Khartoum and the Language of War: Who's Really Listening?

By Eric Reeves Editor's Note: We can always count on Sudan expert Eric Reeves to put his finger on the major issues contributing to the Sudan crisis. Below are excerpts from one of his recent commentaries, which you can read in full by visiting

Every day it becomes clearer that unless Juba buckles before Khartoum’s extortionate demands, on a range of issues, then the regime will settle matters militarily---as it did in Abyei precisely one year ago.

Yet in a remarkable display of obtuseness, the international community, putatively concerned with peace between Sudan and South Sudan, refuses to hear what the regime is actually saying. This obtuseness is apparent in the toothless UN Security Council resolution of May 2nd, which contains a cease-fire demand that has already been repeatedly violated by Khartoum; in the African Union roadmap, which (though backed by the Security Council) Khartoum accepts only "provisionally," claiming the roadmap is "full of shortcomings and outright bias in favor of the SPLM"; and in the vehement and geographically ill-informed condemnations of the Southern "invasion" of Heglig along the contested North/South border, a profoundly misguided effort to accommodate Khartoum’s tendentious territorial claims (April 10 - 20).

The failure of comprehension is also apparent in the now increasingly perfunctory condemnations of Khartoum’s relentless bombing of civilian targets inside sovereign Southern territory, even as these bombings are meant by Khartoum to bring both political and military pressure on Juba. And perhaps the most telling sign of policy myopia is the refusal by the Security Council to do more than "urge" Khartoum to allow humanitarian access to those starving in Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, where civilian bombings have been relentless for over eleven months. Without securing humanitarian access from the regime in the very near term, the international community is likely consigning tens of thousands of people to death by starvation as Khartoum continues its genocidal counter-insurgency tactics.

A Distorted Narrative

Despite its furiously bellicose rhetoric---which contrasts sharply with what we mainly hear from the Southern leadership---Khartoum is continually depicted as simply the northern obverse of a South now depicted misleadingly as intransigent, aggressive, and thoughtless. Despite displaying extraordinary restraint in the face of repeated, authoritatively confirmed military provocations over the past year and a half, Juba is held equally responsible for the current military crises along the border region.

Despite the absence of any evidence that Juba is supplying the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North with significant military supplies, the international community repeatedly equates what is at most relatively small supplies of fuel and food---which can also be used for humanitarian purposes---with Khartoum’s confirmed provision of major weapons and ammunition supplies to renegade militias operating in the South, and indeed providing these deadly militia forces with transport, logistics, and sanctuary in northern Sudan. Despite this fundamental asymmetry, the international community relentlessly demands that "both parties cease supplying opposition groups" in the other’s territory---a way of avoiding coming to terms with the implications of Khartoum’s deliberately destabilizing use of these brutal militias.

Here it [is] also useful to look closely at the language and actions recently reported from Khartoum, as well as the emerging outlines of a grim end-game that now governs the regime’s larger strategy in its confrontation with the South. For there are, in fact, clear patterns and priorities in this larger strategy, despite occasional rhetorical modulations. And the first priority is defined by the urgent need to confront the growing military threat represented by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North, under the leadership of General Abdel Aziz el-Hilu.

There is strong evidence that after almost a year of fighting, Khartoum’s regular and militia forces in South Kordofan have been badly mauled, and the loss of weaponry and ammunition has been extraordinary (one reason Juba has no incentive to provide military assistance to the SPLA-N). The reports are consistent, and reveal that the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) are both demoralized and in danger of losing control of even more of South Kordofan.

Aerial military assaults on civilian targets

Especially in light of recent military conflict in the border regions, there has been far too little done by the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to confirm in timely fashion aerial attacks on civilian and military targets on sovereign Southern territory, including the bombing of Bentiu, the capital city of Unity State. While certainly facing constraints and obstacles, UNMISS must make verification of aerial attacks a significantly higher priority for the resources it has. Otherwise, Khartoum will continue to send out military spokesman al-Sawarmi Khalid to declare with shameless mendacity, "’We affirm completely we have no airplanes nor bombardments that have attacked inside South Sudan’s territories, even before a month ago. These are just accusations’" (Reuters [Khartoum], May 5, 2012).

In fact, UNMISS has confirmed many more attacks than the UN has declared publicly, and we must ask in turn why the UN has decided not to publicize the findings of the Mission. It is difficult not to conclude that the refusal to release the results of investigations confirming aerial attacks is politically motivated---part of a larger pattern described in this brief.


Notably, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, declared today that she "was ’saddened and outraged’ at bombing raids that broke a UN ceasefire order" (Agence France-Presse, May 11, 2012). But we also catch in her remarks a glimpse of the excessive caution and politically motivated skepticism that resulted in Pillay’s deliberate evisceration of the UN human rights report on atrocity crimes committed by Khartoum’s forces in Kadugli, South Kordofan (June 2011). Today Pillay would say only that, "Deliberate or reckless attacks on civilian areas can, depending on the circumstances, amount to an international crime."

Why this mincing of words when Pillay knows perfectly well that many of the bombings, including that of the Yida refugee camp, are clearly violations of international humanitarian and human rights law? She acknowledges that Khartoum has engaged in "indiscriminate bombing without consideration that civilians are living there," and yet cleaves to the language of "can, depending on the circumstances..." --- even as those circumstances have been repeatedly confirmed in the most damning detail. Yet again, it is difficult not to discern political considerations here---considerations entirely inappropriate for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Indeed, how else to make sense of Pillay’s preposterous claim of August 2011 that "while there is much disturbing information coming from the region [South Kordofan], we are regrettably not in a position to verify it"? The "information" was even then confirmed by countless interviews with survivors of atrocity crimes, conducted by journalists and human rights organizations; it was confirmed by multiple authoritative reports from the Satellite Sentinel Project; and it was confirmed, in detail, by a UN human rights team that had prepared the report that Pillay subsequently distorted in her briefing of the Security Council. As UN correspondent Colum Lynch reported at the time, there was an eerie similarity to the UN’s earlier response to violence against civilians during Khartoum’s military seizure of Abyei:

"The remarks follow a pattern by the United Nations of minimizing Sudanese excesses. Last month, UN officials in New York watered down an internal draft that accused Sudan of engaging in practices that were 'tantamount to ethnic cleansing’ in another Sudanese hot spot, the border region of Abyei. But UN officials in New York dropped the claim that ethnic cleansing had occurred, according to UN sources." (Foreign Policy, August 4, 2011 ["Why is the UN soft-pedaling its criticism of Sudan?"])

Pillay also knows, or certainly should know---on the basis of countless human rights reports, news dispatches from the region, and the UN human rights team present in South Kordofan in June 2011---that Khartoum has essentially destroyed the agricultural economy of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan by means of relentless [bombings]. The bombing attacks---by Antonov "bombers," military jet aircraft, and helicopter gunships---have left the people of the Nuba essentially without food, creating a large and rapidly growing refugee population in South Sudan.

Why does Pillay she not speak out about this brutal campaign---continuously, forcefully, with clear representation of the international crimes embodied in these attacks? Why doesn’t she speak out about the crimes against humanity embodied in Khartoum’s deliberate and calculated denial of food and humanitarian relief to the people of Blue Nile and the Nuba? Has the UN decided to "de-couple" South Kordofan and Blue Nile from the diplomatic efforts to prevent a resumption of North/South war? Are we seeing a repeat of the Obama administration’s "de-coupling" of Darfur from larger issues of Sudan policy?  

The Khartoum regime should be well known as it approaches the 23rd anniversary of its seizure of power through a military coup (June 1989)---the 23rd anniversary of the deliberate aborting of Sudan’s most promising chance for a North/South peace agreement since independence in 1956. But judging by the expediency and disingenuousness of what is said, and by the failure to act on what we know, such knowledge continues to be insufficient to produce appropriate policy responses.