What about Sudan?

December 1, 2012
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Eric Cohen and Naama Haviv

The level of public concern for ongoing mass atrocities in Sudan has markedly declined. Leaders at all levels of civil society and government should be asking themselves why this has happened and what their roles should be in changing it.

Public attention on Darfur exploded in 2004 with prominent newspaper articles; the formation of several coalitions to end genocide such as Save Darfur Coalition, STAND, and GINet; declarations of genocide by Congress, the State Department, and President Bush; large rallies; and millions of people contacting the White House and Congress. This attention was largely driven by the faith community — notably by the Christian community, continuing activism that began with stopping atrocities and slavery during Sudan’s North/South war, and by the Jewish community, sparked by recognition of the genocide.

By the time the 2008 presidential campaign got underway, far-away Darfur had become a household word to tens of millions of Americans. Sudan was a major topic in the 2008 primaries and general election campaigns for both parties; major candidates advocated strong measures — including military interventions, such as a no-fly zone and even boots on the ground — to stop the genocide in Darfur. In stark contrast, U.S. policy on Sudan received no attention in the 2012 presidential campaign or the debates. Similarly, press and public attention have dramatically fallen off.

Today, Sudan’s President Bashir is committing yet another genocide, now in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile state. According to the U.N., more than 900,000 people have been displaced or severely affected by the conflict in these border regions, with 420,000 civilians on the brink of a government-orchestrated famine, intentionally cut off from their fields and food aid by the army and militia and the persistent, indiscriminate bombing since June 2011. A recent letter to President Barack Obama signed by 67 genocide scholars stated, “This critical situation largely mirrors what the same regime perpetrated in the 1990s, a case of genocide by attrition.”

The government in Khartoum has learned that there are little or no consequences for their actions; the United States condemns but does not stop them. Impunity reigns. What has the United States learned?

U.S. policy on Sudan has been a bipartisan failure. Both President Bush and President Obama powerfully stated their opposition to genocide, but neither set a policy on Sudan to do what was needed to stop it.

Similarly, too many leaders in the Darfur/Sudan movement spoke powerfully and worked hard to publicize the genocide crisis, but did not embrace the strong measures needed to stop it. As a result, the leaders attracted millions of followers who dutifully focused on idealistic but ineffectual measures, such as the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping troops, the appointment of U.S. presidential special envoys, the convening of high level U.S. and U.N. meetings on Sudan, and the passage of weak U.N. resolutions on Sudan.

Some leaders, notably Franklin Graham, the head of Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization with projects in Sudan and South Sudan, and New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof, have continued their activism on Sudan unabated and they have called for strong action, significantly escalating expectations of U.S. policy. Overall, however, much of the national leadership has melted away and criticism of the current administration on Sudan has been muted, particularly in comparison to the withering and sustained criticism of President Bush for failing to act to stop atrocities in Sudan. Some attribute the difference to “Sudan fatigue,” or to lack of interest from the press, or to the unwillingness of activists from the left to criticize a Democratic administration. None of these theories excuse leaders who had claimed to be motivated by principles, and no excuse should be acceptable to the faith communities that led Sudan activism for a decade or more.

Without the scale associated with the national leadership from the many established civil society groups, the result has been a severely diminished voice and impact for Sudan activism. One interesting development resulting from the lack of national leadership is that many grassroots Sudan activist groups along with American activists have self organized, creating the Act for Sudan alliance, which advocates for an end to genocide and supports escalated action on Sudan. However, this diminished voice has been insufficient at moving a presidential administration that has learned that there is only a small political risk for declining to take strong action against mass atrocities in Sudan.

In August 2011, President Obama declared that the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide was a “core national security interest and core moral responsibility” of the United States. To make that declaration meaningful, leaders at all levels of civil society and without regard for political allegiance must hold the president to account on Sudan policy and demand that the United States end the mass atrocities there.

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Eric Cohen is the president of the nonprofit Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur. He retired from a 30-plus-year career in information technology, where he served in a variety of roles at the corporate vice president level. Cohen now works full-time, on a volunteer basis, as a Sudan and anti-genocide activist. A co-founder and chair of Investors Against Genocide, Cohen has testified before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and the House Financial Services Subcommittee on International Monetary Policy and Trade on “Investments Tied to Genocide: Sudan Divestment and Beyond.”

Naama Haviv, who holds an MA/ABD in genocide studies from Clark University, is assistant director at Jewish World Watch (JWW.org), which fights against genocide and mass atrocities. Before joining the JWW team, Haviv created and managed international educational programs for Relief International and held research positions with the Institute for the Study of Genocide, the Middle East Media Research Institute, and the American Anti-Slavery Group.

Cohen and Haviv are two of the co-founders of Act for Sudan (actforsudan.org), a nonprofit dedicated to advocacy for the Sudanese people who urgently seek protection, justice, and peace.

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