Will Su­dan ex­plode on Obama’s watch?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BY MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ Michael Abramowitz is di­rec­tor of the Com­mit­tee on Con­science, the geno­cide-pre­ven­tion arm of the U.S. Holo­caust Me­mo­rial Mu­seum. He vis­ited south­ern Su­dan in late Septem­ber and early Oc­to­ber.

Look­ing back on his pres­i­dency, Bill Clin­ton has of­ten expressed re­gret over his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fail­ure to stop the geno­cide that rav­aged Rwanda in 1994 and cost 800,000 lives, even re­fer­ring to it as a “per­sonal fail­ure” on his part. And Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, who la­beled the mass killings in Dar­fur in 2004 as “geno­cide,” has voiced frus­tra­tion over his in­abil­ity to per­suade the United Na­tions and oth­ers to in­ter­vene more force­fully.

Now Pres­i­dent Obama is try­ing to avoid hav­ing to is­sue his own mea culpa.

Obama’s test comes in Su­dan, which on Jan. 9 is sup­posed to hold a ref­er­en­dum on whether the coun­try’s south­ern re­gion will se­cede from the north. If the south votes for in­de­pen­dence — as it is ex­pected to do af­ter decades of marginal­iza­tion and a north-south civil war — deadly vi­o­lence could eas­ily erupt. The govern­ment in Khar­toum has proved will­ing to bru­tal­ize its cit­i­zens (in the Dar­fur re­gion and else­where) to re­main in power and achieve its aims, and se­ces­sion would bring to the fore un­re­solved ten­sions over Su­dan’s oil wealth and where to draw the new bor­ders.

This time, the United States seems to have fi­nally learned its les­son. In re­cent months, the Obama White House has con­vened mul­ti­ple meet­ings of top ad­vis­ers to dis­cuss Su­dan, sent a spe­cial en­voy to the re­gion more than 20 times and of­fered Khar­toum a pack­age of car­rots and sticks aimed at avoid­ing the worst vi­o­lence. While the ad­min­is­tra­tion won’t deal di­rectly with Su­danese Pres­i­dent Omar Has­san al-Bashir, who has been in­dicted for war crimes com­mit­ted in Dar­fur, U.S. of­fi­cials have

en­listed Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak and Su­dan’s neigh­bors to send a strong mes­sage that the ref­er­en­dum must be held peace­fully and on time.

“ This is the first time I have seen the U.S. govern­ment de­vote so many high­level re­sources to pre­vent­ing vi­o­lence be­fore it hap­pens rather than re­spond­ing to it af­ter the fact,” Sa­man­tha Power told me in an in­ter­view. Power — whose 2002 book, “A Prob­lem From Hell,” chron­i­cled the world’s fail­ure to deal with 20th-cen­tury geno­cides and mass slaugh­ters from Ar­me­nia and the Holo­caust to Rwanda and Bos­nia— is now an ad­viser to Obama.

But these ef­forts and re­sources may not be enough. Yes, the world is watch­ing: In ad­di­tion to Washington’s diplo­matic push, the African Union is try­ing to bro­ker peace, Euro­pean na­tions are send­ing eco­nomic as­sis­tance, and 10,000 U.N. peace­keep­ers are in south­ern Su­dan mon­i­tor­ing the sit­u­a­tion. But the sad re­al­ity is that even an ac­tively en­gaged in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity may be un­able to head off mass vi­o­lence in the months or years ahead.

A coup in Khar­toum, a cat­tle raid in the south that es­ca­lates into tribal vi­o­lence, a rogue mili­tia com­man­der de­cid­ing to start a new con­flict in a frag­ile border re­gion — there is vir­tu­ally no limit to the plau­si­ble sce­nar­ios that could lead to re­newed fight­ing in Su­dan. Eth­nic and eco­nomic ten­sions, the will­ing­ness of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers to ma­nip­u­late them and the easy avail­abil­ity of weapons will con­tinue to make the coun­try vul­ner­a­ble to vi­o­lence, even geno­cide.

If the ref­er­en­dum is not held on time or is tam­pered with by the north, “ there is a huge po­ten­tial for war,” for­mer guer­rilla sol­dier Acuil Malith Bang­gol told me dur­ing my re­cent trip to the south. “Both par­ties are arm­ing them­selves, and there will be more de­struc­tion. . . . There is no way south­ern Su­dan is go­ing to ac­cept be­ing hu­mil­i­ated and sub­ject to slav­ery, racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

Pre­vent­ing such vi­o­lence through diplo­macy, as the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is at­tempt­ing, is ob­vi­ously prefer­able to deal­ing with it later — but the op­tions may be limited. Diplo­macy can be ef­fec­tive only if it is com­ple­mented by will­ing­ness to take ac­tion if pre­ven­tion fails. And here, the legacy of places such as Rwanda and Bos­nia yields a dispir­it­ing con­clu­sion: It is hard to have con­fi­dence that the world would be will­ing or able to in­ter­vene to stop a mass slaugh­ter in Su­dan, es­pe­cially in the months af­ter the ref­er­en­dum, when in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion will in­evitably fade.

It is far from clear that the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil would re­act quickly to an un­fold­ing cri­sis, and most ex­perts agree that the U.N. troops in Su­dan would be of lit­tle use should atroc­i­ties com­mence. ( Years of con­fer­ences, NATO and E.U. de­lib­er­a­tions, and think-tank stud­ies on civil­ian pro­tec­tion have yet to yield mo­men­tum for an ef­fec­tive in­ter­na­tional rapid-de­ploy­ment force to deal with such emer­gen­cies.) The United States has the ca­pac­ity to in­ter­vene mil­i­tar­ily in Su­dan, but af­ter 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, would it have the will, and would it be ef­fec­tive?

If the un­think­able were to hap­pen in Su­dan this year, we might hear echoes of Romeo Dal­laire, the Cana­dian gen­eral in charge of peace­keep­ing forces in Rwanda in 1994, who fu­tilely begged the United Na­tions for more troops to end the slaugh­ter there — and who has lived in an­guished re­gret over his fail­ure ever since.

In many re­spects, south­ern Su­dan should of­fer an easy test case for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. The po­ten­tial for cri­sis has been slow-burn­ing, with the Jan­uary ref­er­en­dum date long loom­ing as a pos­si­ble trig­ger for vi­o­lence, so the world’s po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary lead­ers have had the lux­ury of giv­ing se­ri­ous plan­ning and thought to how to avoid calamity. Two suc­ces­sive U.S. ad­min­is­tra­tions of both par­ties, along with po­lit­i­cal lead­ers from Africa and else­where, have worked hard, if not al­ways ef­fec­tively, to keep the peace process on track. And ev­ery­one in­volved in the diplo­matic ef­forts is keenly aware of the re­cent fail­ures to pre­vent mas­sive killing in Dar­fur, where an on­go­ing con­flict has kept more than 2 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing per­ilously in dis­place­ment camps.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is pop­u­lated with se­nior of­fi­cials — Vice Pres­i­dent Bi­den, U.N. Am­bas­sador Su­san Rice and Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton come to mind — who un­der­stand the con­se­quences of past in­ac­tion. Al­though it took some time to reach this point, the ad­min­is­tra­tion is now fo­cused on pre­vent­ing the worst. U.S. of­fi­cials have been con­sid­er­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian con­tin­gen­cies for months, and the White House has ap­pointed a di­rec­tor of war crimes and atroc­i­ties whose full-time job is to nudge the bu­reau­cracy to ad­dress crises such as Su­dan.

As the ref­er­en­dum ap­proaches, there are rea­sons to hope that the worst vi­o­lence might be averted. North­ern Su­dan’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are pub­licly sug­gest­ing that they could live, al­beit grudg­ingly, with an in­de­pen­dent south­ern Su­dan. U.N. of­fi­cials are re­port­ing rel­a­tive calm in the border re­gions where vi­o­lence might first emerge. Au­thor­i­ties in both north and south seem com­mit­ted to re­solv­ing their dif­fer­ences po­lit­i­cally and un­der­stand that re­newed war — af­ter six years of un­easy peace — would be dis­as­trous for their economies and se­cu­rity. They also know that fresh fight­ing would jeop­ar­dize the oil rev­enue on which both sides de­pend.

But the sit­u­a­tion re­mains ex­tremely dan­ger­ous. As In­dia, Bangladesh and the for­mer Yu­goslavia at­test, the par­ti­tion or breakup of states has of­ten been ex­tremely bloody for civil­ians. In my con­ver­sa­tions with dozens of peo­ple in the south, gen­uine hope for the fu­ture was mixed with a sober un­der­stand­ing of the risks ahead: Af­ter all, al­most ev­ery­one en­dured ter­ri­ble hard­ship dur­ing the civil war — the loss of a par­ent or child, slav­ery, or a mas­sacre in their vil­lage.

And they are hardly sure that they can count on the world to keep his­tory from re­peat­ing it­self. As they see it, the depre­da­tions that took place in south­ern Su­dan, long be­fore Dar­fur be­came a house­hold name in the West, re­ceived scant at­ten­tion from other gov­ern­ments and peo­ples.

Goi Jooyui Yol, a po­lit­i­cal com­mis­sioner in Akobo County in the south, keenly re­mem­bers the si­lence of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity when the mas­sive vi­o­lence en­gulfed his coun­try in the 1980s and 1990s, tak­ing more than 2 mil­lion lives and dis­plac­ing an ad­di­tional 4 mil­lion peo­ple. The vi­o­lence was “very in­tense,” he told me. “Be­fore the world knew, many peo­ple were killed.”

Next time, ig­no­rance won’t be an ex­cuse.



Su­danese school­girls showed sup­port for the south­ern Su­dan in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum dur­ing a visit by U.N. of­fi­cials last fall. The United States is try­ing to mit­i­gate the chances of vi­o­lence af­ter the Jan. 9 vote.


Dinka tribes­men and women gather in Septem­ber at a square in Rum­bek, a pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal in south­ern Su­dan that suf­fered heav­ily dur­ing the civil war.

In Juba, the re­gional cap­i­tal of south­ern Su­dan, peo­ple ral­lied in Oc­to­ber in sup­port of the up­com­ing in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum, sched­uled for Jan. 9. The south is widely ex­pected to vote to break from the north.

A woman car­ries her pur­chases from the mar­ket in down­town Rum­bek, where the end of the civil war has en­abled res­i­dents to be­gin to re­build their econ­omy.

Sun­day Achan, 24, saw her sis­ter and mother killed dur­ing Su­dan’s civil war. She is now rais­ing her sis­ter’s two chil­dren in a vil­lage near Juba, the south­ern cap­i­tal.

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