Diabolic Digest.

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The summit of hypocrisy

 
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By Khaled Diab

If Arabs want their concerns about other nations’ war crimes to be taken seriously, then they should not be welcoming Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to their countries and summits.

April 2009

With the way Omar Hassan al-Bashir has been jetting around the Middle East and Africa, you might be excused for thinking he was not a wanted man. In recent weeks, he has visited half a dozen countries, including Eritrea and Egypt, both of which are signatories (pdf) to the International Criminal Court but have not yet ratified the Rome Statute establishing it.

The world’s most wanted head of state topped it all off with an Arab summit in Doha which reiterated “our solidarity with Sudan and our rejection of the measure of the … International Criminal Court against his Excellency”. Bashir explained his decision to attend the summit as “a message to the western world that Sudan will not be isolated”.

Perhaps trying to show he is at peace with his conscience or as a secret plea for divine intervention, the first sitting head of state to be indicted for war crimes flew to Saudi Arabia to perform an umra, or mini pilgrimage. He even defiantly said that he was willing to attend the annual UN general assembly, if he was invited.

Many Arabs and Africans see Bashir’s indictment as a manifestation of racism, western imperialism under a different guise, especially given the fact that the only cases currently before the ICC are all against Africans.

Some will dismiss these concerns with a glib assertion that justice is blind and that Arabs and Africans are being hypocritical in their defence of a war criminal. But there is a strong whiff of – if not hypocrisy – double standards and of picking a soft target in the ICC’s decision to pursue the Sudanese president. For instance, I recently outlined the strong arguments for indicting George W Bush for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

So why has the ICC not started similar proceedings against the former US president? Because the US has not signed up to the ICC and so the court has no jurisdiction over Americans? Well, the same applies to Sudan which, like the US and Israel, has also indicated that it will not ratify the Rome Statute. The answer is, of course, obvious: justice may be blind, but she has a sixth sense that tells her not to mess with the big guys.

Just like many Arabs are outraged that the ICC should indict Bashir, many Americans get furious at the mere suggestion that their own leaders might be criminal mass murderers. After the publication of my Bush article, one furious American, who called me a “moon worshipper” without explaining what that meant, emailed me to ask how I dared question the intentions of the “great” George W Bush, and to inform me that his only regret was that the former president had not killed more Arabs.

What this proves is that making exceptions for your own side is not exceptional and that hypocrisy knows no national or cultural boundaries. But if the west wishes its moral stances to be taken seriously by its former colonies, where some of the world’s most serious crimes against humanity are committed, then it has to be seen to be pursuing justice whether it involves friends or foes.

“How can an ordinary citizen in the Arab or Muslim world believe that the international community applies international law [impartially] and is concerned about the welfare of Muslims in Darfur… at a time when the rights of millions of Arabs and Muslims are violated in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and other places?” asks Hassan Nafe’ah, an Egyptian expert in international law. “We don’t object to trying Bashir and any other Arab tyrant, as long as they are preceded by Bush and Olmert and others of their ilk,” he concludes.

Pointing fingers at western hypocrisy is, in itself, not a sufficient defence, since double standards are duplicity whether practised by the powerful or the weak. If Arabs wish their concerns over atrocities committed by the US in Iraq or Israel in Gaza to be taken seriously, they need to apply similar standards to their allies. That does not mean they have to hand Bashir over to the ICC, especially given their fears that it could destabilise Sudan, but, at the very least, they should condemn his two decades of terror and ostracise him for the crimes he has committed against his own people.

Bashir’s two decades ruling Sudan have been a constant chain of conflict and war – from the civil war between north and south to the more recent conflict in Darfur – in which the total body count is unknown but could be anywhere between two and three million.

There is a widespread belief that, in the ugly balance of reality, African and Arab lives are worth less that western ones. But by expressing solidarity with a known mass murderer, Arabs and Africans are also cheapening the value of their own lives.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 8 April 2009. Read the related discussion.

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