Sudan's Merciless War on Its own People
July 18, 1998
by Bill Frist
When the United Nations World Food Program announced last week that up to 2.6 million people in Southern Sudan are in imminent danger of starvation, the news was received with surprising nonchalance. Such news is becoming almost routine from misery-plagued east Africa, but what is unfolding in southern Sudan is at least the fourth widespread, large-scale humanitarian disaster in the region in the past 15 years.
In all cases, the United States' record is not one of success. Ethiopia in 1984, a disastrous military involvement in Somalia in 1993, and shameful neglect in Rwanda have left the public bitter toward the prospect of yet more involvement. But again, as famine hovers over the region, we face a disconcertingly similar quandary on the nature of our response.
In January I worked in southern Sudan as a medical missionary, and I have seen firsthand the terrible effects of the continuing civil war and how that war came to help create this situation. As a United States senator, however, I fear that by failing to make necessary changes in our response, American policy toward Sudan may be a contributing factor in the horrendous prospect of widespread starvation.
The radical Islamic regime in Khartoum is unmatched in its barbarity toward the sub-Saharan or "black African" Christians of the countries south. It is largely responsible for creating this impending disaster through a concerted and sustained war on its own people, in which calculated starvation, bombing of hospitals, slavery and the killing of innocent woman and children are standard procedure.
Our policy toward the Khartoum looks tough on paper, but it has yet to pose a serious challenge to the Islamic dictatorship. Neither has our wavering and inconsistent commitment to sanctions affected its behavior or its ability to finance the war.
Khartoum is set to gain billions of dollars in oil revenues from fields it is preparing to exploit in areas of rebel activity. The U.S. sanctions prohibit any American investment, but recent evidence indicates that enforcement is lax. Additionally, relief groups operating there report that new weapons are flowing in as part of a deal with one of the partners - a government-owned petroleum company in China.
It is our policy toward southern Sudan that us of more immediate importance to the potential humanitarian disaster. From my own experience operating in areas where U.S. government relief is rarely distributed, I fear that both the unilateral, and as a member of the United Nations, the United Stated unnecessarily restricts our own policy in odd deference to the regime in Khartoum.
In southern Sudan our humanitarian relief contributions to the starving are largely funneled through nongovernmental relief organizations that participate in Operation Lifeline Sudan. All of our contributions to the United Nations efforts are distributed through this flawed deal.
In this political arrangement the Khartoum regime gas veto power over all decisions as to where food can be sent. That which is needed in the areas outside their control is often used as an instrument of war, with Khartoum routinely denying permission for a flight to land in an area of rebel activity, especially during times when international attention lacks its current focus. This practice starves combatants and noncombatants alike and compromises the integrity and effectiveness of relief groups desperately trying to fend off famine.
Despite associated risks, some relief groups operate successfully outside the arrangement's umbrella, getting food and medicine to areas that the regime in Khartoum would rather see starved. Out of concern that the Khartoum regime would be provoked into prohibiting all relieve deliveries under the scheme, the U.S. Agency for International Development and its Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance do not regularly funnel famine relief through outside organizations and thus our relief supplies are only selectively distributed - a decision that unnecessarily abets the Khartoum's agenda.
The U.S. policy in Sudan does not seek an immediate rebel victory and the fragmenting of Sudan that could follow. Because the splintered rebel groups could not provide a functioning government or civil society at this time, that policy cannot be thrown out wholesale. Yet, our failure to separate this policy from the action necessary to save these people from starvation results in absurdity.
Thus, even while generously increasing the amount of aid, for political reasons we seek the permission of the "host government" in Khartoum to distribute it and feed the very people they are attempting to kill through starvation and war. A second reason for this posture is, presumably, a fear that even modest, calculated food aid would allow the rebels to mobilize instead of foraging for their families - a factor that could turn the outcome on the battlefield in their favor.
The prospect of widespread starvation in southern Sudan does not necessitate that the United States seek a quick solution on the battlefield. Military victory and an end to hostilities are not a substitute for food. However, the administration should make an immediate and necessary distinction between the policy principle and the humanitarian challenge. It should articulate a response without political limitations, which, frankly, are trivial in comparison to the human lives at stake, and t should press the United Nations to do the same.
We can no longer afford to dance around the issues of sovereignty and political principles while restraining our response to a looming disaster that Khartoum helped create. Such academic debates about diplomatic concerns are for the well fed, but offer no solace to the starving.
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post. Reprinted with Permission