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…


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….





From Hatred to Hope: Rwandan airwaves against animosity

Photo: Arja Oomkens
Photo: Arja Oomkens

Photo: Arja Oomkens

By Arja Oomkens

In Rwanda, the radio is deeply interwoven into the social fabric of everyday life. Wherever you travel, from the capital city to the rolling hills beyond, the frequencies of the radio resound. On a hazy morning in Kigali, I too find myself listening to the radio while waiting for a Rwandan friend. This is my second visit to Rwanda and I am excited to tell him about my plans to conduct research on the role of the radio in the country. When my friend finally arrives, I ask: “do many Rwandans still listen to the radio?” He smiles and replies that everyone does and even if they do not have a radio at home, people will visit their neighbors to listen together. When I continue to ask if there are things that are not allowed over the airwaves, he looks surprised and says: “Of course there are. People have the right to say what they think, but not something that would destroy this country.”

During the genocide in Rwanda, the private radio station Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) functioned as an important tool for the genocidal authorities to disseminate their hate propaganda against the Tutsi ethnic group. RTLM dictated the rules set-up by the genocidal government and presented this playfully in a talk show format. In its daily programs, announcers made historical allusions by recalling the foreign origin of Tutsi and thereby claiming this ethnic group had no right to be Rwandan. Tutsi were dehumanized as “cockroaches” and stereotyped on the basis of their physical appearance. But the macabre practical use of RTLM was only realized during a later stage of the genocide, when the radio station even directed Hutu perpetrators by providing specific information on how, where and when to kill. After the genocide, RTLM was prohibited and one of the main RLTM announcers, Ferdinand Nahimana, was found guilty of indirect and public incitement to commit genocide by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (UNICTR).

Given the propagandist role of the radio during the 1994 genocide, the Rwandan media sector has been the subject of special attention to both the Rwandan government and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For the RPF-led government, the aim to unify and reconcile Rwanda goes hand in hand with upholding a high level of censorship for the media sector. In 2002, the RPF established a law against “divisionism.” This law prohibits “any act of division that could generate conflict among the population or generate dispute.” Like my Rwandan friend noted before, it is not allowed to say anything that would destroy the country. On the same note, referring to someone’s ethnic background is also strictly prohibited. But what exactly falls into the category of forbidden words and utterances that could “destroy the country”? Here, the government to this day remains anything but clear.

Despite this lack of freedom, the RPF did allow the media sector to slowly open up in 2003, when it legalized private radio stations. Therefore, and since the radio remained as popular as before the genocide, several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have incorporated the radio as a means to sensitize and reach out to the population. One of those NGOs is Radio La Benevolencija (RLB), a Dutch initiative that combines education and entertainment to encourage “hope, empowerment and benevolence.” Since 2004, their radio-soap called Musekeweya (meaning “New Dawn”) can be heard twice a week over the Rwandan airwaves.

RLB has fundamentally changed the use of the radio in Rwanda. Conceptualized as a media intervention, the purpose of Musekeweya has been to relief some of the psychological pressures that, according to RLB, contribute to transgression into mass violence. The main pressure to which RLB refers in Musekeweya is the practice of scapegoating (or the encouragement of hate and fear towards the “other” group). In the radio-soap, examples are provided that explain how scapegoating can contribute to deterioration into violent conflict. Inherently related to these examples is the idea that an understanding of the influences that lead to mass murder and genocide will reduce the possibility of recurring violence.

In the 2003 Design Document of Musekeweya, RLB made clear that the radio-soap would not be about the legacies of the 1994 genocide, as this would have been too distressing in regard to the traumatic experiences almost every Rwandan had gone through. Instead, their objective has been to identify and promote positive role models in Rwandan society. These role models have been incorporated into the main storyline of Musekeweya, wherein the citizens of two fictional villages, “Muhumuro” and “Bumanzi,” are entangled in a conflict over land distribution. To heighten tensions between the villages, and with the aim to create an understanding amongst the audience that the radio-soap is similar to Rwandan history, the citizens from Bumanzi and Muhumuro have been given a different, yet unnamed and equally fictional, ethnic identity. In doing so, RLB believes that a safer space is created for the audience to discuss and reflect upon sensitive and traumatic issues that are currently present in their own country or village.

A prominent example of promoting positive role models that runs through the storyline of Musekeweya is the love relationship between Shema, a man from Bumanzi, and Batamuriza, a woman from Muhumoro. On both sides, their parents try to convince them not to relate with someone from the other village, because of the long-lasting and deeply rooted conflict between the villagers. Rather than listening to their parents’ negative statements about the people from the other village, Shema and Batamuriza decide to marry each other. In doing so, they move away from the conflict between the two villages (and their families). The moral of the story is clear: Shema and Batamuriza do not only personify present-day difficulties of interethnic love and marriage in Rwanda, they also present the possibilities of transitioning into a peaceful society. More specifically, by presenting how Shema and Batamuriza overcome the conflict of an older generation, RLB envisions to prevent scapegoating and overcome passivity in times of crisis.

Even though the current media landscape is very much restricted, RLB has been able to address sensitive issues by drawing a fictional, yet clear and transparent, analogy to Rwandan history. In doing so, RLB actively supports a change in the meaning and function of the radio. This change has been clear throughout the conversation I had with my Rwandan friend. When I asked him whether he was familiar with the radio-soap Musekeweya, he replied: “of course I do, everyone does. It is a theater show that makes us laugh and brings us together.” Our conversation demonstrated that the radio continues to be interwoven into the social fabric of Rwanda, but that the loom is now different. Thanks to the efforts of RLB, the radio has changed from being a symbol of hate and destruction to one of hope and reintegration.

See for further reading: Ervin Staub, The Roots of Evil: The origins of genocide and other group violence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Film Review: Timbuktu – “Where is God in all of this?”

Photo: Emilio Labrador/Flickr (CC BY)
Photo: Emilio Labrador/Flickr (CC BY)

Photo: Emilio Labrador/Flickr (CC BY)

By Kari van der Ploeg -

A desert in Northern Mali. Shots are fired. Bodies are destroyed. Wooden Malian artifacts are shattered, and with them the culture and identity of Mali’s people. To destroy a culture, is like destroying the identity of its people. The openings scene of Abderrahmane Sissako’s new film ‘Timbuktu’ shows this practice, an important part of the genocidal process in a poetic way. Timbuktu is a subtle and visually beautiful condemnation of the violence and repression brought upon Northern Mali when Jihadists took over in 2012.

The invasion of Northern Mali began in April 2012 and did not end until late 2013, when French and Malian troops recaptured the area. Though a specific time is not given, it is clear that the story is set during the early stages of the invasion, as the inhabitants of the town are struggling with the changes forced upon them. Timbuktu is home to practitioners of a benevolent and tolerant form of Islam. Central to the story are the Touareg herdsman Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki) and their daughter Toya (Layla Wahed Mohamed). Their neighbours have moved to safer areas, but the family has decided to stay. When Jihadists take over Timbuktu, life is turned upside down, as acts of pleasure such as football, music, dancing and smoking, are forbidden. Jihadi fighters are present day and night to enforce these new rules upon Timbuktu’s inhabitants, who can count on harsh reprimands when they transgress the Sharia law.

Sissako does not shy away from showing violence. His inspiration for the film came from an online video he once saw. A couple was buried to their heads in sand and then stoned to death. They were involved in a romantic relationship, without being married. Sissako includes this event in his movie, yet displays the violence discretely and with respect for the victims. We see the first two stones thrown, the rest is left up to imagination. His distant take on violence forms a contrast with the more dramatic approach in Hollywood films such as Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” (2013). In another scene we see singer Fatou (Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara), being subjected to 40 lashes for making music. She sings while tears sting her face as her punishment is executed. The scene mirrors the lashing of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) in 12 Years a Slave. The difference between the scenes is the distance the directors take. In Timbuktu, we do not see any flayed flesh and do not hear the loud outcries. Sissako rather focusses on the emotional effect the punishment has on its victim, making its effect more profoundly felt.

Sissako “takes a deadly aim at Muslim fundamentalism by playing its own game of deft ridicule”, Joe Morgernstern of the Wall Street Journal observes sharply. Instead of telling the story in terms of good versus evil, Sissako shows a vulnerable side of the perpetrators, including their desires and insecurities. He delivers harsh criticism on religious fundamentalism by mockingly showing how its agents are merely protecting themselves instead of a greater good. In the end, they are human beings who crave the pleasures they forbid. Their prohibition of football gives center stage to a beautiful scene of two teams playing an imaginary game of football. Everything makes it look like a regular game, only the ball is missing. The Jihadists are at the same time getting into headed discussions about rivalling football clubs themselves. Even though adultery is one of the greatest sins under Sharia law, it doesn’t stop Jihadist Abdelkrim (Abel Jafri) from making a move on Kidane’s beautiful wife Satima (or smoking a cigarette out of frustration for his failed attempts). One of the most gripping scenes of the movie is when one of the fighters is performing an emotional modern dance on a rooftop, when he thinks no one is looking, guided by the excellent soundtrack of Fatoumata Diawara. Sissako makes his audience understand that these vulnerable men need their violence to protect themselves from an internal evil. By showing their human sides, he delivers a very accurate critique on the overarching concept of religious fundamentalism itself, rather than on its agents. In the end, they are victim of their own times.

A young man sits in front of a flag with Islamic verses. Another man stands behind the camera. The youngster tries to put his religious journey into words. He used to be a rapper he says, now he has found God. Yet, when trying to describe the dogmatic views he is fighting for, he blacks out. He runs off, upset and ashamed. Another scene. At night time, four people are making music in the privacy of their home. Jihadists are looking for the source. When they find it, they hear the people are playing religious songs. Still, they storm in to arrest them, music is forbidden after all. Even traditional ways of worship are not safe anymore for the religious warriors. Neither is the mosque, which they enter with guns in their hands. The Imam sits them down and asks: “Where’s leniency? Where’s forgiveness? Where’s piety? Where is God in all this?” It becomes clear, it is not God they are fighting for. What factors have sparked their motivations remains unknown in Timbuktu, but it seems as if they have been drawn into a spiral of violent behaviour, losing sight of the purpose they are supposed to be fighting for. Sissaso hereby gives an insightful analysis on the nature of violence. He shows his audience that violence is fuelled by internal motivations of its perpetrators, rather than religion or politics.

Think beyond our desire ‘to do good’: Humanitarian aid during the Sudanese Civil War

European Commission DG ECHO


European Commission DG ECHO

Photo: ECHO/Flickr (CC BY-SA)


By Iona Mulder -

The picture that you will see if you click on this link is one of the most illuminating pictures I have ever seen. It was sent to me by my professor Lee Seymour  after I told him that I wanted to write an essay on humanitarian aid during the civil war in Sudan. The picture is ambiguous: it is humorous and very sad at the same time. It shows soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) carrying blue children’s backpacks, which were distributed by UNICEF for the purpose of being used by pupils. Looting of humanitarian aid products was denied by all sides of the Sudan’s civil war. However, as this picture displays, this was not the truth.

Humanitarian aid is a controversial subject. How can we judge those who want to ‘do good’, while ‘doing’ nothing ourselves. Despite this feeling it is important to remain critical about the policy and distribution of humanitarian aid because  the effects are not always the ones that were desired. In addition, some local, national and international humanitarian agencies work with a double agenda to favor their ‘own group’, or have other interests. Especially in conflict situations  where  much is at stake and interests are  conflicting, this is a great risk. To quote Mary Anderson: “When international assistance is given in the context of a violent conflict, it becomes a part of that context and thus also of the conflict.” The purpose of this article is not to be merely critical, but to give insight in the undesired effect humanitarian aid can have.

Two aspects are important in this relation. First of all, how humanitarian organizations, also called NGOs (non-governmental organizations),  deal with the complexity of violent conflicts. Secondly, how humanitarian aid can affect the patterns of violence of a civil war. Similar to my previous article, Sudan will be the example of this subject, as part of a three-part series I will write about this former-nation.

The general policy of NGOs  dealing with the complexity of conflicts can be divided into two groups with different policy principles. The classists are a-political, whereas the group referred to as the “political humanitarians” have a political premises. Most NGOs aspire, contrary to state support, to be impartial and neutral in relation to the conflict parties and aid they provide. However, the exact interpretation of  this principle leads to two different policies. The classists’, of who The Red Cross is the founding father, state that humanitarian action and politics have to be completely isolated from each other. In contrast, ‘ political humanitarians’ argue that this is impossible and/or should not be the objective of humanitarian aid. An organization that is exemplary for this latter point of view is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The difference in practice is that these latter organizations also try to stand up for the interests of victims by political means: creating awareness of crisis situations and systemic human right violations, encourage politicians and states to take action, and report abuse of humanitarian aid. The down-side is that this can antagonize certain political leaders or groups, as a result limiting the access to victims and donors.

In the 1980s Sudan was in the middle of a civil war. Furthermore, a famine was forecasted in the southern region, Darfur, the Nile area, and the Nuba Mountains. To prevent or minimize the consequences of this famine and to take care of the victims of the violence, an ambitious humanitarian operation was launched in April 1989: Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). The primary policy of the operation was the implementation of an apolitical distribution policy. The goal was to transport 120,000 metric tons of emergency aid to the south, in a timeframe of six weeks. Sudan’s government and the SPLA both gave their permission to the UN and the forty-four different NGOs involved to distribute humanitarian aid in areas under their power. Remarkably, the evaluations  about the success of the OLS are diverse. This diverseness can be related to the debate about the objectives of humanitarian aid. The classicists valuation of humanitarian aid is primarily focused on the lives that have been saved; they were generally positive about the results of the  OLS. Political humanitarians, as the MSF, who have evaluated the OLS beyond the objective of saving lives are more critical. They claim that the OLS suffered from much political abuse.

This abuse went beyond the stealing of aid goods by armies and rebel fractions for their own use, which seems “an inescapable” aspect of humanitarian aid during conflict, as Alex de Waal has argued.  However, MSF and others have made the persuasive claim that the specific organization of the OLS increased the possibility of the government and the SPLA to exploit  humanitarian aid. A larger part of the execution of the OLS was the responsibility of the government, the SPLA  and local authorities, instead of humanitarian organizations themselves. These organizations often acted from self-interest as a substitute of humanitarian principles. Moreover, they blocked humanitarian aid to certain areas if they feared that their enemies would also be able to benefit. As a result, the humanitarian aid did not benefited the weakest  but the strongest: the militias or local elites.

After a few years of operation  the government successfully promoted a shift in focus within the OLS program from emergency aid to development assistance. With this money, agriculture companies owned by the northern elite were developed. As part of the development program displaced persons, who fled their homes because of the violence in the South, were incorporated on these companies as cheap laborers. They were paid almost nothing, still these displaced persons stayed because they did not have other options to create an income, as the development assistance was concentrated around the northern cities and most of the other economy was destroyed during the conflict. Arguably, these laborers could be seen as labor-hostages. Hence, it were the northern elites who did profit the most from the development assistance.

As I stated in my last article the destruction of villages and their economic resources was part of the military strategy of both sides of the  Sudanese civil war.  Reasons why villages were destroyed were to punish  the supporters  of the  enemy within the conflict, to profit from the plundering or to prevent other parties from obtaining this profit. The presence of humanitarian goods in a village thus increased the vulnerability for military attacks.

Moreover, civilians became target of long-term military strategies to attract humanitarian aid. By undermining the economic infrastructure people become dependent of outside relief, which they could confiscate for their own war economy. Especially large groups of displaced people packed in small areas of refugee camps could attract huge amounts of humanitarian fund. The centralization of humanitarian aid in refugee camps also make it easily obtainable by military groups. In addition, the existence of refugees had some other advantages for the warring groups. To reiterate, the displaced were abused by the  Sudanese government as cheap agriculture laborers. The SPLA did not exploit the refugees in the same structural manner, however, they saw the refugee camps as important recruitment areas for new soldiers, including many child soldiers, due to the fact that Sudanese camps were full of vulnerable unaccompanied minors.  The creation of refugee camps also had a direct link with the military strategy of the government. They placed some refugee camps on strategic places to secure their power over these areas.  The creation of the camps was facilitated by the humanitarian fund of the OLS.

Besides material benefits and military strategies, humanitarian action can also influence the political situation and status of political leaders.  On all level of society can humanitarian aid legitimize the power of leaders and groups. Primarily, humanitarian organizations often have to pay “legitimate” payments to local leaders or groups, in that way recognizing their power over the area.  Secondly, because humanitarian aid can fill gaps of social services, such as water, food and education provisions, community leaders will  not be held accountable by  the population for their omission to provide these services.  Thus alienating leaders of the society.

This was the case in Sudan as well. In the words of Alex de Waal, “at key moments, humanitarian aid has been used to defuse the political implications of famine, finally assisting General Omer al Bashir [president of Sudan] to emerge politically strengthened from the 1990-91 disaster.” The close cooperation between the NGOs and the government gave the impression that the government was willing to work on a solution for the famine, drawing a veil over the fact that it was the policy of the government and their unwillingness to prevent the famine that caused it in the first place.

In sum the humanitarian program in Sudan (the OSL) has saved many lives on short-term. However, in the long run it has contributed to the war economy in various ways and has legitimized the power of political leaders when their politics failed to take care of the population. It seems therefore that the following politically associated questions are important to be answered by NGOs and donors before they take humanitarian action; is the population extra vulnerable because of the presence of humanitarian aid? Are those who have the power of distribution reliable to bring the goods to those in need, without other interests? Is the aid not legitimizing the power of politicians, palliating their mistakes and alienating them from their population?  The ethical implications of the mistakes of the OLS are not that it is better not to provide any humanitarian aid at all, but that, especially in continuing conflict situations, the politics and military context has to be taken into account to avoid undesired consequences that can make the population extra vulnerable. We should think beyond our desire ‘to do good’.