A single shot rings out, echoed by two more in reply, the predawn lull of a morning in southern Sudan shattered. Here, in a region ravaged by 50 years of civil war and immense poverty, deadly skirmishes and the cold reality of losing family have become routine.
I recently traveled to southern Sudan with a team of doctors and medical personnel, and saw first hand the devastating effects that poverty, tribal conflict and perpetual civil war have had on the region. In 2009, more than 2000 people were killed in ethnic fighting in southern Sudan, exceeding the number of lives lost in Darfur. The resilient people of southern Sudan have little faith in the north’s commitment to fair elections, and unrest continues to grow as the ballot nears.
April’s first multi-party elections in over two decades and next year’s referendum to decide the independence of southern Sudan could prove momentous in determining the fate of the long-neglected region. These events will test President Obama’s Sudan policy and his willingness to stand up to China, Sudan’s biggest trading partner, on issues of liberty and human rights.
President Omar al-Bashir, head of the ruling National Congress Party in Khartoum, has said that the ballot will cover the whole country and that he will respect the results of the ballots. This from a man whose government is one of only four officially recognized “state sponsors of terrorism,” and who is accused of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in Darfur.
Opposition groups say the election cannot help but be a farce while fighting continues and the populace remains marginalized, and calls for a boycott are gaining strength. Given al-Bashir’s abhorrent history, there’s no reason to believe his actions are in good faith or that he won’t commit more atrocities or prevent the oil-rich south from seceding.
President Obama recently laid out his Sudan policy, calling for renewed sanctions, careful monitoring, and further measures if the situation doesn’t improve. Although the details remain unclear, these policies don’t appear much different from the U.S.-imposed sanctions of 1997 and 2007, measures that have simply done nothing to stop the violence. Four years after President George W. Bush approved the second set of sanctions, 2005’s historic north-south peace accord is disintegrating and human rights abuses remain commonplace.
The problem is the United States simply doesn’t have much leverage, as Sudan trades primarily with China, Japan, and a handful of Middle Eastern countries. A new set of economic sanctions and incentives don’t have the power to influence al-Bashir and the NCP so long as China remains steadfastly opposed to them, as they have been.
China has a vested interest in Sudan remaining unified under al-Bashir’s government. As of 2008, China National Petroleum was the largest investor in Sudan, and China purchased 40 percent of Sudan’s oil, most of which is produced in the war-torn southern and western regions. China is Sudan’s largest supplier of arms, a sign that they view Sudan and its continued unity as vital to their interests. Any use of force, as the Obama administration has hinted at, would be viewed by China as disrespecting their interests and could even be seen as a sign of aggression. So the all-but-inevitable escalation of violence places Obama in a very unenviable position. Because of China’s economic interests in Sudan, he risks being accused of meddling by the Chinese government if he stands against al-Bashir and the NCP.
On the other hand, failure to act in the face of civil war and human rights abuses, a sort of appeasement through non-action, will make Obama appear meek and unwilling to stand up to China. A year into his presidency, Obama’s “open-hand” approach to foreign policy has yielded few tangible achievements, and his campaign rhetoric on human rights seems forgotten. The non-action of Western powers to stop the genocide in Darfur was an easily preventable travesty, one that Obama vowed to prevent through focusing on the region from “Day One.”
Since then, he’s done little to show that America’s “moral obligation” to prevent humanitarian crisis extends beyond tough talk and tepid policy. This reticence is unacceptable as civilians continue to die in violence fueled by Chinese weapons. China’s arms sales to a recognized state sponsor of terrorism demand a response, yet Obama has been conspicuously mum on the issue.
This lack of pressure undermines the very backbone of Obama’s foreign policy, sending the message that the United States will place other interests ahead of security and human rights. It’s time Obama stops kowtowing to the interests of Khartoum and Beijing, and starts matching policy with principle. It’s time he stood up for the people of Sudan.