Hidden layers: ulterior motives for contributing to UN peacekeeping missions

Memorial for the killed Belgian UNAMIR soldiers, Kigali (Rwanda) - by JA ALT, via Wikimedia Commons
Memorial for the killed Belgian UNAMIR soldiers, Kigali (Rwanda) - by JA ALT, via Wikimedia Commons

Memorial for the killed Belgian UNAMIR soldiers, Kigali (Rwanda) – by JA ALT, via Wikimedia Commons

 

By Iona Mulder – 

 

While UN peacekeeping missions have the intention and mandate to bring peace and stability, they come with a cost. Since the first mission in 1948, 3.599 UN-soldiers have died. Certain countries share the biggest losses in peacekeeping soldiers under UN flag: 137 soldiers from Ghana lost their life during a mission, 163 Indian nationals, 122 Canadian, 150 soldiers from Nigeria, 142 from Pakistan, 114 Ethiopian soldiers of which 29 in a relatively recent mission in Darfur, and this list is extensive. What motivates states to send their troops to foreign places to solve conflicts that are not their own? After the members of the Security Council decided to establish a peace mission, the challenge begins to bring together sufficient troops to enable the mission. As the UN does not have its own army, this responsibility falls on the shoulders of its member states. The question whether or not to contribute troops will lead its own political life in every member state country. A good example is the debate in the Netherlands in 2013 on the contribution to the UN mission in Mali. Some parties were against the mission; the SP and PvdSD were of the opinion that the aim of the mission was too ambitious, the PVV stated that it was the responsibility of ‘the Muslim countries’ to control the extremists in the north of Mali.

 

It seems to be expected that those states that are motivated to contribute troops are states that pioneer in the protection of human rights and who are not preoccupied with conflict within their own borders. However, over the last two decades, the opposite seems to be the case, as countries in Africa and Asia were the largest contributors of troops (more specifically Nigeria, Rwanda, and Ethiopia; Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan). These countries are not particularly known for their internal stability, now and in the past, or for their good human rights records. Why, then, do these nations make such effort to bring peace and stability elsewhere?

 

What these countries have in common is that they have little political power within the UN, which is mainly in the hands of the permanent members. Moreover, they share an ambition to expand their political influence in the UN and international politics in general. They believe that delivering troops to the peace keeping mission will develop their political network, creating a political credit that will result in more inclusive politics within the UN. Another motivation for these states to participate is that the UN provides a sum of money to cover the expenses of the missions, which will help to upgrade their army through the received training, the materials and salary. Besides these shared motivations, every government has its own incentive to contribute troops based on the political situation at national level.

 

Rwanda is one of the countries which in recent years contributed a relative amount of troops to UN missions. I will use Rwanda as an example to show how political situations at the national level can motivate the state to contribute to international peacekeeping missions. In 1994, Rwanda itself was subject of a peacekeeping mission to avoid escalation of violence between Hutu and Tutsi: the mission became one of the biggest failures in the history of UN peacekeeping operations. After the killing of ten Belgium blue helmets by Hutu militia, most of the contributing countries decided to withdraw their troops, leaving the Rwandan people to their fate. Between April and July 1994 an estimated of 800.000 people, mainly Tutsi, were killed. Finally, an army composed of Tutsi refugees, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded Rwanda from Uganda, took over power and put a stop to the mass killing.

 

Since 2004 Rwanda has become one of biggest providers of troops to the UN and the AU (African Union). On their first mission, the 150 Rwandese soldiers received much respect as they were well trained, disciplined, and there is a broad inclusion of woman within their army. Within Rwanda, they are presented as national pride. During my research on how the current Rwandan government is legitimatizing its power, I found that the contribution of troops to the UN is an essential element of the government’s policy. The current government mainly consist of those associated with the RPF, its power in the country is legitimized by the effort to stop the genocide and create a climate of stability and security. At the international level, this legitimization is strengthened by the guilt of international failure to stop the genocide, which puts the RPF on a higher moral level than the international community. Many scholars have called this type of power legitimization “genocide credit”.

 

This “genocide credit” is essential for the Rwandan government for two reasons. First of all, it has made Rwanda a “donor darling”. The relatively rapid recovery of the country after the genocide and continuing economic growth has been made possible due to vast sums of donor money that were pumped in the reconstruction of the country. Now, twenty-two years after the genocide, around half of Rwanda’s national budget is still generated by donors. Much of Rwanda’s national stability is therefore dependent on the continuity of this flow of donor money. Secondly, another effect of this genocide credit is that for many years after the genocide, it was seen as politically incorrect to critically examine the Rwandan government’s policy. As a result, the international community has overlooked or ignored the fact that the Rwandan government’s policy is not as pretty as it seems at first sight.

 

A decade after the genocide the “genocide credit” started to crumble, making space for international criticism on the Rwandan government. More and more foreign countries were criticizing Rwanda for not respecting democratic values and human rights. Moreover, as many countries point out, is that the government’s reconciliation program is resulting in censorship and social inequality. It is here that the peacekeeping missions come into the picture. The Rwandan government needed to revitalize the “genocide credit” by reconfirming its high morale. The peace keeping missions provide the perfect opportunity to do so; contributing to peace and security in the rest of the world, stop genocide from happening in other countries, and help Africa to solve its own in problems. The contribution to the UN peacekeeping missions is thus a way to repaint a positive picture to the world and distract the international community from the negative elements of its national policy. It can be stated that the Rwandan government is abusing the peacekeeping mission to restore its power.

 

The question that remains: is practicing politics by means of UN peacekeeping missions by definition a bad thing? I am of the opinion it is not, only if the motivations of the contributing countries contradict the aims of the peacekeeping missions itself. More importantly, the contribution to peacekeeping missions by relatively smaller and less influential countries can provide a tool for nations to develop political power to oppose the power of the permanent member of the UN – making the UN more inclusive and democratic. The positive contribution of these countries should not be uncritically accepted as a reflection of their national politics, as there is more to it than good intentions. The case of Rwanda is the perfect example.

 

The power of the UN to protect Humanity Part II – The endless conflict in South Sudan

Prestident Salva_Kiir_Mayardit, UN long
President Salva_Kiir_Mayardit, UN

President Kiir speaking to reporters before the headquarters of the Security Council, (CC-Photo Credit: Jenny Rockett)

 

By Iona Mulder -

In 2011, the Security Council assigned a peace-keeping mission, UNMISS, to South Sudan to help stabilize this young turbulent nation. In my previous article, I described the bureaucratic progress of the deployment of the mission in South Sudan as the intended ideal process of the founders of UN to protect humanity worldwide. Unfortunately, this positive note does not extend to the actual results of the mission on the ground in South Sudan. There is one thing that can be stated with certainty: the UN (peacekeeping) mission so far has failed its mandate to contribute to the stability of the country, and to protect its population against violence when its government neglects to do so.

The mission started in 2011 to help the government to build the new nation, however, in 2013 the government of South Sudan split into two factions. President Kiir accused the Vice-President Riek Machar of attempting a coup and sacked him and the rest of the Parliament. Riek Machar denied the accusation, stating that the President Kirr was creating a dictatorship. The remaining government and the opposition group of Machar both mobilized their support to pick up arms and fight by their side, leading up to a civil war. As a result of the violence, tens thousands of people have been killed, and over three million people fled their home – resulting in the destruction of South Sudan’s infrastructure and economic system that was mainly based on agriculture and oil. In 2015, a peace agreement, including a cease-fire, was signed between the conflicting parties. But already from the beginning, there was little trust in the implementation of this peace agreement, as it was signed under immense international pressure and the threat of a weapon embargo. In July 2016, new fighting broke out in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, that was being described as widespread ethnic violence by United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. There were already many previous warnings of massive food shortage all over the country, but in February this year, the UN officially declared a famine in multiple parts of the country. Little blame for the famine can be distributed to circumstances of nature. It is the result of years of fighting, in which the civilians are heavily targeted, and the unjust distribution of the nation’s sources by the government.

How is it possible that one of the world’s most powerful organization in its third largest mission, seems powerless to bring a solution on a political level or provide civilians protection or even humanitarian assistance? Even in the six safe areas that the UN has established around the country, in which an average o f 200.000 people seeks refuge, the mission has been unable to guarantee a place where its residents can feel safe. Sexual violence, as in the rest of the country, is a daily reality and in February 2016 a safe area was burned to the ground, in the outbreak of violence July of the same year the protection side in Juba was heavily attacked. After this attack, the UN-secretary general Ban Ki-moon dismissed the commander of the mission, after it became apparent that the peacekeepers had utterly failed to protect civilians during these attacks, even within the safe area. “The report from a UN special investigation found that a lack of leadership in the UNMISS ended in a “chaotic and ineffective response” during the heavy fighting in the capital, Juba, from July 8 to 11 that killed dozens of people.”

The main reason for the failing mission is the noncooperation and opposition of the government of South Sudan to the mission. The government more than often has denied peacekeepers access to areas where civilians were in need of protection or humanitarian assistance. Although the third biggest mission in the world, the mission does not have the capacity in mandate, staff or material to force such access. The UN does not have its own army but has to rely on the military of the signatory nations. The process of assembling an army or adjust its mandate is a bureaucratic and time-consuming process, making it impossible to respond to urgent matters. Moreover, although the Security Council agrees that UNMISS is necessary for South Sudan, it is unable to make a political fist to fight the Government’s resistance against the mission, because Russia veto’s any resolution that directly affects the South Sudanese Government.

The primary example of these problems is the deployment of the so-called Regional Protection Force. This force of 4000 strong was authorized by the Security Council, including by Russia, in August 2016 after the outbreak of violence in July that year. Due to the bureaucratic process of assembling this force, it was still not ready to operate almost a half year later. Primarily, the South Sudanese Government accepted the force deployment under the threat of weapon embargo. However, in December Russia vetoed a resolution for a weapon embargo, which gave the Government the confidence to refuse the deployment of the Regional Protection Force without facing serious consequences. This refusal led to a further delay, because of the logistical and bureaucratic restraints. Thus, even after hearing warnings in December 2016 that the conflict might escalate into a genocide and a new Security Council resolution for the expansion of the Mission and an urge for a rapid deployment of the Regional Protection Force, the force is now April 2017, still not operating. However, as Casie Copeland of the Crisis Group reported, the mandate for the Regional Protection Force only extents to Juba, while in the meantime the conflict has moved its center to other regions, and it is there that people are in need of protection, not in Juba.

The South Sudanese Government and its political supporters play a political game as they are unwilling to end the conflict. If the UN continues to play this game, it will always be one step behind. There could be an approach by the UN that would help to circumvent this game of the national government. The UN has to switch its diplomatic and military focus from the national conflicts to regional or local conflicts. This approach is especially suitable for layered societies as that of South Sudan. It is often assumed that the national crisis – the conflict between the two former factions of the parliament – is the motor behind most of the violence in the country. However, South Sudan consist of many communities, which are bound by clan, local, family, ethnic or religious affiliations. The national conflict is often used by local communities to sort out their local conflicts with other communities. For example, a village will support the party opposite of their rival neighboring community with whom they have a bone to pick. Moreover, these local communities are the ones with the most interest in peace. It is the civilians who are paying the price of the conflict, not the political or military national leaders.

As the scholar Séverine Autesserre concludes in an article on the conflict in the Republic of Congo, local peace-building and reconciliation will reduce the level of violence on the ground. Her evidence for this argument is the conflict in North-East of Congo that (re)started in the beginning of the nineties. In 2003 a national peace agreement was signed, leading to the withdrawal of international players in the conflict. However, the conflict continued long after, because the local conflicts between the eight different ethnic and local groups in the region were not addressed in the settlement. Thus, local reconciliation could reduce violence after a conflict broke out. Moreover, it could also have a deterrent effect, as the national conflict might still spark the violence, but local settlements minimize the change that the violence is to spread out over the country. Finally, it might even put internal pressure on the government to implement a peace agreement.

Fortunately, in a report written by Secretary-General in cooperation with the African Union, the advice is given to the UN to put more focus on political engagement on a local level, as political solutions at national level seem fruitless, because of national and international unwillingness to end the conflict. As stated in this report: “The Mission’s increased focus on strengthening mechanisms for peaceful coexistence at the community level should be understood as a front-line protection intervention and part of an overarching political strategy.” If the UN can succeed in applying this strategy on a broad basis, they might be one step ahead of those who prefer the conflict to continue and for South Sudan to remain a state in chaos.

There is one issue that remains unsolved, and that is the inability of the UN to intervene adequate to changing situation, because of the slow bureaucratic (and political) process of putting together an peacekeeping army. An analysis of this process will be the subject of the last article of this series.

The Power of the UN to protect Humanity – Part I The Security Council

sc-vote-on-syria
sc-foto-2

UN Security Council meeting on Syria, on December 18, 2015. Take a good look at who raised their hands and who did not (State Department photo/ Public Domain)

 

By Iona Mulder -

 

The UN was founded after the Second World War with the primary goal of protecting peace and security in the world. One of the most important elements of this goal is the protection of people all around the world against similar atrocities that were committed by the Nazi regime; these atrocities are now framed as crimes against humanities and genocide. But who decides and how is decided within this unique and powerful international organization, that currently includes 193 states, that action is necessary to confront issues of crimes against humanity? I will provide insight into this question in a series of several articles. The intention is not to be exhaustive, but to provide a top-down overview of the decision-making process of this powerful organization, to show its competence and its weaknesses. This first article begins with the top of the chain were political decisions for action are taken: the Security Council.

Although the UN as a whole can be seen as leading the politics of the international community, its power is bound by the obligation to respect the sovereignty of states. The right to sovereignty means that the UN cannot interfere within national affairs without the permission of the state itself. This rule is the number one principle of international law. However, the Security Council forms the exception; it is the only organ that can in specific situations interfere with this fundamental principle of sovereignty – even with the use of force, often described as “use of all necessary means”. It can do so in the name of the protection of international peace and security, as described in Chapter VII of the founding charter of the UN. Whether a situation is a threat to peace and security and what measures should be taken, will be determined by a vote of the fifteen states that are a member of the council. There are five permanent members, US, UK, Russia, China, France, those countries that were considered as superpowers after The Second World War, and ten non-permanent that change every two years. These world-changing decisions on peace and security issues are made by the representative of the members states simply raising their hand, as if they were in a classroom. Live-streams of the voting meetings can be viewed at the website UN television. A decision, called a resolution, will be accepted when nine of the members vote in favor, and none of the permanent member uses their right to veto a decision.

Since the end of the eighties, the Security Council has often considered widespread international crimes against humanity as a threat to security of the international community. Examples of such situations are Former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, The Democratic Republic of the Congo. The more recent case of South-Sudan shows how the decision-making at the Security Council ideally works. Last November 11th, United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, made a visit to the young state of South-Sudan. His role as a Special Advisor is to collect information and advice and warn the Secretary-General and the Security Council of the UN on grave human rights violations of ethnic and racial origin that genocide that might escalate into genocide. The reason for his visit was continuing reports of ethnic violence in South-Sudan. In a speech before the Security Council he stated: “Last week, I saw all the signs that ethnic hatred and targeting of civilians could evolve into genocide if something is not done now to stop it. I urge the Security Council and Members States of the region to be united, and to take action.”

Already since 2011 there is a UN mission stationed within South-Sudan named UNMISS with the mandate to protect civilians, monitor, investigate human rights, and to give assistance to build up the new state. Over the years the mission was already expanded. However, as Adama Dieng has specified within his speech before the Security Council, neither the UNMISS nor strong calls upon the South Sudanese government, not even a ceasefire that was established in 2015, have led to a positive progress of the stability and security of the country. On the contrary, the violence has increased and spread over a larger area; the government army is overall feared by the population, and the current South Sudanese President Kirr made statements that incite even more violence among the different political/ethnic groups within the country.

Following Adama Dieng’s advice and call to take action before the Security Council, the Security Council decided last December 16th to expand the UNMISS even more with 4500 soldiers and broaden its mandate. This mandate now includes among other things the unlimited access for the Special Advisor to monitor, investigate and report on incidents of hate speech and incitement to violence and actively participate in the mission in the implementation of the ceasefire, including the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of different armed groups in South Sudan. In this case, the Security Council took the words of the Special Advisor into account and took action to protect the population of South Sudan. There are, however, two loopholes. First of all, the Security Council is not obligated to council the Special Advisor if the member states are not interested in doing so. Secondly, the member states might not vote for any action or one the permanent members can use its right to veto to uphold any action. This often happens when political interest come into play.

The most compelling example nowadays is the case of Syria. Special Advisor Adama Dieng has made fifteen public statements on the desperate situation of the civil population in Syria. He has not once been invited by the Security Council to speak about this subject. Moreover, Russia has used its veto right six times since the beginning of the conflict to uphold a UN Mission with a mandate regarding the protection of civilians or the persecution of those responsible for violence against civilians and the use of chemical weapons. China has taken the same position five times. The reason for Russia and China to do so is their political alliance with the Syrian government. If they would allow such a UN mission to be implemented, this would minimize the power of the Syrian government and thereby damage their political interested. Henceforth, the Security Council is completely paralyzed to take any action. It is undeniable that the Security Council is failing to fulfill its responsibility to protect the population of Syria.

The situation in Syria is the ultimate display that the UN system to prevent any large-scale human right violations is dependent on the political will of the members of the Security Council and primarily the permanent members. The five permanent member states can stand in the way of the protection of many innocent civilians, merely because it is against their own political interest to so, even when all the other members are of the opinion that measures are imperative to secure the safety of certain populations. It is clear that if the Security Council wants to function as is intended by its founders, the voting powers must be distributed more equitably among the UN member states. This very critical note aside, the Security Council intervenes in some situations to protect civil population when a state is unable or unwilling to protect them, as is shown in the case of South-Sudan. The following question is, of course, will this action minimize or halt the violence. The UN human right protection systems involve many other organs than the Security Council and the Special Advisor. Their role, work and the success of their actions on the ground will be discussed in the following articles of this series.

Restricting our Right to Freedom of Expression in name of Security and Stability -The Issue of Ethiopia

[CC BY-SA 4.0 ]
[CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

Blogger Endalk shows support to Ethiopian Bloggers group Zone 9[CC BY-SA 4.0 ]

By Iona Mulder -

The right to freedom of expression was first recognized in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1949) art. 19 and established as binding international law in art. 19 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (1976). In the last 66 years since the international acceptance of the right of freedom of expression, many states have limited this right in name of transition, stability and state security. In past two decades state security has focused mainly on ‘the war against terrorism’, which will likely increase after the attacks in Paris. Some of these limitations are reasonable and legitimate. Still, it is very important to draw a line on how far we are willing to let our freedom of expression be limited  in the name of transition and state security. The aim of this article is to provide food for thought on where the line should be drawn. In addition, an analysis of the current status of the right of freedom of expression in Ethiopia will be provided, in which the balance between on the one hand transition, stability and state security and on the other the freedom of expression will be under investigation

The right to freedom of expression is considered by many as a fundamental condition for democracy, because it includes the right of an individual to express his opinion, but also the right to have an independent and impartial media. Thus, without this right, people will not be impartially informed and fair elections would not be possible. Nevertheless this does not mean that freedom of expression is an absolute right. There are situations in which it is legitimate under international law for governments to restrict this freedom, either with the aim to protect the rights of others, for example right to privacy,  or to protect national security, public order, and public health, or morals. In order for a court to decide whether or not the government righteously limited the freedom of expression, it must make a balance between the importance of expression and the rights of others, national security or interests. This balance is not the same in every state and every situation.

First of all, in the United States the freedom of expression is almost absolute: hate speech is not restricted. The philosophy of the US behind this is that an open debate is more effective than regulation. In Europe, by contrast, there is a stronger restriction of hate speech. Holocaust denial is for example criminalized in many countries in Europe; it is not in the US. Secondly, a differentiation can be made for new fragile state democracies. In fragile democracies the need to protect national interest, stability and security  in contrast to the freedom of expression, will be higher than in stable states. This concept has also been accepted by the European Court for Human Rights. In the case Rekevenyi v Hungary (1999) a Hungarian police-officer complained that his freedom of expression was denied, because he was not allowed to take part in political activities and debates. The court stated that within Hungary’s transition from a totalitarian (Communist) regime to a pluralistic democratic society, this restriction of expression was legitimate in order for the police to regain the public trust ‘as defenders of democracy rather than tool of the state’. Thus, in this case because of a ‘pressing social need in a democratic society’ the freedom of expression was further limited than would legitimated in other European states. (James A.Sweeney, The European Court of Human Rights in Post Cold-War Era, Universality in transition).

During his visit in Ethiopia in July 2015 president of the United States Barack Obama –the first American President ever to visit Ethiopia- stated: “We are very mindful of Ethiopia’s history – the hardships that this country has gone through. It has been relatively recent that constitution that was formed and that elections put forward a democratically elected government.” Though critical about the question of good governance in Ethiopia, Obama stated that the power of the democratically elected government should be acknowledged and when criticizing its policy its difficult history and its democratic juvenileness should be considered. (The Guardian, ‘Obama criticized for calling Ethiopia’s government ‘democratically elected’’27 July 2015).

Ethiopia is a country with a rich history. Most people in the West, however, associate it with the famine in eighties, a disaster of which devastating pictures of starving people went worldwide, resulting in a wave of aid relief to Ethiopia. In contrast to the image that was often presented, the famine was not mainly the result of natural disaster but the effect of the policy of Ethiopian government converting to communism.  In 1974 the Derg, a communist organization, came into power. The Red Terror they spread cost the lives of 500.000 people, excluding the victims of the ‘famine’ that was a result of communalizing the Oromo’s, a large ethnicity of Ethiopia. They were forced into large controllable work communities.  In 1991, the Derg was defeated by an insurrection of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), who claimed to bring democracy to the country. In 1995 the first election were held.

During his visit, Obama also made clear that Ethiopia is the biggest ally of the United States in its fight against the Islamic military organization Al-Shabab. Between 2006-2009 the Ethiopian government led a big military campaign against Islamic rebel groups in Somalia, including Al-Shabaab. Two of these groups committed a number of attacks in Ethiopia in 2008, claiming 23 lives. As part of Ethiopia’s so-called battle against terrorism, the state introduced an anti-terrorist legislation in 2009. In this legislation terrorism is imprecisely defined, as including “disruption of public service,” which can also include non-violent actions or demonstration. In addition, “encouraging,” “advancing,” or “being in support” of terrorist acts’ would also be defined as terrorism. Thus, merely expressing support for groups that are defined by the Ethiopian regime as terrorist, under the broad definition, could in itself also be defined as terrorism under this legislation, possibly leading to prison sentencing between 10 to 20 years (Analysis of Ethiopia’s Draft of Anti-terrorism Law, 30 June 2009, Human Right Watch).

Under this legislation, many journalists and bloggers have been arrested in Ethiopia under the accusation of terrorism and assaults against the state. An example is the arrest of six bloggers of Zone 9 and three other journalists on 25 April 2015. Zone 9 is an internet blog on which nine educated Ethiopians write about social and political issues, often with a critical stance towards the government. Their slogan is “We blog because we care”. They were charged with sabotage of the state under the anti-terrorist law. Two of the journalists and two of the bloggers were released a few weeks before the arrival of Obama to Ethiopia. The others afterwards in October. They had been imprisoned for more than a year. (It is possible to read their account of their imprisonment and their current life on the blog).

With these arrests the Ethiopian government restricted its population’s right to receive and seek impartial information in public interest.  Despite the fact that the restrictions are prescribed by law in the anti-terrorist legislation, it does not serve the purpose of national security as the blog of Zone 9 did not incite any violence, or supported groups who do so. Although the Ethiopian state might be a relatively young democracy in relation to many European states, even a young democratic state must be able to accept forms of social or political criticism if its restrictions do not serve any other democratic purpose. It is clear that in Ethiopia the government has crossed the line in its restriction of the freedom of expression. Unfortunately, they are not the only ‘democratic state’ to do so.

“There is no way that I am going to be a bystander” – Interview with Professor Samuel Totten on the Nuba Mountains in Sudan

Photo: Maureen Didde/Flickr CC-BY
Photo: Maureen Didde/Flickr CC-BY

Photo: Maureen Didde/Flickr CC-BY

By Iona Mulder -

The Nuba Mountains are situated in the South of Sudan, near the newly formed border with South Sudan (see map). Even though the area does not have a high population rate, it is home to fifty-two different tribes, all with a different tongue. While Muslims and Christians have always lived in peaceful coexistence, the region has been in conflict with the central Islamic government in Sudan for decades. During the civil war (1983-2005) against the Northern government, the Nuba people chose the side of the Southern military coalition (the SPLA), but the Nuba region remained part of the North after Sudan was split up into two new nations.

To achieve a more thorough understanding on the conflict in the Nuba Mountains I have contacted Samuel Totten, a renowned professor in genocide studies and a specialist on this specific subject. During this interview he explained that he became familiar with the Nuba region by coincidence, but that he soon decided to dedicate his lifework to the region and its people. In this interview (part text, part audio) he explains how he became familiar with the region, the (inter-)national politics with regard to the conflict, how he perceives the cultural and social relations between the Nuba people, and his ideas about the future of the Nuba region and its people.

Question 1: How did you become acquainted with the Nuba region and what did you experience during your travels in the area?

Listen to how he got to know the Nuba Mountains and the people living there…

 Continue….

In January 2011, I was doing research in the region on the atrocities that occurred in the Nuba region in the 1990ties – a tragic part of their history, which I defined as a genocide by attrition. While I was there a new conflict between the people of the Nuba region and the Northern government started. The Nuba people were outraged that they were not allowed to veto the referendum about the split up of Sudan into two nations since the rest of the people of the South were allowed to do so. The referendum was a means to vote and decide whether the South would remain with Sudan or not. In the end, it was decided that the South would create its own new nation. However, during negotiations between the North, the South and some international parties who were involved, it was decided that the Nuba region remained part of the North.

Out of the conversations I had with the Nuba people at that time it became clear that they were highly aggravated about this decision and were ready to fight to avoid becoming part of the North. Many of the Nuba people said: “we know that we are not going to be treated right and therefore we are ready to pick up our weapons”. Most of them were convinced that they would be better fighters than during the last civil war, because they had gained experience fighting together with the SPLA [read more about the SPLA in my first article]. The Nuba told me that they were not just fighting for their independence. Their fight was aimed to achieve a much greater goal: to overthrow the Northern Government in Khartoum, the capital city of Northern Sudan, and to establish their own government. Thus in June 2011, the war between the Nuba people and the Northern Government broke out, and the government started to attack villages with Antonov bombers.

After June 2011 I felt compelled to go back for two reasons. First of all, I had made a lot of friends in the Nuba region so I was concerned about the wellbeing of a lot of people. Secondly, I wanted to continue my research on the genocide by attrition that occurred there in the 1990ties. In June 2012 there was another reason that made me decide to go back. I had heard strong rumors that both the US government and the UN were considering the possibility of establishing a humanitarian corridor. This would enable them to bring food up to the people that were forced to live in caves as their farms were being bombed. Such a mission was of central importance to prevent the Nuba people from starving to death; it was impossible for the Nuba people to grow food in the caves since the mountains existed out of solid rock.

However, by May 2013, nothing had happened. Because neither the UN nor the US had acted, I decided that there was no way that I was going to be a bystander, because I actually knew what was happening. Since I am also one of the few people that knows in detail what has happened in the 1990ties, when these people starved by the thousands, I found this was the opportunity for me to either really act on the behalf of other people or to get out of this field entirely. How can I write about this subject, know what is happening, and still be a hypocrite and not go?

Question 2: In one of your articles about international intervention, you wrote about the importance of a good warning system, adequate force, and most importantly, the presence of political will. You have explained that the US thought about an humanitarian intervention in Sudan. Yet, nothing has happened. Can you explain why the US does not have the political will to intervene?  

The answer to that question is really complex. First of all, the US government definitely knows what is going on. The US acknowledges the issues of the region since the current residence has appointed a Special Envoy to Sudan. In 2012 Princeton Lymand, a US researcher for the Special Envoy, spend a lot of time doing research in Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Furthermore, at my initiative, a group of sixty genocide scholars around the world sent seven or eight registered letters to President Obama, the special advisor on genocide, the secretary general at the UN and many others, about the situation in the Nuba Mountains.

So it is clear that people know, but the US does not have the so-called political will. The initial excuse was that the comprehensive peace agreement (established in 2005) between the North and the South was still very delicate. The US government had put much effort, as did other members of the international community. Also, the war went on from 1983 until 2005 and took two million lives. Therefore it was huge accomplishment that this agreement was signed and the US did not want to risk this delicate peace between the North and the South to fall apart.

However, bearing in mind that the peace agreement was signed in 2005 while we are now discussing the situation in 2011, there clearly were other considerations for the US and UN not to get involved. First of all, the US had long been involved in trying to establish some form of resolution for the fighting in Darfur, a conflict that has been going on since 2003. So the US stated that they were already preoccupied with this complicated situation. Another reason for the US not to interfere in Sudan were the political threats by Omar Al Bashir, the president of Sudan. Al Bashir stated that if anybody would attempt to cross the border into the state of Sudan without his permission, they would slit their throats. With this statement Al Bashir tactically threatened with war if anyone would infringe on the sovereignty of Sudan. Another consideration of the United States was the presumed existence of a small US drone basis on Sudanese soil in order to keep an eye on any terrorist cells that might be heading over towards Afghanistan, Iraq, or possibly Yemen. It is therefore presumable the US and Sudan made a quid pro quo, in which Sudan gave permission for the drone basis while the US silently agreed not to intervene in the Nuba Mountains.

To complicate matters even more we also have to include the perspective of American citizens, who did not want another unsubstantiated war as the one in Iraq. For something to happen it, the question of intervention will have to go through the Security Council, of which at least two members have a close relationship with Sudan: Russia and China. China has large petroleum interests in Sudan and is selling lots of weapons to Sudan. Russia is selling a lot of weapons. Both of them would therefore use their veto-right to uphold any resolution of the Security Council to intervene in Sudan.

Consequently, in May, June and July 2013 nobody was getting food in the Nuba Mountains and people were really starting to suffer. This was the moment I decided to step up, or disappear.

Question 3: You mention that Al Bashir called the conflict in the Nuba Mountains a rebellion. Authoritarian leaders often use the argument that there are no crimes against humanity or genocide in their country, but that it is just a rebellion, a civil war, in which no intervention is needed. Would you say that systemic aerial attack by the government against the Nuba people constitutes a genocide or not?

No, I would not say that these aerial attacks constitute a genocide. Many anti-genocide activists and scholars have called it a genocide. However, I think this is another example of a case in which the term and concept of genocide is used too easily [See the article of Marieke for more information about the definition of genocide]. I have been there, I have seen what is going on. Similar as in Darfur and during the civil war with the South, Antonov bombers come out and bomb civilians. While they bomb the villages, children, women and elderly are being killed in really horrific ways. For this reason, it is more than a war: the Sudanese government commits crimes against humanity against the people of the Nuba Mountains. Now is this genocide? I do not think so because, in contrast with the genocide by attrition in 1990ties, people are not yet dying of starvation. There is still enough food in the Nuba Mountains for most people to have one meal a day.

However, when I was there in December 2014, the situation had changed. These Antonov bombers were flying over left and right, all day long, plus they had MiG jets out there, that were attacking villages. If these attacks continue to ramp up and if nobody will do anything about it we will see genocide by attrition without a doubt.

Question 4: Could you elaborate on the opinions of the Nuba people with regard to the conflict? Do the Nuba people view their situation as a war, or do they perceive the conflict as an intended massacre against the Nuba?

There are a lot of different opinions about the situation. But most people I spoke with see it as a continuation of the civil war. The only difference is that this time they want to fight all the way to Khartoum. Also, most people do not really use the terms that we use. What they do say is: “Yes, we have been bombed, yes we are forced out of our farms, we don’t have food. Yes, we need help getting food”, but that is all.

Another interesting thing is the Nuba people do not blame the international community for not intervening. They are not asking for the UN, because they think that they are going to win. I think they are at the point where they are completely fed up with their situation. They have been beaten up for forty years now, they do not want to go through it again, therefore they plan to finish it off for once and for all.

Question 5: Do the Nuba people perceive religion and ethnicity as essential factors of the conflict or are other aspects, such as regional solidarity and social-economic issues, more important?

I have come across a lot of scholars who say that the conflict is not an issue of ethnicity, race, religion or culture. Instead, they argue that it can best be explained along the lines of geography; who controls the land and who controls the resources. But to most of the Nuba people I have interviewed, the conflict can be defined in racial, religious, ethnical and cultural terms. They also talked about the loss of control over their lands but this seemed a secondary issue. Almost everybody refers to the Government in Khartoum as Arabs, while they refer to themselves as black. Often you cannot tell the difference by the gradation of their skin, yet the Nuba people feel stereotyped and suppressed by the Arabs. I have heard them say: “the Khartoum’s just see us as slaves. We are not given the freedom to practice their own cultural practices and religion.”

The government of Sudan also tried to enforce Sharia Law – a religious but also a legal issue. Evidently, this is an important reason for the tension between the Northern Government and the Nuba people, for both Christians and moderate Muslims. They want to practice their religion in the way they want. Prior to the government going in and causing what they consider absolute chaos into their lives, the Nuba people  lived side-by-side and nobody cared about differences in religion and how these different religions were practiced.

Listen to the story of his Christian interpreter whose name is Ramadan…

This issue is the origin of the conflict. However the direct provocation of the conflict in 2011 was the Nuba people’s dissatisfaction about their exclusion of the referendum to decide about the split up of Sudan and the fact that they remained part of North Sudan.

Question 6: How do you think the conflict will evolve in the region? What are the perspectives of the Nuba people? 

Hear what he has to say about the future of the Nuba Mountains…

Question 7: One last question: What is your personal plan for the next few years?  Will you continue to travel to the Nuba Mountains to bring food and medicine?

Listen to his plans for the next years….