The Islamic Gulag

When President George Bush promised a “new world order” at the end of the Cold War, he implied that human rights abuses in any country would concern the entire global community. President Clinton made the point more explicitly when he opened Washington’s Holocaust Museum in 1993. Acknowledging that America and the world acted too late against Hitler’s death machine, Clinton pledged that “all of us will get it right” the next time.

This globalist rhetoric has been put to shame by the world’s failure to confront the systemic anti-civilian violence that for years has engulfed Sudan. U.S. leaders have essentially ignored the Islamic fundamentalist government’s systematic campaign to starve, murder, enslave, and sexually exploit people–especially children and women–who are darker-skinned, non-Arab, or adhere to a religion other than Islam. Such policies would be horrifying anywhere, but are especially so in a country as ethnically, racially, and religiously diverse as Sudan.

Sudan has a complex history of conflict and coexistence between its light-skinned, mostly Muslim Arabs in the north and darker-skinned Africans from the south, who follow Islam, Christianity, and traditional religions. But, as Amnesty International stresses in The Tears of Orphans: No Future Without Human Rights (January 1995), the 1989 takeover by an Islamic fundamentalist military clique ushered in “a new era of human rights violations characterized by a range and scale of abuse unprecedented in Sudan’s history.” Jihad, or holy war against infidels, served as a rationale for everything from summarily executing anyone suspected of opposing the new regime to abducting women and children and selling them into slavery.

In Children of Sudan: Slaves, Street Children, and Child Soldiers (September 1995), Human Rights Watch/Africa describes how Sudan’s government uses troops and allied tribal militias against both rebel soldiers and civilian populations in the largely non-Muslim south. Thousands of children and women have been captured, forcibly transported hundreds of miles away from their homes, and turned into unpaid household slaves. Viewed as war booty or chattel, many of these slaves are branded and, as Tim Sandler details in the Boston Phoenix (June 30, 1994), are later bought and sold in “cattle markets” for money or livestock. Sexual abuse is common, since sexuality becomes part of the “property right deriving from conquest.”

In Sudan’s Invisible Citizens: The Policy of Abuse Against Displaced People in the North (February 1995), London-based African Rights chronicles how the government’s scorched-earth campaign treats virtually all black civilians in the south as expendable (because they are suspected of supporting anti-government rebels) and uses politically induced famine as a key tactic in anti-civilian warfare. But fleeing northward to avoid war-induced famine and violence–even to Khartoum, the nation’s capital–provides little respite; displaced families face arbitrary arrest and frequent forced removals from their shantytowns.

Dark-skinned children–some street kids, others sent into city streets on errands by their parents–began to be detained in large numbers by police in 1992. These children disappear into a unique sort of Islamic gulag, a network of what Sandler terms “cultural-cleansing camps” far from their families or home regions, where they are given new Muslim names, pressured to convert to Islam, and pushed to enlist (even at ages as young as 9) in the army or one of its allied ethnic militias.

The United States and other major powers have failed to head off these human rights disasters or commit major resources to dealing with them, preferring to rely on United Nations agencies and nongovernmental organizations to shoulder the burden of assisting abuse victims.

As both Amnesty International and African Rights note, intervention in humanitarian crises like Sudan’s sometimes ends up aiding the perpetrators more than the victims. African Rights also points out the moral hazard of relief agencies that, in return for retaining access to a local community, have agreed to keep silent about the government’s role in Sudan’s humanitarian emergency.

Can anything make a difference? Amnesty International believes that international civilian human rights monitors may be the best way to expose Khartoum’s–and southern Sudanese rebel groups’–abuses and build respect for human rights in Sudan. But will the international community, they ask, ever agree to “investing in preventing the human rights violations that, in the final analysis, create the need for the international humanitarian intervention in the first place”?

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