Human Rights in Sudan: The Way Forward

“Human Rights in Sudan: The Way Forward”

Co-Hosted by Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and The Foreign Policy Initiative

November 19, 2009

Colin Thomas-Jensen

Policy Advisor, The Enough Project


Richard Just

Managing Editor, The New Republic


Abe Greenwald (Moderator)

Policy Advisor, The Foreign Policy Initiative

In his introductory remarks, Abe Greenwald briefly outlined a few underlying issues. To date, the United States and the international community have not demonstrated enough concerted effort to address the two massacres and related human rights concerns in Sudan. The issue should be a bipartisan issue and it is one insofar as members of both parties have responded to crises in both the north and south of insufficiently. 

Richard Just began by stating that the Obama administration’s policy towards Sudan is terrible, and people on the left are generally disappointed with the president’s performance thus far. Nonetheless, Just argued, former President Bush is no less to blame for the crisis in Sudan. Bush, according to Just, failed to intervene militarily in 2004 and will not look any better in the history books. The fact is that neither side knows how to deal with this issue.

Just outlined two major problems with the Obama approach. First, the administration’s policy has been far too conciliatory. This is not working now and will not work in the future. As recent history has shown, Sudan responds to sticks, not carrots. Moreover, the conciliatory approach fails to sufficiently address the needs of Sudanese refugees. Second, Obama has failed to consider what sort of message a conciliatory approach sends to other leaders. If a policy of conciliation is continued, world leaders are likely to interpret the message as a sign that engaging in genocide is an acceptable behavior that carries few consequences.

Colin Thomas-Jensen presented a brief analysis of the Obama administration’s white paper on Sudan. In his view, the document is a series of compromises. The paper calls for a halt to genocide, a watered down version of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), and improved counterterrorism capabilities in the region.

While the document calls for a halt to genocide, the term “human rights” appears only once. If the United States is going to define something as genocide, Thomas-Jensen argued, it should be willing to do something about it. The current policy of offering incentives is interpreted as a sign of weakness by the Sudanese government. He echoed Just’s assessment that Sudan responds only to sticks. Regarding civilian protection, the white paper calls for the strengthening of the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). However, Thomas-Jensen argued that UNMIS is already broken, so there is no way to strengthen it. Since Sudan has veto power in UNMIS, it is unlikely that the Mission can serve as a meaningful avenue for the protection of civilians.  The paper mentions U.S. support for accountability, but stops short of demanding that the Sudanese president appear before the International Criminal Court.

Regarding the implementation of the CPA, Thomas-Jensen noted that the current administration has embraced a series of compromises and essentially abandoned the idea of democratic change for Sudan. This marks a significant shift from Bush administration policies and may even be considered the ultimate betrayal for Sudan. The upcoming elections are not going to be free and fair, and a victory by Omar al-Bashir will render the prospects for the peaceful independence of the southern part of the country virtually impossible. His election will undermine the CPA and likely result in a civil war.

The bottom line, according to Thomas-Jensen, is that no end is in sight and the situation is getting worse. Full scale war is likely to erupt within the next year and a half, but this time the war will be about taking Khartoum, not just holding the line against it. Moreover, other regional actors will be pulled into the war.

Q and A:

Greenwald noted that both speakers agreed that multilateral intervention in Sudan should have occurred sometime between 2004 and 2005. He asked if either of the panelists would have supported unilateral U.S. intervention at that time.

Just replied that he would have supported unilateral action, but the best solution would have been for the United States to work through NATO rather than the UN. While Just acknowledged that there are some purposes for which the UN is well-suited, ending genocide is not one of them.

Thomas-Jensen said that he would not have supported unilateral action. Given the range of other international U.S. commitments at the time, unilateral U.S. intervention in Sudan would have been a political impossibility. A major failure of the U.S. approach, however, was to view Sudan as an African problem, even though the government in Khartoum views itself as an Arab government.

Greenwald then asked the speakers to specify what sticks should be used going forward.

Thomas-Jensen suggested that a prerequisite for moving forward is the recognition that the United States is limited in what it can achieve unilaterally without using military force. International consensus is the key to achieving significant success, yet since the day the CPA was signed there has been no international consensus. As China is one of the most important actors in Sudan, the United States should leverage China’s economic interests in the region to earn increased Chinese cooperation. The Sudanese government is corrupt and greedy, so economic sanctions in cooperation with the European Union and China could potentially be an effective strategy moving forward.

Just argued that the Obama administration should threaten to intervene militarily in the event that the Sudanese government allows the conflict to return to its previous state of war. However, that the administration would take such a position is unlikely.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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