Recent moves in Washington, including legislation passed by
the United States Congress, and actively supported by key
members of the Clinton Administration, which call on the American
government to provide food aid directly to the Sudan People’s
Liberation Army (SPLA) has provoked considerable controversy
in the United States and within the international community.
The move has been opposed for two reasons. Firstly, it would
be of direct assistance to an organisation with an appalling
human rights record. Secondly, it would compromise existing
food relief operations for civilians in southern Sudan, in
particular Operation Lifeline Sudan, the United Nations-directed
effort which brings the Sudanese government, the SPLA and
over forty non-governmental organisations together.
The human rights aspect has been of particular concern. The
New York Times
publicly opposed the decison, describing
the SPLA as "brutal and predatory", stating that
they "have behaved like an occupying army, killing, raping
and pillaging" in southern Sudan, and calling SPLA leader
John Garang one of Sudan’s "pre-eminent war criminals".
Eight US-based humanitarian organisations working in Sudan,
including CARE, World Vision, Church World Service, Save the
Children and the American Refugee Committee, no friends of
the Sudanese government, also publicly went on record to state
that the SPLA has:
engaged for years in the most serious human rights abuses,
including extrajudicial killings, beatings, arbitrary detention,
Human Rights Watch, similarly no friend of Khartoum, also
stated in response to the Clinton Administration’s eagerness
to logistically assist the SPLA that:
The SPLA has a history of gross abuses of human rights
and has not made any effort to establish accountability.
Its abuses today remain serious.
also summed up the international community’s
perception of the SPLA when it stated that:
[The SPLA] has…been little more than an armed gang of
Dinkas…killing, looting and raping. Its indifference, almost
animosity, towards the people it was supposed to be "liberating"
was all too clear.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan
has provided graphic proof of this behaviour. He documented
an incident in which John Garang’s SPLA forces attacked two
villages in Ganyiel region in southern Sudan. The SPLA murdered
210 villagers, of whom 30 were men, 53 were women and 127
were children. The Special Rapporteur stated that:
Eyewitnesses reported that some of the victims, mostly
women, children and the elderly, were caught while trying
to escape and killed with spears and pangas. M.N., a member
of the World Food Programme relief committee at Panyajor,
lost four of her five children (aged 8-15 years). The youngest
child was thrown into the fire after being shot. D.K. witnessed
three women with their babies being caught. Two of the women
were shot and one was killed with a panga. Their babies
were all killed with pangas. A total of 1, 987 households
were reported destroyed and looted and 3, 500 cattle were
The New York Times
’ use of the term war criminals
in connection with the SPLA is all too accurate. Had this
incident happened in Bosnia or Kosovo, those involved in the
murders, and those commanding them up to and including Garang,
would have been indicted as war criminals. The added irony
is that the United States government is clearly aware of this
particular incident, having mentioned the massacre, and the
SPLA’s refusal to account for the incident, in its own Country
Reports on Human Rights Practices
. The Ganyiel incident
is sadly only one of many similar instances of gross human
rights abuses involving civilians that can only be described
as war crimes.
Amnesty International, for example, recorded another incident
in which SPLA forces lined up 32 women from the village of
Pagau, 12 kilometres from Ayod in southern Sudan, and then
shot each once in the head. Eighteen children were reported
to have been locked in a hut which was then set on fire. Three
children who attempted to escape were then shot. The rest
burnt to death. In Paiyoi, an area north-east of Ayod, Amnesty
International reported that 36 women were burnt to death in
a cattle byre. Nine others were clubbed to death by the SPLA.
The SPLA have also engaged in ethnic cleansing every bit as
murderous as that carried out in Bosnia or Kosovo. Following
a split in the SPLA, Amnesty International stated that the
two groups which emerged attacked each other and civilian
groups "for ethnic reasons". Amnesty International
stated that Garang’s faction of the SPLA (largely Dinka, and
known then as SPLA-Torit) ethnically cleansed Nuer and other
civilians suspected of supporting the other faction:
In the early part of 1993 SPLA-Torit began an operation
which involved the destruction of villages thought to be
sympathetic to the Unity group. In January, 17 Latuka villages
around the Imatong and Dongotona mountain ranges were destroyed,
displacing tens of thousands of people. In the same month
Torit faction forces moved further north and attacked Pari
villages around the densely populated area of Jebel Lafon,
some 100 kilometres east of Juba. Scores of civilians remain
unaccounted for and are alleged to have been killed.
Amnesty reported that in April 1993, SPLA forces:
massacred about 200 Nuer villagers, many of them children,
in villages around the town of Ayod. Some of the victims
were shut in huts and burnt to death. Others were shot.
SPLA ethnic cleansing has been confirmed by John Prendergast,
a well-qualified and well-placed source on events in southern
Sudan. He is a development expert and veteran analyst of north-east
African affairs, and was the director of the Horn of Africa
project at the Center of Concern in Washington-DC. Prendergast
then served the Clinton White House as director of East African
affairs at the National Security Council in the late 1990s
- overseeing the United States’ covert military support to
the SPLA. His 1997 book Crisis Response: Humanitarian Band-Aids
in Sudan and Somalia
, examines several important aspects
of the Sudanese situation - particularly the appalling human
rights record of the SPLA.
John Prendergast has confirmed the existence of ethnic tensions
between the largely Dinka SPLA and the Nuer tribe as well
as communities in Equatoria in southern Sudan ever since the
SPLA came into being in 1983, with the SPLA showing an "absolute
disregard for their human rights":
The SPLA has historically utilized…counter-insurgency
tactics against populations and militias in Equatoria considered
to be hostile…By destroying the subsistence base of certain
groups, relations have been destablized between various
Equatorian populations…This has exacerbated relations between
certain Equatorian communities…The common denominator between
the attacks was the destruction or stripping of all assets
owned by the community, creating increased dependence and
Prendergast was also able to confirm that, in another echo
of the war crimes carried out in Bosnia, SPLA behaviour included
the systematic raping of women:
Just during the days I was in Western Equatoria in January
1995, there were reports of SPLA soldiers beating civilians
in Yambio and an ongoing forced recruitment drive in Maridi.
Stories were also told of SPLA soldiers at the front line
in Mundri in late 1994 engaging in widespread raping and
forced marriages of Equatorian women.
He cites one observer as saying "The overwhelmingly ‘Nilotic’
character of the early SPLA was…enough to alienate many Equatorians"
and personally states that the SPLA is seen in Equatoria as
"an army of occupation." SPLA ethnic cleansing continues
to this day. Throughout 1999, for example, the BBC and other
reliable sources, reported on SPLA violence towards non-Dinka
ethnic groups, groups which also "accused the SPLA of
becoming an army of occupation".
The SPLA has also murdered dozens of humanitarian aid workers
from the mid-1980s onwards. In one attack alone, for example,
SPLA gunmen killed 23 relief workers, drivers and assistants.
In 1998, the SPLA murdered relief workers in the Nuba mountains,
and in 1999 the SPLA murdered four aid workers assisting with
a Red Cross project in southern Sudan. Prendergast has confirmed
that: "The SPLA-Mainstream has engaged in major diversion
as well as torturing or killing relief personnel".
These examples are but a tiny fraction of the many war crimes
against civilians carried out by the SPLA. In Civilian
Devastation: Abuses by all Parties in the War in Southern
, a 279-page study, Human Rights Watch devoted 169
pages to SPLA human rights abuses (government violations were
dealt with over 52 pages). What must be borne in mind is that
it is rare that the incidents mentioned above are actually
documented by Western sources. In most instances there simply
are no survivors left in such attacks.
It is not just against civilians that the SPLA has been guilty
of unambiguous war crimes. Reputable human rights groups have
reported the SPLA’s cold-blooded murder of prisoners of war.
Africa Watch, for example, reported that after the SPLA captured
the southern town of Bor there were "reports that a large
number of captured soldiers, possibly running into the hundreds,
were executed by the SPLA immediately following the capture".
Africa Watch also quoted a SPLA source who stated that government
soldiers captured after fighting were routinely killed. The
human rights group also recorded that there were "no
accounts of the SPLA holding prisoners of war from (pro-government)
militias." In 1998, the Sudanese Advisory Committee on
Human Rights and the human rights committee of the Sudanese
Parliament both issued statements which reported that the
SPLA had murdered more than one thousand prisoners of war.
Prendergast has a working knowledge of the SPLA, which is
described as having:
attained possession of adequate means of coercion and
has terrorized the southern population into passive compliance.
The predominant instruments of the movement since 1983
have been and still are coercion and corruption. It has
not managed to integrate society around any positive values.
The movement has been able to persist only as long as
it successfully coerces, and demoralises social groups
in the region. Because the cooperation of the civil population
is needed, at times, in order to carry out the liberation
struggle, coercion has not been a successful strategy.
Corruption, in various doses, might have worked for some
time, but it demoralizes both the commanders and the people…Institutionalization
of the top-down arrangements by the socialist group who
initially established the SPLM/A has led to a permanent
oppression of those persons in the area under the control
of the movement.
Amnesty International has also documented that the SPLA is
ruthless in preventing civilians from leaving its areas for
refuge in government-controlled areas. In the Nuba mountains,
for example, the SPLA imposed a "civilian exclusion zone"
around areas it dominated in order to deter civilians leaving.
Those leaving were murdered by the SPLA. African Rights has
a nihilistic attitude towards civilians
and existing social structures.
An even more chilling account, which directly echoes that
of African Rights, is provided by Dr Peter Nyaba, a current
member of the SPLA National Executive Committee. As such he
is an unassailable source. As a former SPLA military officer,
Nyaba is in a unique position to describe the behaviour of
the SPLA within those areas of Sudan in which it controlled
or operated within:
Once they were deployed at the war front, their first
victims became civilians, whom they…terrorised, brutalised,
raped, murdered and dehumanised.
Nyaba himself quotes a senior SPLA administrator as saying
that the SPLA "looked down upon the people without arms
like conquered people at their mercy". Nyaba then goes
on to record that:
(W)ithout sufficient justification, the SPLA turned
their guns on the civilian population in many parts of
the South. The consequence of this was that many communities
turned against the SPLA and migrated en masse to
the government garrison towns…As a consequence of all
these factors, the SPLM/A…degenerated into an agent of
plunder, pillage and destructive conquest…an SPLA soldier
operating in any area different from his own home saw
no difference between the civil population…and the enemy.
The SPLA became like an army of occupation in the areas
it controlled and from which the people were running away.
Within this SPLA regime
in areas of southern Sudan
occupied by the SPLA, Nyaba further records that:
Encouraged by the examples of grabbing, looting, murder
and rape committed by some senior officers in the Movement,
many of the commanders at various fronts turned their
attention to amassing wealth looted from the civilian
population…In many places, the civilians fled from the
so-called ‘liberated’ areas, which had become nothing
Prendergast’s 1997 book Crisis Response: Humanitarian Band-Aids
in Sudan and Somalia
provided more evidence of SPLA abuse
of human rights:
Perhaps one of the most telling signs of SPLA treatment
of civilians resulted from an exercise in which children
in UN High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) camps in Uganda
were asked to draw pictures depicting life in a refugee
camp for International Refugee Day 1993. Most of the children
drew harrowing pictures of pre-rape scenes, killings and
lootings, with ‘SPLA’ written on top of many of the pictures.
The SPLA has also callously and indiscriminately used landmines
within civilian areas. The US Department of State’s Sudan
Country Report on Human Rights Practices
, for example,
documented that rebel forces "indiscriminately laid land
mines on roads and paths, which killed and maimed…civilians."
An Africa Watch report stated that SPLA "land mines are
planted at well-heads, on roads, near marketplaces, and close
to injured people, so that would-be rescuers are blown up."
The American government must also be aware of the SPLA’s systematic
theft of humanitarian aid and its diversion for its own purposes.
In July 1998, at the height of the devastating 1998 famine,
the Roman Catholic Bishop of the starvation-affected diocese
of Rumbek, Monsignor Caesar Mazzolari, stated that the SPLA
were stealing 65 percent of the food aid going into rebel-held
areas of southern Sudan. Agence France Presse
Much of the relief food going to more than a million
famine victims in rebel-held areas of southern Sudan is
ending up in the hands of the Sudan People’s Liberation
Army (SPLA), relief workers said.
SPLA National Executive Committee member Dr Nyaba is once
again well positioned to describe SPLA policy in respect of
the diversion of food aid from civilians to the SPLA:
[S]ince humanitarian assistance is only provided for
the needy civil population, the task of distribution of
this assistance fell on specially selected SPLA officers
and men who saw to it that the bulk of the supplies went
to the army. Even in cases where the expatriate relief
monitors were strict and only distributed relief supplies
to the civilians by day, the SPLA would retrieve that
food by night. The result of this practice led to the
absolute marginalisation and brutalisation of the civilian
AMERICAN MILITARY ASSISTANCE TO THE SPLA
While the issue of food aid has brought American involvement
with what the New York Times
describes as war criminals
to a head, the Clinton Administration’s military, diplomatic
and political support for the SPLA has long been an open secret.
In its programme of supporting the SPLA, tens of millions
of dollars worth of covert American military assistance has
been supplied to the rebels. This has included weapons, landmines,
logistical assistance, and military training. On 17 November
1996, the London Sunday Times
The Clinton administration has launched a covert campaign
to destabilise the government of Sudan.
The Sunday Times
further stated that:
More than $20m of military equipment, including radios,
uniforms and tents will be shipped to Eritrea, Ethiopia
and Uganda in the next few weeks…much of it will be passed
on to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which is
preparing an offensive against the government in Khartoum.
This was confirmed by the newsletter Africa Confidential
"The United States pretends the aid is to help the governments
concerned...to protect themselves from Sudan...It is clear
the aid is for Sudan’s armed opposition."
The Clinton Administration has used the same covert warfare
tactics that the Reagan Administration used against the Sandinista
government in Nicaragua. As much has been unambiguously stated
by the man who should know, John Prendergast, who has gone
so far as to make a direct comparison between Sudan to Nicaragua:
The parallels to Central America in the 1980s are stark.
The US provided covert aid to the Contras (and official
aid to the regimes in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatamala)
and because of domestic public pressure urged numerous
reforms on the Contras (and the three Central American
governments), especially in the area of human rights and
institutional reform (though the pressures were undercut
by an administration in Washington not serious about human
It is obvious that the Contras
in the Sudanese example
are the SPLA. In addition to using surrogates, the United
States has also provided military training to the SPLA by
CIA and special forces instructors. United States army generals,
for example, have been present during Ugandan army exercises
held in conjunction with SPLA forces and Eritrean army units.
The American military presence in these "front line"
states was under the guise that U.S. advisers were providing
"antiterrorist" training. Africa Confidential
has confirmed that the SPLA "has already received US
help via Uganda" and that United States special forces
are on "open-ended deployment" with the rebels.
In addition to John Garang’s close identification with widespread
abuses of human rights with Sudan, the SPLA has also been
guilty of widescale terrorism during its conflict with the
Sudanese government. This has included the widespread murder
of Sudanese men, women and children, indiscriminate mortaring
and rocketing of urban areas in southern Sudan, resulting
in hundreds of further civilian deaths, extensive pillaging
and shooting of civilians along the Sudan-Ethiopian border,
the torture and execution of opponents, the murder of international
relief workers, and the laying of landmines. The SPLA has
also admitted the shooting down of civilian airliners within
Sudan, incidents involving considerable loss of civilian life.
In one instance the SPLA shot down a civilian airliner taking
off from Malakal in southern Sudan, killing sixty people.
Two days later the SPLA announced it would continue to shoot
down civilian aircraft. A further civilian aircraft was shot
down with the deaths of thirteen passengers and crew.
The American government, in its own Country Reports on
Human Rights Practices,
has documented examples of SPLA
terrorism, including that the SPLA "conducted indiscriminate
mortar and rocket attacks on the southern city of Juba, killing
more than 40 civilians and wounding many others. These attacks...seemed
intended to terrorize the inhabitants". In another instance,
the American government stated that the SPLA had continued
the random shelling of Juba, killing over 200 southern civilians.
It is clear, therefore, that according to the United States
government definition of terrorism and international terrorism,
that the SPLA is a group guilty of both terrorism and international
terrorism. The relevant definitions come from Title 22 of
the United States Code, Section 2656f (d):
- The term terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated
violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational
or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an
- The term international terrorism means terrorism involving
citizens of the territory of more than one country.
It is perhaps ironic that the United States government has
listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, without having
produced any such evidence, while at the same time itself
clearly qualifying as a state sponsor of terrorism given its
military training, logistical and diplomatic support for the
SPLA. American support for the SPLA, by its own definition,
also clearly qualifies as support for international terrorism
as the SPLA activities involve more than one country.
THE SPLA’s SYSTEMATIC DIVERSION OF FOOD AID
There is also a direct link between the supply of food aid
to the SPLA and the war in southern Sudan. The SPLA has been
clearly documented as having engaged in the systematic theft
and diversion of emergency food aid intended for famine victims
and refugees. The SPLA has repeatedly used food aid, and its
denial, as a weapon in their war against the Sudanese government.
In so doing it has been at least partly responsible for the
famines that have resulted in the deaths of so many Sudanese
Prendergast also addressed the SPLA’s deliberate abuse of
aid and society in those areas it controls:
The human rights abuses of the SPLA are by now well-documented…What
is less understood is the abuse and manipulation of humanitarian
assistance, the undermining of commerce, and the authoritarian
political structures which have stifled any efforts at
local organizing or capacity building in the south. These
are the elements which have characterized the first decade
of the SPLA’s existence.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of SPLA food aid diversion
is that there is evidence that the SPLA sells diverted humanitarian
aid, either stolen from civilians or directly from aid agencies,
in order to purchase weapons and munitions with which to carry
on the war.
The international community’s concern about United States
support for the SPLA is well-founded. The Clinton Administration’s
policies towards Sudan, exemplified by the erroneous missile
attack on a medicine factory in Khartoum, an attack now universally
seen as a disastrous blunder, has been farcical where not
tragic. It cannot be said that the Clinton Administration
is unaware that the SPLA, the group they are militarily assisting,
has a long history of war crimes in Sudan. Indeed, the White
House’s own National Security Council Sudan expert, John Prendergast,
has declared that: the SPLA "was responsible for egregious
human rights violations in the territory it controlled".
Prendergast, for example, has personally placed on record
The SPLA has faced a tidal wave of accusations and
condemnation from international human rights organizations
and local churches over its human rights record.
Prendergast’s documenting of the reality of the SPLA and its
human rights record fatally undermines Washington’s support
for that organisation. The Clinton Administration’s backing
of the SPLA highlights glaring double standards. There is
apparently one set of human rights and values for white Europeans
in Bosnia and Kosovo and another for black Africans in Sudan.
War crimes in the Balkans are condemned by Washington, and
those responsible for war crimes such as mass murder and ethnic
cleansing are indicted for trial. Almost identical SPLA war
crimes such the well-documented shooting, hacking to death
or burning alive of hundreds of women and children, are ignored
and their perpetrators given direct American military, logistical
and political support. It appears that the Clinton Administration
is willing to fight to the last drop of southern Sudanese
blood to pursue its increasingly discredited policies against
the Sudanese government.
Rather than support war and logistically fuel further conflict
in Sudan, the American government should be a peace-maker
within Sudan. Rather than arming and encouraging the SPLA,
Washington should be bringing all sides to the conflict
towards a negotiated settlement of the conflict, based on
the offers of an internationally-monitored referendum on
the status of southern Sudan and multiparty elections that
are already on the table.