Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 27 November 2003

Sudan enters a new era

By Charles Jacobs and John Eibner, The Washington Times

WASHINGTON, Nov. 27, 2003 — For the first time in 20 years, Southern Sudan stands on the threshold of peace. The guns are silent. Slave raiding is suspended. Humanitarian aid is flowing. Plans for reconstruction are on the drawing board. Secretary of State Colin Powell expects a comprehensive peace agreement before the end of the year.

This is a ray of hope in a long, dark night of despair: More than 2 million have perished; more than 4 million have been displaced; and tens of thousands of women and children have been enslaved in Khartoum’s declared jihad against the non-Muslims of Southern Sudan.

The current prospect of peace arose out of the deft diplomacy of the Bush administration. Two years ago, President Bush responded to a growing multiracial, multireligious, left-right coalition urging American diplomatic involvement to stop the slaughter and enslavement. He appointed former Sen. John Danforth as his special envoy, and has not allowed his attention to be diverted by September 11 or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Success is within reach. The United States has already pressured and cajoled the belligerents — the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (PLA)— into accepting a settlement based on sound principles: autonomous, Shariah-free self-government for Southern Sudan; and a referendum on independence for Southern Sudan at the end of a six-year interim period.

There are still, however, several unresolved items on the negotiators’ agenda that could torpedo the peace process. These are the questions of power and wealth sharing during the interim period, and the status of several disputed areas adjacent to Southern Sudan. Sudan’s President Gen. Omar hassan al-Bashir, and the leader of the SPLA, Col. John Garang, have expressed confidence that these outstanding matters can soon be resolved.

Another crucial issue is taboo at the peace talks, and appears not to be on the agenda. It is slavery — an internationally recognized "crime against humanity." Failure to address it may end any hope of achieving real peace.

One of the conditions for peace that Mr. Danforth enunciated at the start of his diplomatic mission was that slavery must be eradicated. In 2002, the State Department established an Eminent Persons Group to investigate reports of slavery. This U.S.-led international team confirmed that the Sudanese government has long used troops to enslave black African women and children. Once in captivity, slaves are subjected to "acculturation to the dominant [Arab/Muslim] culture in the north" — (i.e., Islamization and Arabization.)

The day-to-day treatment of slaves in Sudan is in many ways reminiscent of antebellum slavery in the United States. Rape, murder, beatings, forced labor, racial insults, and the separation of husbands from wives and children from parents, are integral components of the Sudanese variant of this evil institution. In addition, Sudanese masters routinely subject females to ritual genital mutilation. Three hundred and forty three out of 1,025 recently freed female slaves over the age of 11 interviewed by CSI researchers reported having been subjected to this grisly rite.

In his newly released and widely acclaimed autobiography, "Escape from Slavery," former Sudanese slave Francis Bok recounts how he was brutally beaten and threatened with death by his master for trying to run away to freedom. Mr. Bok had seen slaves whose limbs were severed for attempting escape. Undeterred, Mr. Bok persisted and escaped to freedom. But he left behind many who lacked his courage, craft or luck.

A peace agreement that does not free these slaves is unlikely to be stable. Passions about the tens of thousands still in bondage run high, especially in the most heavily raided areas near the border with Northern Sudan. The legitimate demands of Southern Sudanese for the emancipation of their people from bondage could easily become a war cry against a peace settlement that is perceived as institutionalizing racial and religious bigotry. There will be no shortage of disgruntled Southern militia commanders in post-peace Sudan who will be prepared to rally fighters to the cause of emancipation.

Slavery is also a moral issue for the United States. It would be intolerable to impose a political settlement on the backs of slaves, especially when democracy in the Arab-Islamic world is the avowed intention of the Bush administration.

There is a way to avoid this problem and establish a more just and lasting peace. Though the Sudanese peace talks have passed the 11th hour, there is still time for the State Department to press Khartoum to include in the final settlement what Washington’s leading anti-slavery campaugner Joe Madison calls an "Emancipation Proclamation." It should include a pledge to establish a broadly based anti-slavery authority, empowered to locate, liberate and repatriate slaves, and bring to justice those responsible for this crime against humanity. A peace process that takes seriously the need for fundamental justice and healing would address this most sensitive issue.

If the Bush administration heeds Mr. Danforth’s admonition about the necessity of eradicating slavery, the State Department will establish its own independent body, perhaps under the auspices of the Office of War Crimes Issues or the Office Against Trafficking in Persons. Its function would be to monitor and report back to the president on the slave liberation process. The response of the two warring parties, and of the United States, to the thorny issue of slavery will determine, more than anything else, whether Sudan is heading towardsa new era of peace, stability and democracy, or toward yet another sham peace deal.

Charles Jacobs is president of the American Anti-Slavery Group and John Eibner is assistant to the international president of Christian Solidarity International.