News Articles

Ending Sudan violence: USCIRF hearing

WASHINGTON (BP)–What Richard Williamson saw on the streets of a Sudanese village made even the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo of the early 1990s seem tame. He saw churches burned to the ground, marketplaces in ruins and clothes scattered in every direction.

“I even saw, symbolically and tragically, a child’s bicycle that had been contorted nearly out of recognition …,” Williamson said in testimony prepared for a Capitol Hill hearing titled “Sudan’s Unraveling Peace and the Challenge to U.S. Policy.”

Williamson, U.S. special envoy to Sudan, was part of a panel that included Earl Gast, deputy assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and John Prendergast, co-chair of the ENOUGH Project, an arm of the Center for American Progress focusing on strife in Sudan and other African nations.

The panel examined U.S. options in encouraging the implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between northern and southern Sudan. The hearing, at the Rayburn House Office Building, was sponsored by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Sudan is one of eight “countries of particular concern” named by the U.S. State Department for violations of religious freedom. The conflict between northern and southern Sudan mainly has stemmed from religious differences. Forces backed by Sudan’s Khartoum government killed many Christians, animists and moderate Muslims in the central and southern parts of the country. The current conflict in Darfur, which is in western Sudan, is based primarily on ethnic differences between the Arab Muslims and African Muslims, with an estimated 400,000 people having been killed.

USCIRF chair Felice Gaer said in materials prepared for the Sept. 24 hearing that Sudan has been monitored by the commission for 10 years, and members of the commission are worried the 2005 CPA is in jeopardy due “mostly to the intransigence and duplicity of [Sudanese] President Omar al Bashir,” Gaer said.

“American diplomacy played a crucial role in bringing about the CPA, which ended the last longstanding civil war,” Gaer said. “During the conflict, religion was used as a means of inflaming and mobilizing Sudanese against their fellow citizens, and the Commission called Sudan the world’s most-violent abuser of religious freedom.”

Among the CPA’s purposes, Gaer said, are to regulate the Khartoum government by providing government elections, sharing oil wealth and respecting human rights, such as freedom of religion.

“The CPA is the key to Sudan’s viability as a country,” Gaer said. “If the CPA fails, then Sudan will fail.”

Williamson said a combination of religious, racial and ethnic issues divides northern and southern Sudan and Darfur.

“But I would argue … that most mass killing and genocide of the last 100 years have not been driven by ethnic groups’ hatreds, but by powerful men and women in power willing to do desperate things to stay in power, to feed those divisions that exist, to inflame hatred and to manipulate in a way that causes mass misery and murder,” Williamson said.

Williamson said a Sudanese election is scheduled to take place in 2009, along with a referendum on unification between north and south Sudan in 2011. But first the government must conduct a census.

The census has been delayed because two important questions about ethnicity and religion were omitted from the questionnaire.

“The election is endangered because the census is not done,” Williamson said. “It’s endangered because the necessary elements for a free and fair election do not exist, whether it’s media intimidation, religious intimidation, intimidation for the right of assembly, not to mention the great challenge of Darfur …,” Williamson added.

Ultimately, Williamson said, his concern is the danger of not having the election in 2009, thus threatening the referendum, which is the “final and most important plank of the CPA,” Williamson said.

The Sudanese government election is not USCIRF’s only concern. The commission also is questioning oil control in Sudan and its effect on countries throughout the world. China, one of Sudan’s largest oil trading partners, has not put forth much of an effort to help end the crisis in Sudan.

Rep. James McGovern, D.-Mass., said in written testimony prepared for the hearing there is a need to place extra pressure on China to work with the United States in a more constructive way.

“It’s frustrating,” McGovern said, “that we talk about genocide and we talk about the need for ending the violence in Sudan and here we are and the genocide continues.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of USCIRF, was unavailable for the hearing. He agrees that China can help create peace in Sudan. If China would agree to place economic and financial pressures on Sudan, this would help change the way the Sudanese government treats its people, Land said.

“I think the U.S. government should place economic pressure on the Chinese government,” Land told Baptist Press. “The Chinese want Sudanese oil, and since they provide [an] economic lifeline to the Sudanese government, this in turn helps to facilitate Sudan’s genocidal activity.”

In 2006, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a resolution concerning the conflict in Darfur, commending President Bush and the U.S. government for pursuing an end to the “humanitarian crisis” in the region. The resolution also urged the government of Sudan to disband the government-related militias in Darfur.

In 2000 and 2001, the SBC approved resolutions concerning religious persecution and genocide in Sudan. Both resolutions called for the Bush administration and Congress to urge the Sudanese government to stop the “atrocities” and “violations” of religious freedom.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Prendergast addressed the importance of working closely with the next administration on implementing the CPA and negotiating a peace deal in Darfur.

“I think many of us that have testified today really look forward to the opportunity, depending on whose candidate wins, to get that chance to do this, because this is a solvable crisis,” Prendergast said. “There is a global constituency for a solution in Sudan.”
Elizabeth Wood in an intern with the Washington bureau of Baptist Press.

    About the Author

  • Elizabeth Wood