Human Rights NGOs and the Neglect of Sudan

Don Habibi

Professor of Philosophy

University of North Carolina at Wilmington

July 2 2004

The high profile visits of Colin Powell and Kofi Annan to the Sudan must be praised by those who care for human rights and the victims of ethnic cleansing in Darfur.  The major human rights NGOs, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch can claim some credit for issuing a flurry of reports, press releases, and urgent appeals over the past few months that have brought this catastrophe to the attention of the mass media and the world—moving the US and the UN Secretariat to serve notice to the Sudanese government that their vicious campaign must stop.  There is little reason to trust that the Arab regime in Khartoum will behave itself without intense, sustained pressure.  It will continue to deny that it controls and supports the Janjaweed militia, even though it dispatches its bombers and helicopter gunships to wipe out the non-Arab villages in Darfur in coordinated attacks.  But at least AI and HRW have finally gotten the word out, making it more difficult for the regime to murder, rape, and enslave defenseless African peoples clandestinely.

            Before AI, HRW, and the UN congratulate themselves for finally denouncing Sudan loudly enough to make the headlines, it is important to ask what they did during the past 22 years, when the Islamic/military government carried out a devastating jihad against the non-Muslim Black people of Southern Sudan.[1]  Over two million people were killed, mainly civilians from the South.[2]  Hundreds of villages were destroyed, and over 5 million people are refugees.[3]  As in Darfur, slavery, rape, and torture were routine.

The deeper tragedy is that this could have been prevented.  It would not have happened if the international community had taken notice and made it an issue.[4]  Despite the scale, scope, and duration of this genocide, it was never a priority on the agendas of AI, HRW, or the UN.[5]  Only recently did these organizations decide to commit the necessary resources to discourage the long-running genocide against Black Sudanese.  For two bloody decades, they quietly reported on what was happening; however, they made it a low priority.[6]  The UN Commission on Human Rights actually took up the issue at the 2004 session, but there was no naming and shaming the government of Sudan—arguably the world’s worst human rights serial offender—which sits on the 53 member Commission.  The UN’s top human rights forum could only manage a softly worded draft resolution of concern, which was supported by Sudan.[7]  The resolution passed with the overwhelming support of fifty nations—it was only opposed by the United States.[8]  Sudan is in such good standing among the nations that it was reelected to another three-year term.  Mauritania, another Arab nation on the UNCHR, is also waging a race war against Black Africans, characterized by mass murder, rape, and enslavement.[9]

So what have AI, HRW, and the UN been doing with their multimillion dollar budgets?  Their priority has been to focus disproportionately on Israel.  Over the decades, the UN spends far more time condemning Israel than any other country.  It lavishes hundreds of millions of dollars each year on the Palestinians, who already receive more foreign aid per capita than any other people.[10]  Both AI and HRW have issued far more documents criticizing Israel than Sudan, or for that matter, Algeria, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Congo, Cuba, or Zimbabwe.[11]  This obsession would make sense if Israel was among the worst human rights offenders in the world.  But by any objective measure this is not the case.  Even with the harshest interpretation of Israeli’s policies, which takes no account of cause and effect, and Israel’s predicament of facing existential war, there can be no comparison to the civil wars in Sudan, Algeria, or Congo.  Like the UN, the policies of AI and HRW have more to do with politics than human rights.

Had the international community paid half as much attention to the race war in Sudan as it did to Israel’s construction of a security barrier (from March 2003 to February 2004), then the Sudanese government would not have continued its ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign.   The regime would rather not be in the spotlight.  The fact that international human rights organizations finally mobilized to do their job underscores what they could have done to prevent the tragedy of Darfur, had they agitated sooner.  It also demonstrates what they did not do for the many cruel years of the jihad against non-Muslims in the South.  The world would be a better place if the watchdogs had their priorities straight and understood when and where they must bark the loudest.  


[1]   Randolph Martin, “Sudan’s Perfect War,” Foreign Affairs 81:2 (March/April 2002), pp. 111-27, esp. p. 111.  See also, the Central Intelligence Agency’s The World Factbook  2003, entry on Sudan.  It states: “The wars are rooted in northern economic, political, and social domination of non-Muslim, non-Arab southern Sudanese.  Since 1983, the war and war-and famine-related effects have led to more than 2 million deaths and over 4 million people displaced.”

[2]   Ibid, p. 111.  See also, Nsongurua J. Udombana, “The Unfinished Business: Conflicts, the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development,” George Washington International Law Review 35 (2003), n. 375; and, Alemante G. Selassie, “Ethnic Federalism: Its Promise and Pitfalls for Africa,” The Yale Journal of International Law 28 (Winter 2003), note 8.  Selassie puts the death toll at 1.5 million people.

[3]   Ibid, p. 111.  Since Martin’s article, the number of refugees has increased, especially in Western Sudan where another million people have fled.  See also, “Mass rape atrocity in west Sudan,” BBC News/Africa, Friday, 19 March, 2004.  and, “Ethnic Cleansing, Again,” New York Times, March 24, 2004 and reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, March 25, 2004.

[4]   See for example, HRW’s April 14, 2004 report:  “Sudan: Monitor Darfur Ceasefire”  HRW’s Sudan researcher Jemera Rone makes this point:  “Without the international spotlight, the Sudanese government is unlikely to disarm and disband its Arab militia…The government will only reverse the displacement that it has caused under intense, sustained international pressure.”

[5]   In the 1990’s the UN did assign a Special Rapporteur to investigate the problem.  In 1996, Gaspar Biro submitted his report, noting that slavery in the Sudan is race-based and most of the victims are children.  However, the UN and its organs, the UNCHR and UNICEF took no effective action.  The Security Council imposed sanctions but then lifted them.  More recently, the current UN Coordinator for Sudan, Mukesh Kapila, told the BBC: "This is ethnic cleansing, this is the world's greatest humanitarian crisis, and I don't know why the world isn't doing more about it."  See, “Mass rape atrocity in west Sudan.”  The quotation from Mukesh Kapila is also quoted in Nicholas D. Kristof, “Ethnic Cleansing, Again,” New York Times, March 24, 2004 and reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, March 25, 2004.

[6]  Among the heroes of this tragedy are the American Anti-Slavery Group, the Coalition Against Slavery in Mauritania and Sudan, and some Church groups.  Christian Solidarity International is a Swiss NGO that has taken the lead to raise money for redeeming slaves from their captors.  According to the American Anti-Slavery Group, UNICEF broke its silence on the outrages in Sudan to criticize CSI.  A major accomplishment of the IHRM is reported by Human Rights Watch: "Talisman Energy Inc., the Canadian oil company…announced that it would sell off its Sudan assets, thus bringing to a successful close a major campaign against the company by nongovernmental organizations in Canada, the United States, and Europe."  See Human Rights Watch World Report 2003:  Africa: Sudan.

[7]   See 2004 UNCHR Sudan Draft Decision, 23 April 2004.  See also the AFP story, “Sudan welcomes UN rights panel’s weak text on Darfur atrocities,” 24 April 2004

[8]   Australia and the Ukraine abstained.  In addition to Sudan, also serving on the 2004 UNCHR are such human rights disasters as: China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Congo, Egypt, Indonesia, Mauritania, Qatar, Pakistan, Nigeria, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Bahrain, and Zimbabwe.  In 2003, Libya was elected to chair the commission.  It is as if the inmates took over the asylum.  As Michael Dennis wrote, commenting on the 2002 UNCHR session:  “Unfortunately, many UN member states, where human rights are not properly accepted and implemented, have realized that the best way to protect oneself from scrutiny is to be elected to the Commission and divert attention from implementation…Largely through their efforts, the fifty-eighth session of the Commission saw an unprecedented erosion of its prestige and credibility and regression of human rights norms.”  See Michael J. Dennis, “Human Rights in 2002: The Annual Sessions of the UN Commission on Human Rights and the Economic and Social Council,” American Journal of International Law, 97:2 (April 2003), p. 385-8.    For another critical assessment of the 2002 UNCHR conference, see Nazila Ghanea and Ladan Rahmani, “The 58th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights,” The International Journal of Human Rights, 7:3 (Autumn 2003) pp. 116-140, esp. pp. 132f.

 .  For a delusional defense of such countries serving on the UNCHR see Walid M. Sadi, "Human rights conundrum," Jordan Times, Sunday, May 18, 2003.

[9]   See "Mauritania's Campaign of Terror: State-Sponsored Repression of Black Africans," Human Rights Watch (April, 1994).

[10]    See Andrés Martinez, “One State or Two, Israelis and Palestinians Share the Same Economy,” New York Times, May 28, 2004.  According to Martinez, the annual aid for Palestinians is $325.  In his opinion piece, Martinez cites Nigel Roberts, the director of the World Bank for Gaza and the West Bank. 

The most recent statistics provided by the World Bank that I was able to access on-line are based on the World Development Indicators database, August 2003.  According to the World Bank, in 2001 the per capita aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza was $280.  This is far higher than per capita aid to Jordan ($85.80), Israel ($27.10), Egypt ($19.30), and Bosnia and Herzegovina ($157.40).  Some South Pacific island states with tiny populations, such as Palau and the Marshall Islands, received higher per capita aid.  See  

[11] I support this claim with the following documentation.  I visited AI’s websites on June 5, 2004 and observed the following: By accessing the “All AI Documents on . . .” link for individual countries, the documents (news, press releases, reports, urgent actions) are listed in reverse chronological order in screens of 31.  The most recent 31 documents on Israel were issued over the time span from 1 October 2003 to the present, most recently from 27 May 2004.  This means that according to its on-line library records, AI released 31 reports on Israel over an 8 month period.  Moreover, according to its document library, AI has issued 380 documents on Israel, dating back to 25 May 1999—a time span of 5 years.  This comes to roughly 76 documents per year.

For Jordan, according to AI’s on-line library archives, AI has issued a total of 67 documents, dating back to 16 April 1998.

For Morocco/Western Sahara, a total of 55 documents have been issued, dating back to 1 March 1996.

For Egypt, a total of 187 documents have been issued, dating back to 26 February 1996.

For Algeria, a total of 120 documents have been issued, dating back to 16 February 1996.

For the United Arab Emirates, AI has issued a total of 23 documents, dating back to 1 Jan. 1997.

For Iraq, AI has produced a total of 221 documents, dating back to 1 April 1993.  

For Iran, a total of 231 documents have been issued, dating back to 1 February 1995.

            It is interesting to note two countries that have only recently received increased attention for their human rights violations.  In Syria, the suppression of the Kurds and others did not escape AI’s notice.  With 14 documents in March and April, it took less than five months to issue 31, from December 1 to the present (most recently, April 26).  This sudden burst of activism is all the more commendable because there were no AI visits to Syria during this time.  Over the years, there are a total of 182 documents that have been issued dating back to January 4, 1996.  (AI issued twice as many documents on Israel, over a shorter period of time.)  For Sudan, the ethnic cleansing in Darfur captured AI’s attention, so it took only 5 months to issue 31, from 21 Jan 2004 to June 3.  AI was not nearly as attentive to the genocidal jihad waged against African people in Southern Sudan.  It has produced a total of 212 documents dating back to 24 April 1996.

For Myanmar (Burma), AI has issued 155 documents, dating back to 1 April 1993.

For the Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaire, AI has issued 220 documents, dating back to 14 June 1996.

For Cuba, AI has issued 123 documents, dating back to 1 April 1993.  AI monitors last visited Cuba in 1988.

For Zimbabwe, AI issued 124 documents, dating back to 30 July 1996. 


I visited the HRW websites on June 7, 2004 and observed the following number of documents available on line.  For Israel and the Occupied Territories, HRW has issued 177 documents, dating back to April 1, 1991.  For Jordan, 28 documents, dating back to June 1, 1997.  For Lebanon, 34 documents mostly criticizing Israel, dating back to July 1, 1993.  For Syria, 38 documents, dating back to Nov. 1, 1992.  For Morocco, 27 documents, dating back to Oct. 1, 1995.  For Algeria, 45 documents, dating back to Jan. 1, 1994.  For Sudan, 90 documents, dating back to Feb. 1, 1993.  For Saudi Arabia, 37 documents, dating to May 1, 1992.  For the UAE, 5 documents, dating back to Aug 1, 2000.  For Yemen, 7 documents, dating back to Nov. 1, 1992.

HRW issued 73 documents on Burma, dating back to Dec. 1, 1993; 131 documents on Congo/Zaire, dating back to Jan. 1, 1993; 39 documents on Cuba, dating back to Feb. 1, 1993; and 24 documents on Zimbabwe, dating back to Nov. 1, 1990.