Why the humanitarian disaster in South Kordofan is allowed to happen

The Netherlands
February 25, 2013 (Occasional Witness)

Two prominent questions dominate the coverage of the war in South Kordofan: why does it receive so little attention and why won’t the international community intervene? Atrocities against civilians - indiscriminate bombing and deliberate destruction of livelihood - are well documented facts. The images of civilian casualties and exhausted refugees speak for themselves. On top of it all, the violence follows an all too familiar pattern.

In the 1990’s, scorched earth tactics of the Sudanese armed forces led to countless civilian victims and virtual depopulation of the SPLA-controlled part of the Nuba Mountains. In the 2000’s, Darfur faced a reign of terror that amounted to genocide. This is the way Khartoum wages war against armed resistance: drive the population out and isolate the insurgents, exhaust them into accepting an unfavourable ‘peace agreement’.

Does the world actually turn a blind eye?

There is something contradictory about the steady flow of reports from South Kordofan in which people complain that no one is paying attention to them while at the same time celebrity George Clooney is giving testimony of the humanitarian crisis to the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate, urging for more (non-violent) action.

In fact, from personal appeals, online blogs, twitter accounts, private reporting initiatives, newspapers and news channels to human rights and aid agencies, think tanks, policy makers, individual governments and supranational organisations - there is not a relevant platform in the world where South Kordofan is not an issue of strong concern.

However, the South Kordofan struggle is clearly not on the six o’ clock news every other day, like the civil war in Syria or previously in Libya. Several points of difference between the (perception of) the conflicts in South Kordofan and Libya and Syria might begin to answer the question why the latter conflicts generated far more media attention:

- the civil wars in Libya and Syria are perceived as part of the Arab Revolution: an uprising of the population in Arab countries against their dictators. Sudan’s Presiden al Beshir is a champion of Arab nationalism and a dictator like any other, but the Nuba of South Kordofan are not Arabs themselves and rather than the population taking to the streets it was the Government and the SPLM-N who returned to fighting.

- the conflict in South Kordofan is generally seen as one that cannot be ended by military means. The same stalemate that compelled the parties to sign a cease fire in 2002, and negotiate a political solution within the framework of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, still exists today. Emphasis of Western response is on a return to negotiations rather than on support of the insurgency as happened in Libya and in Syria.

- fighting in Libya and Syria developed around large cities with some rather dramatic advances and retreats. In contrast, the war in South Kordofan is concentrated mostly around small towns of strategic importance that remain in Government hands while the SPLM-N holds on to the hills. Actual fighting is far more sporadic and dispersed than in Syria, making it hard to report on.

- contrary to the 1990’s, when Nuba soldiers were literally dressed in rags, the SPLM-N now comes across as a self-confident, well-supplied army with strong ties to their former employer: the SPLA in South Sudan. This differs strongly from the perception of the insurgency in Libya or Syria as civilian movements desperately looking for arms and strategic coordination.

In short: the excitement of a popular uprising and a historic turnaround that propelled coverage in Libya and Syria is missing in South Kordofan. This might at least partly explain why the conflict does not draw daily headlines, while on many levels the conflict has significant attention. It also brings me to the next question:

Does the international community fail to act?

If the indiscriminate bombing and destruction of livelihood perpetrated by the Government of Sudan and its effect on the people of South Kordofan do not go unnoticed: why do the Nuba people feel so abandoned by the international community? To answer this pressing question, it is important - in my opinion - to look at the following aspects:

- who are the international community and why are they involved?

For the conflict in South Kordofan, several individual nations are important. The United States are involved because of the importance of African resources, because of the war on terror, because Ethiopia and Egypt are important strategic partners and because of some serious lobbying. China is involved because of African resources; it is Sudan’s main trade partner and holds a major share in Sudan’s oil production.

Russia is Sudan’s major arms supplier. Iran is Sudan’s strategic Islamic partner. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are Arab allies with deep pockets. Egypt is very concerned about the water of the Nile. South Sudan has quite some unfinished business with Sudan. Ethiopia believes al Beshir is a ‘wounded animal’ and likes him gone; Ethiopia has been hosting many of the talks between the Government of Sudan and the SPLM-N.

Supranational organisations are also heavily involved in South Kordofan. The African Union, the League of Arab States, the United Nations and the European Union are all trying to contribute to a diplomatic solution.

- what did the SPLM-N hope or expect the international community would do after the outbreak of war and the displacement of the population?

Originally the SPLM-N called for a no-fly zone over the conflict areas. A no-fly zone over South Kordofan  would need to be enforced to be affective and this would inevitably lead to international military involvement like in Libya. Apparently, SPLM-N had hoped the international community would have sided with them to oust President al Beshir. It did not happen.

The call was downscaled to an appeal to apply pressure on the Government to allow humanitarian assistance for the people in the SPLM-N part of South Kordofan. The catch: assistance had been negotiated already in 2012, but the SPLM-N and the Government cannot agree on the way it should be delivered. The SPLM-N had hoped the international community would go along in its demand that the aid would come from South Sudan.

- why has the international community not answered the call to create a no-fly zone?

There are numerous possible reasons why: South Kordofan is far away from any basis that could host an operation that would enforce a no-fly zone. It would be a terribly costly and inefficient affair. China and Russia would veto a UN Security Council resolution to back it, like they do in Syria. Also, President al Beshir has some good friends among the League of Arab Nations who would oppose intervention.

Another issue is that indications from notably the United States point toward a certain weariness: there is consensus in Washington that there is no military solution to the conflict in Sudan. This view is shared at the UN, the AU and the EU. Apart from uncertainty about what would happen in Sudan after the fall of President al Beshir, the prospects for a ‘liberated’ Sudan are not considered very positive.

- Why can’t the Government of Sudan and the SPLM-N agree on at least humanitarian assistance?

The Government is afraid that the SPLM-N will use humanitarian assistance to feed its soldiers and that a prolonged humanitarian cease fire only gives the SPLM-N time to resupply and reorganise. The SPLM-N does not accept Sudan’s Sovereignty over the areas under SPLM-N control. Modalities to address these concerns have been rejected while new demands have been brought to the table.

- why does the international community stand idly by while the Government and SPLM-N fail to reach an agreement on the way assistance is delivered?

The international community cannot do anything without the parties’ consent because the security of humanitarian helpers would not be guaranteed. In the West, Khartoum is generally seen as the most responsible party for the deadlock but in other parts of the world, the right of a Government to defend itself against armed rebellion weighs heavy. The alternative to consent would be an intervention, which is not really an option.

- is the international community doing anything at all?

An intervention is extremely unlikely. What remains is diplomatic pressure on both the Government of Sudan and the SPLM-N to come to an agreement. The Global R2P project (Responsibility to Protect) lists the actions taken by the international community so far. The US and the EU took financial and trade measures against Sudan long ago and their only leverage is lifting the sanctions when Khartoum plays really nice.

This incentive is strongly diminished by Sudan’s economic ties with China, arms deliveries from Russia and currency support from several Arab nations. What is more: distrust in Khartoum is very strong. The Government of Sudan really fears it will lose further control over the area when it allows international monitors on the ground to oversee a cease fire. Bottom line: the parties willing to pressure Khartoum have very limited leverage.

China has been challenged to step up its effort in spite of its non-intervention policy in Africa. Both Sudan and South Sudan tried to get Chinese support in the oil dispute that still hasn’t been solved. In early 2012, the SPLM-N kidnapped 29 Chinese road workers and demanded that China would put pressure on Khartoum to allow humanitarian assistance. China refused, the workers were released.

In February 2012, the African Union, the United Nations and the League of Arab Nations introduced the Tri-Partite Proposal for Access to Provide and Deliver Humanitarian Assistance to War-Affected Civilians in South Kordofan and Blue Nile States. It has often been referred to as the basis for a solution but so far implementation has not been realised.

- how about Sudan and South Sudan?

Sudan and South Sudan are locked in disputes over border security and oil transport fees. They hold each other hostage in a downward spiral of economic exhaustion: South Sudan does not produce any oil, Sudan does not transport it. South Sudan is more or less ready to resume pumping but Sudan insists that Juba first ends all support to the SPLM-N. Juba denies involvement (which is not believed by anyone).

The whole idea behind South Sudan’s stop of oil production is that Sudan cannot keep up the fight on various fronts without revenues from oil transport. So far this theory has not proven right but Sudan’s economy could collapse and so could the regime of Preseident al Beshir. South Sudan can implode too without the oil revenues. In this murky situation, the SPLM-N has very little incentive to make concessions for the sake of the population.

- is there any good news?

Reports on the humanitarian situation in the SPLM-N controlled parts of South Kordofan continue to be disastrous. A new round of talks between the Government of Sudan and the SPLM-N is scheduled to begin on March 5, 2013.

When the two parties cannot come to an agreement, perhaps some organisations or individual countries will abandon the principles of neutrality and transparancy. This happened in the 1990s, when Norway, Germany and The Netherlands, among others, supported the population in SPLA areas in South Kordofan through various aid organisations.


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