The Magazine

What to Do About Sudan

Steps the Bush administration can take against one of the world's most brutal regimes

May 7, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 32 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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What is to be done about Sudan? For 18 years, a devastating war has taken a horrifying human toll in Africa's largest country. Best estimates are two million dead, four million uprooted, out of a population of some 35 million. The government in Khartoum regularly bombs clinics, schools, and food stations in the southern part of the country and in the Nuba Mountains. Its forces (and irregulars tied to them) still engage in slave raids. Famine and disease are its allies in efforts to bring the south, which is largely African racially and Christian or animist in religion, under the full control of the Arab and Muslim north. As a local bishop put it to me during a visit to Sudan last year, "They are trying to blow out the candle" of Christianity in Sudan. Today the U.N.'s World Food Program says three million people in Sudan face hunger or starvation. It is a calamity.

The new element inside Sudan is oil production, with significant revenues ($ 500 million in 2000) beginning to flow to Khartoum and fueling its war. Oil, moreover, is an incentive for the government to dominate the south, where it is clearing out large inhabited areas for exploration and production. The sober Economist magazine of London in April called these methods "brutal"; the British charity Christian Aid has spoken of "a systematic scorched earth policy."

The new element inside the United States is the attention being given to Sudan. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said "there is no greater tragedy on the face of the Earth than the one unfolding in Sudan," and he has been asked about Sudan every time he has appeared before Congress. Nongovernmental organizations, from Freedom House and the Anti-Slavery Group to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Family Research Council, are lobbying Congress, and a delegation of Catholic bishops newly returned from Sudan has called on the United States to take "a central role" in ending the war. The NAACP has spoken out, as have the Carter Center and President Carter personally. Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship and Franklin Graham of Samaritan's Purse (which operates medical clinics there) have discussed Sudan with President Bush. None other than the Reverend Al Sharpton visited Sudan in April and has announced that Michael Jackson will accompany him on a return trip.

In reaction to all this, the president has mentioned the tragedy of southern Sudan several times during his short tenure, and Secretary Powell has held long meetings at the State Department to explore what might be done. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has dedicated more time to that country than to any other. And the issue is the subject of an immense web of Internet contacts that supply up-to-date information about events there.

So the question remains, What can be done? The United States already has in place comprehensive trade sanctions against Sudan, imposed because of the regime's support for terrorism. While we maintain diplomatic relations, we do not staff our embassy there. How can we further isolate Khartoum? Or should the policy of isolation be abandoned, the embassy reopened, and negotiations begun?

An effective U.S. policy toward Sudan -- one capable of changing the situation in the south and affecting the lives of its people -- will require top-level attention and a great deal of energy. It should have three elements: aid, diplomacy, and financial disclosure. The recommendations of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in its March 21, 2001, report on Sudan, form the basis for my analysis, and are available in full at the commission's website,

* Aid: Addressing the desperate humanitarian situation should be the starting point for any new Sudan initiative. The problem of food aid is complicated not only by difficult logistics, but by Khartoum's brazen use of food as a weapon, even to starve out its opponents. The regime has veto power over food deliveries in Sudanese territory by the U.N.'s Operation Lifeline Sudan. An immediate goal of U.S. policy should be the delivery of food and medicine where they are needed, not where Khartoum desires. This means that the U.N. program, while invaluable, cannot be the only conduit for food. Roughly one-third of all U.S. aid (which totals about $ 100 million per year) now flows outside Operation Lifeline Sudan, and that percentage should continue to rise. The United States should help strengthen nongovernmental humanitarian agencies working in Sudan so that they can handle an increased flow of aid.