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Sudan's state-sponsored pyromania

Militias burn rebellious villages in southern Sudan. What will the U.S. do?

October 19, 2009|John Prendergast | John Prendergast is co-founder of Enough, the anti-genocide project at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

The Khmer Rouge's Pol Pot had hundreds of thousands of people dig their own mass graves before they were beaten to death in Cambodia's killing fields. Rwanda's Interahamwe militias used machetes to kill 800,000 people in 100 days. Now, another low-tech, clandestine approach to orchestrating mass atrocities is being perfected by the ruling National Congress Party, or NCP, in Sudan. No need for shovels or machetes when you have a box of matches.

Over the last two decades, I've gone to smoldering village after smoldering village in Sudan and the surrounding region, interviewing the survivors of attacks by militias supported by the NCP. Each time the pattern is the same.

In Darfur, I've sneaked across the border eight times to listen to stories of genocidal attacks carried out by the janjaweed militias. In southwestern Sudan, I listened to the testimonies of survivors of slave raiding and ethnic cleansing carried out by the murahaleen militias. In southeastern Sudan, I watched the beginnings of targeted village raids carried out initially by minority "white army" ethnic militias. In northern Uganda, I've driven all over to find escapees who can document the forced recruitment of child soldiers and gruesome killings carried out by the Lord's Resistance Army of Joseph Kony.

In each case, militias burned villages by the hundreds, clearing populations from their homes at a rate higher than any other region in the world. Burning populations out of their areas of origin, usually on the basis of ethnic identity, may require a new terminology in order to fully capture its intent and methodology. It is, quite simply, state-sponsored pyromania.

In each case in Sudan, the patron of the militias perpetrating most of the human-rights crimes has been the NCP, orchestrating the destruction from Khartoum. When faced with internal or neighboring opposition to its absolute rule, the NCP has literally set the area in rebellion on fire.

And in each case, it took years for most diplomats and analysts to accept that the primary orchestrator of the violence was indeed the NCP, as it was so difficult to find the "smoking gun" evidence.

A new round of village burnings and attacks on civilians has begun in southern Sudan. Thousands have already been killed and displaced. Most analyses conclude the causes are tribal. There is no direct evidence of a hidden hand orchestrating the violence. But the pattern of past behavior is overwhelmingly strong, and the motive for undertaking such a divide-and-destroy policy again may be more compelling than ever.

The motive? A U.S.-brokered peace deal provides for an independence referendum for southern Sudan, which possesses most of the country's oil reserves. The NCP wants to keep the oil and will support militias to burn villages, leading to further divisions and conflict in the south, resulting in the inevitable delay or cancellation of the referendum.

The U.S. response to the current situation is similar to other cases dating back five U.S. presidencies. Policies are reviewed. News releases are issued. Envoys are dispatched. But the chief diplomatic lesson of the last five administrations remains largely unlearned. And that is that only when serious and sustained international pressure and credible threats have been applied has the NCP altered its behavior, whether it was ending its support for the slave-raiding militias, its association with Al Qaeda, its aerial bombing in the south or its 20-year war with southern Sudan's rebels.

That strategy is needed now. But the outlook is not optimistic as the Obama administration announces its new policy on Sudan today. The review leading up to the final policy recommended the use of a balanced set of incentives and pressures, but the president's special envoy says publicly that it is easier to catch bears with honey, and that the equivalent of gold stars, smiley faces and cookies works best to change behavior.

The essential problem with such a policy and with the envoy's diplomacy is that neither takes on today's fundamental challenge: how to deal with a regime bent on blocking southern Sudan's independence referendum and militarily defeating Darfurian rebels, and that does so by attacking civilians and burning villages. Instead, the envoy is floating alternatives to the southern referendum and pursuing other diplomatic approaches that are damaging to peace efforts.

At five minutes till midnight, the only variable that can prevent a descent into all-out war in Sudan is U.S. global leadership in negotiating a deal for Darfur and ensuring implementation of the referendum for the south. President Obama must be willing to construct and then utilize the multilateral pressures necessary to achieve these objectives, or Sudan will continue to burn.

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