Human Rights Causes of the Famine in Sudan- The Context

Sudan, once promoted as the bridge between the Arab and African worlds, is distinguished by human rights abuses arising from the government's determination to create an Arab Islamic state. It discriminates against and marginalizes non-Arabs and non-Muslims, who make up 60 percent and 40 percent respectively of the 27 million population. Gross abuses of international humanitarian law in the fifteenth year of the civil war continue to be committed by all parties, including the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

The ruling National Islamic Front (NIF) represented a politicized form of Islam and repressed Muslim leaders and sects that challenged its hegemony. All political partieshave been banned since the 1989 military coup that overthrew a democratically elected government brought the NIF/military coalition to power. The new constitution contains an ambiguous section regarding freedom of association and the right of political parties to form, but the government will not permit party organization (except by its own party, the National Congress, formed by the NIF) until it issues "regulations."

The government continues to conduct forced recruitment (aiming for a force level of 665,000), arbitrary arrests, and trials in military tribunals of groups alleged to be plotting to overthrow the government. Many of the targets of these arrests and trials are well-known persons active in political parties and trade unions in democratic times.

Pressures brought on women to conform to a vague "Islamic woman" code continue, including imposing sex segregation in public buses and beauty salons.

Sudan's four million internally displaced persons are mostly the product of the prolonged war. Many lost homes, cattle, and family members; hundreds of thousands moved to Khartoum, where the government treated them as second class citizens and violated their right to freedom of movement, and without compensation or notice razed their churches, schools and community centers.

The government denied any religious discrimination but admittedly refused to grant any permits to build churches in Khartoum for the last twenty-five years, while routinely issuing permits for the construction of new mosques. Trials for apostasy (a Muslim converting to another religion), which carries the death penalty, are rare but continue to occur, mostly recently with a Nuba on trial for converting to Christianity.

Sudan contains nineteen major ethnic groups (with almost 600 subgroups), speaking more than 115 tribal languages. Arabic is the official language. The government's strategy in the war zones (where African non-Arab populations predominate) was to turn African peoples against one another. It continues to follow a divide and rule strategy, even promoting fighting between pro-government Nuer sections in Western Upper Nile.

In 1996 the government entered in a Political Charter with southern rebel factions including Riak Machar's former SPLA force. The oil resources of Sudan lie largely in Machar's territory, where an international consortium is drilling. A 1997 peace accord, not negotiated with or signed by the SPLA, the main rebel force, would permit a referendum among southerners (but not Nubas, Beja or other marginalized peoples now engaged in armed struggle) on the issue of self-determination in an undetermined period of time.

Now a famine affecting 701,000 persons at risk in Bahr El Ghazal and 2.6 million (excluding the Nuba) throughout Sudan -- caused by raids on civilians, displacing them and looting their cattle and food, by government-supported Arab militias, warlords, and SPLA forces -- has led to the set up of the world's largest emergency relief program. Humanitarian and even commercial access to the SPLA-controlled areas of the Nuba Mountains remained barred by government fiat since the beginning of the war. This stringent blockade and looting and burning attacks caused an estimated 100,000 of 300,000 civilians in SPLA Nuba areas to be at risk of famine.

The Sudan government's sponsorship of the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group with an appalling human rights record of abducting, killing, torturing, and sexually abusing Ugandan children, was visible when it permitted relatives of some kidnaped children to visit an LRA camp inside Sudan, and when Ugandan children abducted by the LRA escaped to find refuge in U.N. offices in Juba, the largest southern government garrison town.

The SPLA remained largely unaccountable to the civilian population it governs, although efforts have been made, by the U.N. and others, to assist the SPLA's civilian administration in the south. Institutions are not yet firm, there is no clear avenue for redress, and the style of governance appears to depend largely on the personality of the local commander. There is little accountability and no perciptible punishment for officers or soldiers who commit abuses against the civilian population, such as summary executions or rape. The SPLA has diminished its forced recruitment of underage boys, due to church, U.N., and other protests. Looting and diversion of food continue to be a problem in several SPLA zones.

Human Rights Causes of the Famine in Sudan