Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 5 July 2016

Why can’t the Obama Administration speak honestly about Sudan?

Eric Reeves

The Obama administration has from the beginning found it difficult to speak honestly about the ghastly realities defining Sudan under the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum. This is particularly true of human suffering and destruction in the western Darfur region, but also in the southern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

In a telling example, former administration special envoy for Sudan Scott Gration badly misjudged the appropriateness of returns by displaced people in Darfur, prompting a stern rebuke from humanitarian organizations and UN agencies. Gration also terribly understated the effects on humanitarian capacity created by Khartoum’s March 2009 expulsion from Darfur of thirteen of the world finest relief organizations. Gration’s was the Obama administration response to an egregious and highly consequential violation of international humanitarian law.

His successor, Princeton Lyman, refused to credit clear evidence of ethnic slaughter by Khartoum’s forces in the early stages of fighting in South Kordofan (June 2011)—slaughter that was later confirmed by a leaked UN human rights report compiled by UN human rights observers on the ground at the time. In December 2011 Lyman committed the Obama administration to the preposterous notion that the current Khartoum regime should not be changed, but allowed to “carry out reform via constitutional democratic measures.”

So absurd was such a notion that it could barely disguise the real engine of Obama administration Sudan policy: a lust for the counter-terrorism intelligence that Khartoum—which hosted Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the 1990s—could purportedly provide the U.S. It has seemed not to matter that this entails rapprochement with a regime whose president, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for multiple counts of genocide as well as crimes against humanity in Darfur.

At various times statements coming from the Obama administration State Department have been misleading about facts on the ground, indulged a specious moral equivalence between Khartoum and its rebel opponents, or diminished the scale of human suffering and deprivation. Recently, however, the State Department has outdone itself in declaring its support for al-Bashir’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire in South Kordofan and Blue Nile (not in Darfur). No mention was made of the fact that the announcement came at the start of the heavy rainy season, when Khartoum’s massive advantage in mechanized transportation and weaponry is effectively neutralized. But most startling was the characterization of those who might be assisted by a permanent ceasefire:

We find this [cease-fire declaration] an important and welcome step towards a peaceful resolution to conflict in those states, which we would like to see extended to the Darfur region. An end to military offensives and fighting in these areas would bring much needed relief to thousands of Sudanese and create an improved environment for dialogue leading to a political solution.

“Thousands of Sudanese”?

This is not understatement: it is disingenuous obfuscation. There are quite literally millions of people affected by the assault on humanitarian relief efforts in Darfur and the humanitarian blockade that Khartoum continues to impose on South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

Some figures of note. Khartoum’s genocidal counter-insurgency in Darfur has forced more than three million people their homes in Darfur—overwhelmingly from African tribal groups of the region (see also http://reliefweb.int/report/sudan/jebel-marra-crisis-fact-sheet-issue-5-i-24-march-2016/). Some 300,000 of the displaced live as refugees in terribly inhospitable eastern Chad. Many of the displaced have no access to adequate food supplies, clean water, primary medical care, or other resources that could be provided by unfettered humanitarian access. UNICEF, in a report leaked to journalists, estimates that some 2 million children in Sudan suffer from severe or acute malnutrition, with malnutrition rates in Darfur among the worst. A top EU humanitarian official recently estimated that more than 5 million people in Sudan are in “urgent need” of humanitarian assistance; they are concentrated in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile.


Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have fled their homes in South Kordofan and Blue Nile—many to South Sudan (see also http://www.hart-uk.org/news/south-kordofan-blue-nile-coordination-unit-humanitarian-update-may-2015/). They have been forced to leave by Khartoum’s relentless, indiscriminate aerial assault, primarily in the form of inaccurate, shrapnel-loaded barrel bombs. To the extent there is targeting, civilians and civilian agriculture are the primary victims. Growing numbers of people face extreme malnutrition and may well starve, although Khartoum prevents even international humanitarian assessment efforts.


Does the price of counter-terrorism intelligence include an obscene downplaying of massive human suffering and destruction? The evidence is that the Obama administration thinks it does.

Eric Reeves has written extensively on Sudan for almost two decades; he is a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. His website is www.SudanReeves.org; he is on Twitter at SudanReeves