Five myths about genocide and violence in Sudan

By John Prendergast
Sunday, December 20, 2009; B03

During Sudan's half-century of independence, few spots on Earth have witnessed as much death and destruction, with 2 1/2 million war-related fatalities during the past two decades alone. Although the Darfur genocide that began in 2003 is only one of the conflicts raging in the country, they all stem from the same cause: the abuse of power. The ruling party represses independent voices and supports militias that have used genocide, child soldiers and rape as weapons of war.

Sudan faces a critical new year, with an unfree election coming in April and a referendum on the independence of the south the following January -- tripwires that could provoke a return to full-scale war. In Washington, meanwhile, few challenges have produced a greater chasm between words and deeds. A first step toward closing that gap is debunking the myths about Sudan that persist among policymakers, diplomats and the public:

The genocide in Darfur is largely over.

1.Because the regime's mass burning of villages in Darfur has ended and mortality rates have plummeted, some have concluded that the worst is done. African Union officials have even claimed that the war in Darfur is over, while Scott Gration, President Obama's special envoy for Sudan, referred in June to the ongoing violence in Darfur as "remnants of genocide." But the government is blocking all independent avenues of reporting, so there is no way to know the level of targeted violence or its perpetrators.

For example, mass rape is one of the main weapons of genocide, and there is ample anecdotal evidence that it is still occurring in Darfur. But in March the regime expelled over a dozen nongovernmental organizations, many of which provided support and protection for survivors of rape, so there no longer is any systematic reporting of sexual assaults.

There are vast humanitarian-aid red zones throughout Darfur. Journalists are systematically denied access, independent local voices are repressed, and U.N. groups and other international agencies are intimidated or simply prevented from investigating reports of human rights violations.

China's oil investments in Sudan keep it from pressuring the government.

2. China, which has invested more than $9 billion during the past decade in Sudan's oil sector, has provided weapons to the regime and run interference for it at the U.N. Security Council. Major international efforts to pressure Beijing to play a more constructive role have fallen on deaf ears. However, the game could change. If the 2005 peace deal between Sudan's north and south collapses and southerners go back to war, their first targets will be Chinese oil installations in the north. China, therefore, has a vested interest in peace and security. Following up on Obama's trip to China, Washington and Beijing could partner in a diplomatic "surge" to end the conflict in Darfur and prevent a recurrence of war in the south.

Pressure on Sudan hasn't worked, so let's try incentives.

3. Obama administration officials and international diplomats often argue that all available pressures aimed at the regime -- including sanctions, embargoes and diplomatic isolation -- have failed, so it's time to use carrots rather than sticks. Gration, the presidential envoy, told The Washington Post that "kids, countries -- they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk." Yet, in the 20 years since the regime in Khartoum came to power, it has compromised only in response to the threat or application of meaningful pressure from abroad, such as when it expelled Osama bin Laden from the sanctuary it was providing, stopped supporting slave-raiding militias in the south and struck a peace deal with southern rebels. There are plenty more pressure tactics that could be deployed through the Security Council or other coalitions, such as tightening the asset freezes on the ruling party's nouveau riche leaders, providing greater support to the International Criminal Court's cases against Sudanese officials, denying the regime debt relief and expanding the five-year-old U.N. arms embargo.

Indicting President Bashir hurt peace efforts.

4. This one would be funny if it weren't so sad. First of all, the peace process in Darfur was moribund long before the International Criminal Court indicted Omar Hassan al-Bashir in March for crimes against humanity. Second, it is precisely because there has been no accountability for such crimes that the violence continues. Third, internal divisions are emerging within the regime, as other high-ranking officials worry that they might be the next ones accused. In reality, the indictment against Bashir has given the international community real leverage to move peace efforts forward.

Since seizing power in a 1989 coup, Bashir has ruled despotically and has demonstrated a willingness to maintain power by any means necessary, including authorizing genocidal war tactics. No plan exists to execute the ICC arrest warrant as long as he remains president, and he appears to be the ruling-party candidate for the April election. But unless there are consequences for the crimes of his regime, the atrocities will continue.

The United States is doing everything it can to end the violence.

5. Colin Powell, who while serving as President George W. Bush's secretary of state became the first U.S. official to publicly state that the violence in Darfur constituted "genocide," also said the United States was doing "all it can" to end it. Obama officials have made similar statements since taking office.

And while the United States has provided by far the most humanitarian aid to Sudan's multiple emergencies and has contributed more than any other country to peacekeeping efforts there, opportunities abound to take a more proactive approach. The United States has not led international efforts to draft a peace deal that addresses the root causes of violence in Darfur. The United States has not built even a small coalition of countries willing to impose consequences on a genocidal regime. The United States has not presented a credible case that this regime is supporting ethnic conflict in the south again as the election approaches. The United States has not stood up for a free and fair election in Sudan by suspending U.S. taxpayer support to the current process. And the United States has not provided meaningful assistance to the ICC to expand its work in Sudan.

In short, the new administration, which includes several officials with a track record of calling for real action on Sudan, is missing huge opportunities to help break the deadly cycle of conflict.

John Prendergast is a co-founder of Enough, the Center for American Progress project to end genocide, and co-author with Don Cheadle of "Not on Our Watch."

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