With the confluence this weekend of the day in honor of Martin Luther King and the end of the week-long South Sudan referendum on secession, it is important to raise the tragic plight of Sudan’s slaves, as John Eibner and Charles Jacobs did in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. Eibner and Jacobs have worked to document, report on, and free these slaves for over 15 years. In their piece they tell the story of Achol Yum Deng, one of the nearly 400 slaves they liberated just this month:
“The war booty of a man named Adhaly Osman, Achol was threatened with death, gang-raped, genitally mutilated, forced to convert to Islam, renamed ‘Mariam,’ and racially and religiously insulted. She lost the sight in one eye when her master thrashed her face with a camel whip for failing to perform Islamic rituals correctly. This mother of four saw two of her children beaten to death for minor misdemeanors. She also lost the use of one arm when her master took a machete to it in response to her failure to grind grain properly.”
Despite the Arab League’s 1999 declaration denying it, the existence of slaves in northern Sudan has been well documented. As a member of the U.S. delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission in 2001, I delivered a speech, citing the evidence from the UN’s own reports, which not only describes the abduction of women and children from black African tribes and their being kept in bondage, but establishes the responsibility for it of General Bashir’s government. It is worth reviewing that crucial UN reporting:
For the past 7 years, this Commission has had before it the annual reports of the UN Special Rapporteurs on Sudan. Each makes reference to slave-raids, details the treatment slaves endure, and emphasizes the Sudanese government’s failure to put an end to this violence.
In the 1994 report, for example, the Special Rapporteur described how Dinka women and children were abducted by the government’s Popular Defense Forces, the PDF, the Mujahedin and army units and then sold into slavery to northern Sudanese and persons from abroad.
The following year, the Special Rapporteur stated unequivocally that “the phenomena of slavery and practices assimilated to slavery… do exist in the Sudan.” That report also noted the “total lack of interest shown so far by the competent Sudanese authorities with regard to investigating the cases brought to their knowledge over the past several years.”
In 1996, the Special Rapporteur identified a pattern that “indicates a deliberate policy on the part of the government to ignore or even condone this practice of slavery.” It goes on to state: “In most of the cases brought to the attention of the government of the Sudan, the reported perpetrators belong to the Sudanese army and the Popular Defense Forces, which are under the control of the government of the Sudan. Even in the cases involving members of different tribal militias, the slavery occurred within the context of the war and there are the same perpetrators and victims.” He noted that women captured as “war booty” are in some cases subjected to “sexual slavery.”
The 1999 report found: “There is enough consistent and credible information to ascertain the existence of slavery patterns in the Sudan.” This same report also detailed the regime’s arrangement with local militias and units of the Popular Defense Forces that escort the government’s military supply train south toward the town of Wau. In return for their cooperation, he states, “the militia are allowed to carry out raids on neighboring villages and to keep the proceeds of looting as payment. The raids are very violent and the militia and PDF perpetrate killings, rape, and abductions of women and children. The women and children thus kidnapped are held until payment of ransom or are kept in conditions amounting to slavery.” He also reported on forcible religious conversion.
He also described the “harsh” conditions for the victims, with “abuse, torture, rape and, at times, killing being the norm.” They are “forced to herd cattle, work in the fields, fetch water, dig wells, do housework and perform sexual favors.” Further, he stated, “the government is not taking measures to prevent or sanction the raids against civilian populations.”
In May 1999, the Sudanese government, while not admitting its responsibility for slavery, did acknowledge the “problem of abduction and forced labor of women and children.” In cooperation with UN agencies and other foreign help, it established the Committee for the Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC). Unfortunately, CEAWC has not achieved as much thus far as we would have hoped.After two years of work, of the thousands of southerners now thought to be enslaved in the north, CEAWC has reunited only 353 children with their families, according to the Special Rapporteur. In fact, most of these family reunifications occurred two years ago in one highly publicized event shortly after CEAWC’s establishment.
But as the former Special Rapporteur, Leonardo Franco, notes in his September 2000 report to the UN General Assembly, there are between 5000 and 15,000 Dinka children who have been abducted and transferred to the areas of the Arab Baggara tribesmen. He goes on to say that the CEAWC process “has been inordinately slow, expensive and wrought with obstructions from various actors at the national and subnational levels.” While he reports that he was “highly impressed” with senior CEAWC authorities, their efforts were frustrated by “serious impediments” to the discharge of their mandate. For example, one senior CEAWC member, the Chairman of the Dinka Committee, was detained and abused for his efforts. He concludes that CEAWC’s ineffectiveness is “possibly because of a lack of engagement of the top political leadership in the process or a reluctance to cooperate.” Meanwhile the raids continue; slaves are taken at a faster rate than they are released by CEAWC. This January, UNICEF reported that over 100 people were seized in raids in northern Bahr el Ghazal by government-backed forces. Last month, the BBC also reported on a recent spate of slave raids in Wau.
So, why hasn’t the United Nations or anyone but a handful of private actors (such as Eibner’s Christian Solidarity International and Jacobs American Anti-Slavery Group) succeeded in setting free the thousands of slaves estimated to be still in bondage in northern Sudan? Threats from the Sudanese government stopped such reporting by the UN’s special rapporteur and eventually ended that rapporteurship mandate entirely. They also intimidated others from raising it. The issue was all but forgotten. When the UN’s Human Rights Council, the successor body to the commission, reconvenes next month, President Obama should see that the fact of Sudan’s slaves is again raised and make their liberation a priority in his own administration’s human rights policy.
— Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.