SUDAN: Human rights trumped
William Fisher «View Bio

In a move that may be near-incomprehensible to most of the world, the US state department last week removed Sudan from its blacklist of countries it says are uncooperative in its war on terrorism, at the same time leaving in place sanctions it imposed because Sudan has not severed all links with anti-Israeli groups such as Hamas – this at a time when Khartoum is blocking distribution of food and medical supplies to desperate Christian and animist refugees in the western province of Darfur, creating Africa’s most serious humanitarian crisis in decades.

The state department said Sudan had been removed from the blacklist as a gesture while it contemplates a peace deal that would end Africa’s longest-running civil war. Perhaps more importantly, state department spokesman Richard Boucher said Sudan had “remarkably” improved the information it shares with Washington on militants. In 1998 it was considered a haven for terror groups.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell said, “We have told the government of Sudan we will not normalize relations even with [a peace] agreement unless the crisis in Darfur is addressed.”

An Amnesty delegation was allowed to visit the area in January for the first time in 13 years. “Over the past few years hundreds of civilians, mostly from sedentary agricultural groups like the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa, have been killed or wounded, homes have been destroyed, and herds looted by nomadic groups,” the organization said. “Sometimes dozens of civilians have been killed in a single raid…. Those who commit crimes must be brought to justice, but international human rights standards of fair trial must be respected,” Amnesty said.

Human Rights Watch spent 25 days in western Darfur, documenting abuses in rural areas formerly populated by Masalit and Fur communities. The organization accuses the Sudanese government of “ethnic cleansing” and crimes against humanity in the region. “There can be no doubt about the Sudanese government’s culpability in crimes against humanity in Darfur,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. A Human Rights Watch report also documents how ‘Janjaweed’ Arab militias – whose members are Muslim – have destroyed mosques, killed Muslim religious leaders, and desecrated Korans belonging to their enemies. Since August, wide swathes of farmland, among the most fertile in the region, have been burned and depopulated.

With rare exceptions, the countryside has now been emptied of its original Masalit and Fur inhabitants. Villages have been torched, not randomly, but systematically – often not once, but twice. Livestock, food stores, wells and pumps, blankets, and clothing have all been looted or destroyed. 

Libya presents a similar ‘Alice in Wonderland’ picture of Bush administration ambiguity. Its relations with the United States have vastly improved since it agreed to dismantle its WMD programs last year. And US officials have indicated that Libya’s removal from the terror blacklist is possible because it is currently reviewing Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi’s support for militant groups.

Yet Libya has perhaps the worst human rights record in the Middle East. The US state department’s recent annual human rights report says, “Libya has a history of summary executions, disappearances, arbitrary arrest, and detention of persons, many of whom remain incommunicado, widespread use of torture, and other degrading treatment.... The government controls the judiciary, citizens do not have the right to a fair public trial or to be represented by legal counsel, and the establishment of independent human rights organizations is prohibited. Women and religious and ethnic minorities also continue to face violence and discrimination.

“These and many other problems contribute to Libya’s extremely poor human rights record.”

The state department also said, “Although US ties to Libya remain at a low level, Libya’s December 19, 2003 commitment to eliminate all weapons of mass destruction [WMD] programs and Missile Control Technology Regime [MCTR]-class missiles has cleared a path for better relations. For the first time since 1980, American diplomats are based in Tripoli.”

This is not the first time the US has opened ‘broad political dialogue’ with states that commit severe and consistent violations of human rights. These nations are eligible for US aid; countries that fail to cooperate in the war on terror, or those that sponsor terrorist organizations are not. US aid recipients include many of the most authoritarian nations of the Middle East. Thus far, there is little evidence that US diplomacy has brought about much more than cosmetic change in the human rights arena. Now that US diplomats are struggling with their own country’s human rights abuses, ‘broad political dialogue’ may achieve even less.

The message the US is sending appears to be: “Not to worry about your domestic human rights abuses. As long as you’re tough on terror, you’re okay with us.”

William Fisher is a regular contributor to the Middle East Times.