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International community has failed to protect innocent civilians in Sudan

UNAMID Officers on Patrol in Sudan. Photo: UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran/Flick

Exactly one year and a week ago, we published a commentary piece in the Globe and Mail predicting grave consequences if the international community did not intervene to stop the violence against civilians in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Alas, we, and the many others like us who raised our voices, were ignored. A year later, we can clearly see the tragic cost of the world's collective inaction.

We understand that it's hard to keep up with the never-ending horror stories from Sudan, both the original country and the new state of South Sudan that split from it. So there's a good chance you haven't heard much about the latest campaign of state-sponsored violence against civilians in Sudan, a nation with a long track record of genocidal counterinsurgency, genocide-by-attrition, and crimes against humanity. It is not too much to say that the 23-year reign of Sudan President Omar al-Bashir has been the most brutal of any head of state now in power. Tens of thousands of Canadians joined solidarity groups to protest his genocidal attacks in Darfur a few years ago. But as that crisis faded, so did interest in Mr. al-Bashir's continuing depredations.

That disinterest has been reflected in the dismal underreporting of Mr. al-Bashir's latest crime. The Government of Sudan has targeted civilians in areas that border the newly formed country of South Sudan; you can easily find them on a map -- the Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile state. Yet while the Canadian government, led by Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, has been admirably vocal about the state-sponsored violence in Syria and Burma, for example, he has unaccountably neglected the worsening situation in Sudan under the world's most brutal government.

The international community, including Canada, has thus far (or more accurately, yet again) failed in its duty to protect innocent civilians in Sudan, as mandated under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine adopted by the United Nations in 2005. State-sponsored violence has engulfed the region, including targeted ethnic killings, indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilian areas, and a blockage of food deliveries and other humanitarian aid. Are the crimes of the Syrian government worse than this?

As in Darfur, the Sudanese government is targeting civilians in areas held by rebels from the Sudan People's Liberation Movement–North (SPLM-N). In June, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof found his way into the area and described hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Nuba Mountains, many of them children, "reduced to eating leaves and insects" as they starve to death in increasing numbers. The crisis has also spread into the Upper Nile state of South Sudan, where more than 11,000 starving refugees have fled the violence and forced starvation. Médecins sans frontières recently reported that under-five mortality in these refugee camps is more than twice the emergency threshold. Sadly, some people fleeing the violence don't make it as far as the refugee camps, dying of hunger and exhaustion along the way.

Only a decade after its betrayal of Rwanda, the international community once again failed to intervene appropriately in Darfur. Each of the Permanent Five members of the Security Council had national interests that somehow trumped any effective humanitarian action. And now? What can be done to end the state-sponsored violence and forced starvation in the southern states of Sudan, and who will do it? Specifically, what is Canada's role?

Last week, a group of 66 genocide scholars from 10 nations (including the authors of this commentary) signed a letter calling on the Obama Administration to help end the GOS's violence and deliberate humanitarian blockade in the Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile state.

We asked that the Sudanese government be held accountable to the Tripartite Agreement signed a month ago in Addis Ababa, which stipulates the conditions for humanitarian access and food delivery to civilians in need in those regions. In particular, we call for a land and air humanitarian corridor for delivery of aid and secure arrangements with both sides for the U.S. to airlift supplies directly into territories under SPLM-N control.

But the responsibility to protect civilians in Sudan extends well beyond Washington. Canada also has an important responsibility -- and opportunity -- to wield diplomatic pressure on Sudan and to deliver emergency aid to the affected regions.

We urge Mr. Baird and Stephen Harper to respond to the Sudanese government's violence and forced starvation of innocent civilians, acts that could well amount to a form of genocide-by-attrition. We join with other Canadians, such as those associated with STAND Canada, in pleading with our government to act. We call on other citizens to join this call. This issue is beyond political partisanship. Every day that we delay responding, every day that humanitarian aid is blocked to the Nuba mountains, more children die at the hands of their own government.

Amanda Grzyb is assistant professor of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario, where she teaches courses about genocide and media. She is the editor of The World and Darfur: International Response to Crimes Against Humanity in Western Sudan. Gerald Caplan is author of The 1994 Genocide of the Tutsi of Rwanda. This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran/Flickr

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