HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH "Crises in Sudan and Northern Uganda"
Testimony of Jemera Rone, Human Rights Watch Before the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights and the Subcommittee on Africa July 29, 1998
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Background To The War In Sudan

The war in Sudan, now in its fifteenth year, has many causes: racial, religious, regional, resources (the Nile water and oil), and cultural. Sudan is a highly diverse country; numbers in this very poor country, Africa's largest in land mass, are elusive, but some 40-50 percent of the 27 million population claims Arab descent and 60-50 percent is African; 60 percent are Muslims and the rest Christian and practitioners of traditional African religions; nineteen major languages (and some 600 dialects) are spoken. Since decolonization in 1956 Sudan has been ruled by a Khartoum elite which identifies with Arabic and Islamic culture.

The current government came to power via a military coup that overthrew an elected government. This government is now run unofficially by the National Islamic Front (NIF-now re-formed as the only legal political party, the National Congress). It declared Sudan an Islamic state and is attempting to impose its version of Islam and Arabism on the rest of Sudan. Under its shari'a laws, for instance, apostasy or a Muslim changing his religion warrants a death sentence. Mekki Kuku, a Nuba schoolteacher living in the north who converted from Islam to Christianity is to be tried for apostasy and faces the death penalty, according to a report.

Peace negotiations drag on but the central issues of federalism versus the current centralized state versus a referendum for self determination remain unresolved. The most recent government peace proposal is for a vote for self-determination, but it would include only the south within its 1956 boundaries, and exclude the Nuba Mountains (where the SPLA has had a front since 1989), the eastern Ingessana Hills (where the Beja Congress has been in armed rebellion allied with the SPLA since 1995), and the traditional Dinka area around Abyei, gerrymandered out of the south under the British. It would also exclude northern political forces, both modern and traditional, who have taken up arms against the government in 1995 under the rebel umbrella group the National Democratic Alliance (which includes the SPLA).

The Sudan government appears keen to maintain power and regain international credibility, even if it means succession of the south as the price of consolidating an Islamic state in the north. It is assumed, however, that the government of Sudan will not permit the oil-rich Western Upper Nile area (Al Wihda state) of the south to secede. The northern opposition parties and those in SPLA liberated areas of the north probably fear anything that would legitimize the government, entrench its religious extremism and intolerance, and enable it to redeploy all its forces to the central and eastern fronts.

Sudan has a history of multiparty politics but under the current government parties arebanned and elections have for the most part been boycotted by the opposition. Civil and political rights are sharply curtailed, except for government supporters. Lack of free expression, free association and peaceable assembly rights make a mockery of elections. For a few months before March 1998, it appeared that the government was going to take a real step toward political pluralism and respect for international human rights and, in its new constitution, permit the reestablishment of political parties. These changes would have signaled a new hope for settlement of the war. This reform movement was squelched by the Islamist hard-liners, however, who will certainly not retain their control if the system opens up. During the 1986-89 period of democracy, the NIF did not win more than 20 percent of the vote and was consistently out polled by two northern political parties that are banned today.

There is a feisty group of attorneys who defend political cases. They continue their activities despite being frequently detained. Most recently they are defending prominent political activists accused of sabotage, and the Muslim clerics who protested these arrests, who are now facing jail sentences. The lawyers play an important role in preventing the government from railroading political detainees in death sentence cases, but are unable to stop torture and deaths in detention or prolonged arbitrary detention of suspected political activists.

The war in Sudan has lasted through four governments and predated any assistance from Uganda to the SPLA: the NIF government took power in part to prevent the finalization of a peace agreement with the SPLA by the elected government. The war then spread from the southern region and the central Nuba Mountains in 1989 to the east in 1995.

The Museveni government in Uganda has supported the largest Sudanese rebel force, the SPLM/A, with varying levels of commitment for several years. Eritrea and Ethiopia, Sudan's neighbors to the east, have given support to the SPLA and to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the umbrella group for all opposition, armed and unarmed, in exile. A separate hearing would be needed to understand the abuses committed by the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments against their own citizens and the abuses committed by rebel groups which the Sudan government supports against both states, not to mention the recent war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Both states seem to agree, however, that the root cause of their problems with the Sudan government is its "ideology of intolerance," exemplified by its policy "of trying to homogenize Sudanese society around what are perceived to be the principles of Islam," according to Ethiopia's president.

The SPLA, which has been fighting since 1983, has its own human rights problems. It has not developed internal democracy nor the rule of law. Therefore there is no real system by which commanders or soldiers can be held accountable for abuses committed against the civilian population and there is little military discipline actually taken against abusive commanders and soldiers.

The result is that relations between the SPLA and the civilian population in the vast areas the SPLA controls in the south turn on the personality of the local commander; there are a number of commanders who are respectful of the civilian population. The SPLA at the highest levels, however, has refused to respond to inquiries by Human Rights Watch and others about cases of summary execution and disappearances of SPLA detainees, which leads to the inference thatthese were sanctioned by the SPLA.

    The most common SPLA abuses include summary executions, rape, taking local girls as brides without their consent or the consent of the families (or payment of dowry), indiscriminate attacks, looting or taking food by force (and manipulating relief), forced recruitment, and recruitment of boys under age eighteen. The last two abuses have diminished in recent years, thanks in part to international pressure, which must now address the other abuses.

    The SPLA's practice of forcibly taking food, including relief food, from the civilians for "taxes" has come under fire recently, although Human Rights Watch denounced the practice in 1990 and thereafter as a violation of the rules of war. Aid agencies straining to prevent a growing number of civilian deaths by starvation and disease have denounced the SPLA for "taxing" food away from the very needy during the 1998 famine. A Technical Working Group on these and other relief issues already has been set up (composed of U.N. organizations and the SPLA), with a Taskforce to assist it, to investigate why those in need may not be receiving adequate food, and in August to propose practical remedies. This is a welcome development.

    A ceasefire for three months from July 15 has been agreed to by the government and the SPLA. It is limited to famine-affected areas.

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July 1998

Human Rights Watch