Sudan, the UN and the concept of "Illegality"
By Anne Bartlett
April 24, 2012 — A curious thing has happened on the diplomatic road to resolving the crisis over Heglig: the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, finally discovered his voice and declared the occupation of the border zone by the South Sudan as “illegal” and an infringement of sovereignty. I say “curious” because Mr. Ban has been rather less forthcoming about all manner of other “illegalities” the length and breadth of Sudan: bombing; extra-judicial killing; torture; mass graves; the displacement of people from their land; the movement of illegal populations from other countries onto land owned by Sudanese citizens; election fraud and demographic re-engineering; the cutting off of humanitarian aid and starvation of whole sectors of the population. The list is of course endless, but I think this shortened version makes the point.
Mr. Ban is, of course, not alone in his moral indignation over the occupation of the border zone: the rest of the international community has also had rather a lot to say over the “illegal” actions of South Sudan, the “rebels” of the SRF, and the rest of the marginalized populations of Sudan who have had enough of the predatory actions of the NCP. The strong rebukes of the South have however not been matched by the diplomatic speak used to deal with the ongoing and substantial human rights abuses in Darfur, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan. In these cases, little more has occurred than a slap on the wrist for the Sudanese Government in Khartoum. Even more worrying is the deafening silence over the racist, inflammatory discourse of the NCP in recent days, where they have referred to the people of the South as “hasharat” (literally insects, but a more apt translation would be bugs or pests). The failure of the international community to deal with such incendiary language is deeply problematic, especially when one considers that the word “cockroach” was often used as a justification for murder in the early days of the Rwandan genocide. Language matters. It can destabilize a situation very quickly and can form part of the rationale for descent into what Kofi Annan once described as “an alternative moral universe” of discrimination and slaughter. Even a cursory look at the newspapers over recent days shows that the propaganda of the NCP has travelled far down the road of degrading insults and actual violence. Yet the diplomatic push has been to remonstrate with the South Sudan government and to blame the victims of NCP aggression, rather than dealing with the larger picture of systematic violence and abuse of many oppressed groups in Sudan.
The big question here is why so much attention has been focused on the border situation, while so little has been focused on aerial bombardments, food insecurity, lack of humanitarian access and generalized violence against the population. Most obviously, there is a need to restore peace and to step back from the brink of a dangerous and costly war which is clearly not in anyone’s interest. However, there is something else going on which speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation and a naïve attempt on the part of Mr. Ban to bury his head in the sand. As a start, one of the mistakes is the framework of analysis used by the UN and the international community. This framework centers the analysis at the level of the State, rather than at the level of group rights and marginalized peoples. The state – which in this case is the Sudanese government in the North – is treated as having the right to exercise control over its own territory and to monopolize the use of violence to put down “rebel” elements within its borders, even if those “rebels” have good reasons for seeking self-determination.
Yet as many now recognize, the difficulty with this state-centric approach to sovereignty is that there are a myriad of problems facing such an idea. Consider the fact that in the case of Sudan, its people are constantly on the move due to economic realities brought about by state irresponsibility and the ongoing threat of violence emanating from the cabal in Khartoum. Territorial integrity and neat lines on the map are almost beside the point when neighboring countries are faced with having to deal with the overspill of such problems. Second, since international human rights norms and obligations largely operate at the supra-national level (above the level of the State) and, given the fact that in Sudan the volume of human rights violations are enormous, it becomes a little difficult to understand how we can talk about the exclusive authority of the Sudanese state to exercise its will. This is especially the case when the same state treats its citizens, (and neighboring citizens), so atrociously. Consequently, the real issue is not sovereignty per se, but rather a matter of security, the right to secure vital resources from neighboring predators, and the right to live in peace. To talk about “illegality” and “sovereignty” as if territory is fixed and unmoving is to ignore the fact that the Government of Sudan is its own worst enemy in this regard, and would do well to put its own house in order first, by not using border zones to attack others.
All of these problems are allied to a second concern: the growing popularity of the SRF and the swelling of its numbers by inclusion of a variety of marginalized groups from all over Sudan. For the international community this situation is deeply worrying, since it brings together a variety of “rebel” groups about whom the foreign governments have a number of concerns. For a start, there is the worry that these groups might just get enough traction to threaten the government in Khartoum. With the Arab Spring, al-Turabi’s follower in Tunisia, uncertainty in Libya, the rise of the Brotherhood and the Salafis in Egypt, there are serious concerns about the destabilization of North Africa with all that entails for the West. The coming together of a set of “rebel” groups that may remove a 23 year long dictatorship in Sudan and replace it with something unknown and uncontrollable is enough to make diplomats break out in a cold sweat. President Obama’s plea to the government of South Sudan that it “must end its support for armed groups inside Sudan and it must cease its military actions across the border” is a case in point and certainly not ambiguous in the message it makes.
However, what the US, UN and others do not understand is that the picture being painted by Khartoum is far from the truth. What is at stake here is not the threat of fundamentalist Islam or “rebel” groups, but rather the disappointment of people who expected more from the West. I have said it before and I’ll say it again: for those who have faced the extermination of the people they love in front of their eyes, the only goal is to get rid of this threat. These people are not rebels: they simply want what most people in the world already enjoy — peace and security. Never before does the West have a set of allies who subscribe to democracy and the values of the West like the people who have been subjected to this treatment. For those who have witnessed the unraveling of everything they hoped for, the dynamics propelling them towards peace are extremely strong as long as they can survive and provide for their families. The responsibility of the West is therefore to provide for infrastructure and development, rather than empty rhetoric about “sovereignty” and “illegality” that does nothing to describe the reality of the circumstances that people face.
To President Obama I say the following: In what way would you interpret the civil rights movement and the righteous cause of African Americans to secure their rights as terrorism, insurgency or rebellion? How could one ever explain away the pain, violence, discrimination and lynching that African Americans suffered as a necessary evil in the building of the American nation? When does racism and murder ever have a place in any society? If any of these ideas are not part of the fabric of the United States or the framework of rights by which the United Nations operates, then what right does the West have to choose them for the citizens of Sudan and South Sudan? These are questions that require serious reflection before the next round of disingenuous diplomatic remarks are made.
Dr. Anne Bartlett is Professor of Sociology and Director of the International Studies program at the University of San Francisco. She is also a Director of the Darfur Reconciliation and Development Organization (www.drdoafrica.org). She may be reached at: email@example.com