The government of Sudan, the bombing of civilians, and the silence of the international community

The recent elections in Sudan call into question the legitimacy of the government soon to be re-elected. Even if the elections had been free and fair (which they have not), the government’s legitimacy would be challenged unequivocally by the fact that the very same government currently being re-elected into power is authorising the continual and systematic bombardment of civilians who are technically part of its polity.

On average, the Sudanese government has dropped three bombs a day on rebel held territory in its Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States since April 2012. The impact of this bombing campaign on those living in the area has been devastating. Not only do the bombs often kill or maim civilians, but they also coincide disproportionately with planting and harvesting cycles, as well as market days, suggesting a deliberate strategy to decimate livelihoods. Yet despite the disruption to the local economy, the government of Sudan refuses to allow humanitarian access to these areas, citing fears that aid would be used to support rebel fighters.

As a result, 1.7 million people – roughly half of the population of the two states – have been displaced. Those who have remained, live with the daily threat of aerial bombardment, of government land forces breaking through the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement–North (SPLM-N) frontline, and a chronic lack of food and medicine.

A report released today highlights the voices of civilians living in the midst of this conflict. It emphasises the devastating impact of the conflict on every aspect of people’s lives. But it also talks of the resilience and resistance of those who are living through it. Despite unrelenting attacks against them, local organisations and activists have taken it upon themselves to educate the population about the means of surviving Antonov[1] attacks, in particular by digging foxholes and learning when and where to take cover.

This resilience, in many respects, is fuelled by defiance: many people have remained in Southern Kordofan not only because the alternatives are bleak (most of those who have been displaced have fled to South Sudan, itself in civil conflict), but because they see their ongoing presence as a form of resistance to a state they believe is trying to destroy them. As a result, many aspects of day-to-day life continue in rebel held areas of Southern Kordofan, as evidenced by children going to school and markets functioning (albeit under the daily threat of bombing and with chronic shortages.)

Furthermore, the extent to which the current government of Sudan is seen to lack any form of legitimacy is reflected by the fact that civilians are putting their faith in alternative structures of government. The rebels have recently set up a civilian administration in conjunction with the military structures that already exist, which the findings in the report demonstrate are broadly accepted by the civilian population. Civilians hope that this administration will eventually create an alternative, inclusive form of governance – in contrast to those of the Sudanese state, which they see as highly exclusionary.

However, it is important not to over-romanticise this resilience which, not surprisingly, is being severely depleted. The population’s efforts have certainly helped to minimise civilian casualties and allowed many people to remain in Southern Kordofan despite the substantial impact of the conflict. But their ability to survive is also being worn away by the continuing onslaught.

While primary responsibility for what is taking place lies with the government of Sudan, it seems unlikely that they will end their military campaign in the foreseeable future – and certainly not without considerable coercion from the international community (or at least certain parts of it). But the international community has remained, for the most part, silent.

Courageous local organisations and citizen journalists have been reporting on the intolerable circumstances in which civilians live in Southern Kordofan. Yet these organisations remain limited in their external reach. Indeed, civilians caught up in this conflict are struggling to have their voices heard – or rather, heeded. With the government of Sudan blocking independent media and international organisations from the field in a deliberate effort to cover up the consequences of the violence, there is both insufficient awareness at the international level about what is taking place, and a failure to mobilise around what information is available, with reports from NGOs regularly being dismissed as biased.

One of the strongest messages that came through the research was that those living in Southern Kordofan do not want pity: they want solidarity. They want the international community to acknowledge what is taking place and work with them to end the conflict. Their resilience is not being matched by support from the international community, which appears caught between denial and helplessness. The consequent lack of decisive action is proving disastrous, and the disconnect between the standards of international humanitarian and human rights law and their lack of enforcement could not be more stark.

It is hard to see a military victory for either side any time soon. Furthermore, for as long as the government fails to put in reforms that have been demanded, for decades, by those on the peripheries within the broader context of Sudan, there will be a reason for people to fight. In this context, a stalemate is unacceptable – a stalemate that is taking an intolerable toll on a civilian population that has been depleted of most of its reserves.

So what can the international community do? Obviously, there are no easy answers. It has already tried to call the president of Sudan to account in Darfur with an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. This strategy has so far failed to reap any direct benefits to those in Darfur, let alone those in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. One recommendation that the report makes is for the United Nations or the African Union to conduct an independent inquiry into what is taking place. Once such an “official” body has documented the situation for themselves, key members of the international community will find it harder to dismiss the evidence of massive attacks on civilians. Maybe this will lead to action. Or maybe not. But for now it might be a step in the right direction. At the very least it would send a powerful message to the people of Southern Kordofan that the international community are aware of their plight, and it would shed some light on an increasingly dark chapter of Sudan’s already shady recent history.

(This post first appeared on OpenDemocracy https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/lucy-hovil/silence-over-sudan%E2%80%99s-bombing-of-civilians)

[1] Antonovs are cargo aircraft designed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Because they are cargo planes, they lack any sort of guidance system and bombs are simply rolled out of the cargo hold, and are therefore inherently indiscriminate.

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Talking justice in Uganda: has the conversation evolved?

(Reposted from African Arguments)

The relationship between the International Criminal Court (ICC) and African civil society is certainly an interesting one. On the one hand, the proliferation of conflict on the continent has led to an ever increasing deficit in justice, and the ICC is seen by some as a crucial component to filling this hole. On the other, many actors have expressed concern about the prominence accorded to the ICC: some have accused it of being another form of neo-colonial domination; others have expressed concern about its detrimental impact on domestic peace processes or wider justice efforts, especially in the context of inadequate understanding of local contexts; while others have criticised it for failing to protect those who collaborate with it or address the needs of victim communities. Meanwhile, the water around those with legitimate concerns and critiques has become increasingly muddied by attacks on the court by those in positions of power who see rubbishing accountability as key to their survival.

While these differences of opinion have sometimes led to constructive debate, with local and international civil society genuinely seeking to find the right paths forward, they have also – possibly more frequently – led to an acrimonious stand-off. Too often, raising concerns about how the ICC is doing its job has been equated with favouring impunity.

In many respects, the reaction to the ICC’s engagement in northern Uganda was the first iteration of this debate. Eleven years later, the recent reported surrender in Central African Republic of Dominic Ongwen, one of the commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the prospect of his trial, provides a good opportunity to revisit these disagreements. While the landscape has shifted considerably since 2004 – including an end to armed conflict in northern Uganda, the Juba Peace Process, ongoing local initiatives such as the Beyond Juba initiative, and the creation of a division of the Ugandan High Court to hear war crimes and related cases, not to mention heavy investment by the ICC in outreach activities in northern Uganda, and a new prosecutor at the ICC itself – many of these tensions remain. Without wanting to simply rehearse old and tired debates, it is worth looking back to the ICC’s initial engagement in Uganda in order to reflect on whether or not the renewed focus that has been put on the war as a result of Ongwen’s pending trial, presents an opportunity to address them.

When the government of Uganda announced on 29 January 2004 that it was making the first referral of a country situation to the ICC, the stakes were high. The ICC was a new institution with the formidable mandate of ending impunity for the worst crimes throughout the world, and northern Uganda was its first situation. On paper, the LRA seemed a perfect target. Its notorious leader, Joseph Kony, abducted and abused children, carried out atrocities of the most appalling nature, and had a cultish aura that seemed to negate any rational political agenda. It was also responding to a request from the government of Uganda to investigate the LRA, which presented it with the opportunity to test out its mandate in the relatively uncontroversial waters of a state referral.

However, the announcement of the ICC’s investigation, followed by the issuing of arrest warrants in 2005, created considerable tension and a bitter debate on the ground in Uganda. Positions polarised around the appropriateness of different forms of justice, with the ICC and a number of international human rights organisations speaking out in favour of criminal accountability as a necessity for peace, and many local human rights and civil society organisations, and community leaders in the north, speaking out in favour of prioritising peace negotiations and considering other forms of justice. The vigorous exchange that followed significantly undermined the areas of mutual understanding and common ground that could have led to a healthy discussion on ending the war and creating an environment of sustainable peace – and the role of pursuing accountability for international crimes in those pursuits. Instead, it set up a false distinction between the demands of justice and the demands of peace.

One of the substantive concerns that local civil society expressed was the lack of focus on accountability for the actions of the government of Uganda. For those in the north caught up in the midst of the war, although there was minimal support for Kony’s actions, the government was perceived to be as much a source of instability and human rights abuses as the LRA. It had not only failed to protect its citizens, but had compounded their misery by forcing much of the rural population into so-called “protected villages”. Therefore, they wanted accountability not only for the government’s inability to protect civilians, but its alleged complicity in their suffering. By focusing so predominantly on the role of the LRA alone (reports to the General Assembly do not even mention information on government crimes until 2010), the ICC was seen to be not only failing to recognise wider grievances that lay at the root of the conflict, but was inadvertently promoting the government’s narrative of the conflict – that the LRA had no legitimate political agenda and was merely a “terrorist” or “criminal” group. As a result, it appeared to have become complicit in the political manoeuvring that has enabled President Museveni to maintain power for almost three decades.

Eleven years later, this concern remains valid, not least given the fact that political space in Uganda seems to have only contracted. The fact that the ICC has still only brought charges on one side of the conflict (albeit recognising the legal realities around this decision) means that many still see the ICC as pursuing one-sided justice. The difference now, is that even those that have always been strong supporters of the ICC have acknowledged this as a problem – although their response has been somewhat different, arguing that it is better to take what justice we can get and continue to work on government accountability in other fora where possible.

Of course, the ICC was only ever intended to be part of the solution. It cannot address the many injustices that are the result of structural inequalities in society, rather than the result of individual actions – although, ideally, individual prosecutions would help to highlight and expose these structural factors. However, the risk is that a focus on the “criminality” of a few may actually come to be seen as an explanation for all the violence, thereby obscuring the root causes. It points to the need for complementary approaches that significantly take into account the role played by the government of Uganda in the war, and allow for the re-building of civic trust that has been so severely depleted. Inevitably, these concerns have come sharply into focus with the appearance of Ongwen at the ICC, suggesting that any outcome of his trial is unlikely to be seen as “justice” from the perspective of those who lived through this painful conflict unless broader issues are also addressed.

Positively, Ongwen’s status as both a victim and a perpetrator (however that might be interpreted) has been widely debated since his arrest, highlighting not only the atrocities he is alleged to have committed but also the government’s failure to protect him from abduction in the first place. The extent to which this narrative is explored and addressed in court is going to be a key component to the quality of justice delivered by the trial. The emphasis that is placed on the issue of cause and effect and the complicity of both sides will have an impact on the external perception of the validity of the final judgment, whatever it may be. If managed appropriately, actors outside the court could use it to help build pressure for other justice processes.

The trial of Ongwen, therefore, creates an opportunity for local and international civil society to put the pressure on the government of Uganda to renew dialogue on, and promote implementation of, its transitional justice policy framework, and to expose factors behind the war that have remained concealed. Of course, these are all complex issues and the ICC’s proceedings against five people, much less the trial of a single individual, were never going to be sufficient in addressing the massive deficit in justice in northern Uganda. However, unless Ongwen’s case is understood in its broader context, it has the potential to, inadvertently, do more harm than good.

Statelessness averted? Former Burundian refugees to receive Tanzanian citizenship

On 29 September 2014, at the annual meeting of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Governing Executive Committee in Geneva, the government of Tanzania announced that it finally intends to deliver on its 2008 promise of citizenship to tens of thousands of former Burundian refugees by offering them proof of their new status as citizens. This promise – if delivered upon – will avert a growing crisis that had made those caught up in its midst effectively stateless.

This predicament has arisen from good intentions: the government of Tanzania was seeking to end exile for this group, not create a situation in which their exile would metamorphose into statelessness. It is rare for countries to offer citizenship to groups of refugees, especially in the Great Lakes region where millions have been displaced. Instead, most governments wait for circumstances to change so that refugees can go back to their home country. In official refugee policy language, therefore, repatriation is typically favoured over local integration as the most desired “durable solution”. In 2008, however, Tanzania challenged this trend. It took the bold and commendable decision to offer naturalisation to approximately 200,000 Burundian refugees who had fled their country in 1972 and were living as refugees in Tanzania. It was an offer that was unprecedented and exceptional in scale not only in Tanzania, but globally. While some of this group of refugees opted to repatriate to Burundi, 162,256 took up the offer to apply for naturalisation.

The catch, however, is that so far implementation has proved elusive, and this generous offer has, over the past six years, become increasingly caught up in realpolitik. The process itself, therefore, has revealed a huge gap between the idea of citizenship and its realisation. Although the notification that refugees were accepted as citizens should have been enough to confirm their citizenship in law, in practice research with the population has shown that these former refugees, having been required to renounce their Burundian nationality, have spent the past few years being told that the process is incomplete and being refused certificates confirming their new status. As a result, neither the status “refugee” nor “citizen” can be applied unproblematically to this group, leaving their legal status highly ambiguous. As one of these individuals said, “We have been told by officials that we are only 95% Tanzanian and 5% is still incomplete.” And being only 95% Tanzanian is, in reality, as good as not being Tanzanian at all.

Part of the problem was the fact that the former refugees were told that receiving their certificates was contingent upon relocating to other areas of Tanzania – something that they resisted. Arguments for relocation were made by government officials, some members of the host population, and even a few of the naturalised former refugees, who emphasised the need to break with localised expressions of “tradition” in order to ensure citizenship built on “new” (i.e. non-ethnic) forms of social affiliation – which is how citizenship has been constructed in Tanzania for decades. Arguments against relocation were articulated by the majority of former refugees: they believed that if they have become citizens, they should be allowed to move and settle freely in the country like any other Tanzanian. In addition, some believed that being forced to relocate would create vulnerability as it would undermine forms of local belonging they had already established, that allow vital access to livelihoods. Likewise many Tanzanians living in proximity to the former refugees for decades wanted them to be allowed to stay: they have become a vital part of the local economy and are exporting food around Tanzania. With little local government impetus to initiate the process (not least due to an almost total absence of funds), the situation became gridlocked.

Therefore, the announcement by the government of Tanzania that it intends to break this impasse and ensure that the citizenship process is finally completed – and not to make it contingent upon relocation – represents a considerable breakthrough. While these words still need to be translated into the actual handing out of citizenship certificates, this announcement is a major step forward and is certainly a feather in the cap of the Tanzanian government, which has shown itself willing to change its mind on the issue of relocation.

The whole process, however, highlights the fact that today’s refugees are potentially tomorrow’s stateless people. With the launch of UNHCR’s campaign to end statelessness it is vital that “protracted” refugee situations such as this one are not forgotten. All across the Great Lakes region, tens of thousands of people are currently caught in a state of legal limbo having fled the country of their birth – or of their parents’ birth – and yet unable to secure citizenship in their country of exile. Although they may de jure have access to citizenship in their parents’ country, the longer exile continues and the less documentation of their previous citizenship that they have, the less meaningful this legal category becomes. In the current context in which durable solutions continue to be evasive, it will inevitably tip over into statelessness unless appropriate action is taken.

For now, however, as one of only a few examples of a refugee-hosting government promoting full local integration through the granting of citizenship to a particular group of refugees, what is taking place in Tanzania should be a model response to situations of protracted exile not only in the Great Lakes region, but around the world.

Can better access to citizenship help resolve conflict and refugee crises in Africa’s Great Lakes Region?

The manifold problems of conflict and displacement in Africa’s Great Lakes region[1] seem as complex as they do intractable. After all, with the exception of Tanzania, all the countries in the region have generated refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in large numbers over the past decades. But while not wanting to diminish the problems facing the region past and present, scale should not be conflated with either inexplicability or insolvability.

Of course, there is no silver bullet either. But research carried out by the International Refugee Rights Initiative over the past six years in the region, all of which focuses in one way or another on conflict and displacement in a number of different settings, indicates that a framework of citizenship can contribute positively to a better understanding of, and better policy responses to, forced displacement in this troubled region.

Citizenship in this context is understood as access to legal citizenship, but also more broadly as recognition of the right of a person to belong in a community and the power of that acceptance/belonging as a means of accessing other rights. And the research suggests that while there are many causes of political conflict and displacement in the region, unequal or inadequate access to citizenship has been a major contributing cause. At the same time, not only has the failure to ensure inclusive citizenship contributed to displacement, it has also made it harder to resolve: exclusive understandings of national citizenship limit refugees’ access to citizenship in host states and inhibit local integration, and the continued operation of exclusionary policies has made return “home” impossible for many.

As a result, the research underscores the fact that proper realisation of citizenship is one factor that determines whether or not a particular person or group will be forced into displacement; whether they will be able to repatriate; whether they will be accepted by those in their home communities if they do return; how they are perceived in exile both by host communities and those “at home”; whether durable solutions are possible; or whether they will end their lives in exile.

This assertion suggests that there needs to be a paradigm shift in responses to refugees in the region whereby discussions around “durable solutions” to displacement are viewed through a citizenship lens. In the case of repatriation, this means recognition that repatriation can only be a solution when there is a genuine re-assertion of the bond of citizenship between citizen and state, permitting the latter to protect the former and the former to engage in dialogue on the nature of the protection required. Without re-establishing the state/citizen bond and the realisation of their full rights as citizens, refugees will continue to resist return – and others who face similar exclusion will continue to flee.

It also means that repatriation should not be assumed to be the preferred – or, at times, the only – solution. The preconception that the only place refugees can legitimately belong is in their original homes both drives, and is driven by, an emphasis on repatriation that has been promoted by both national governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This attitude has inhibited the possibilities for refugees to forge new forms of belonging, whether through local integration or resettlement to a third country. It also prevents refugees in protracted situations from integrating meaningfully (unless they choose to fall off the official radar and “self-settle”, albeit with a different set of challenges), creating strong feelings of marginalisation and alienation.

Therefore, greater emphasis needs to be placed on local integration as a lasting solution to exile and as a means of re-establishing citizenship rights. Those in exile desire meaningful citizenship, not least in situations where returning “home” is unlikely to be possible for the foreseeable future. In this context, local integration should be promoted as both a temporary and long-term solution to displacement. Integrating refugees into the host community empowers them to act as rational actors capable of addressing their own needs, as opposed to passive recipients of humanitarian aid in camps.

One of the key ways in which local belonging can be supported is through the way in which humanitarian assistance is given to refugees and their hosts. The findings have shown that refugee policy, by isolating refugees in settlements or camps, reinforces separation, undermines local integration and should be avoided wherever possible. The benefits to humanitarian programming in the short-term – as well as the misappropriated policy assumptions that underlie the settlement policy – are small compared to the benefits of supporting and allowing refugees to integrate freely within their country of exile.

Ultimately, therefore, the problem of conflict, displacement, and refugees in the Great Lakes region is intertwined with the crisis of citizenship and the logic of inclusion and exclusion. The way forward, therefore, lies in a process by which refugee policies and practices in the region are re-aligned to become more inclusive, and to have a focus on building the dignity and supporting the resourcefulness of refugees. Refugees need to be viewed as rational actors, who are best placed, either as individuals or as communities, to determine what their interests are and how to protect their rights. This assertion translates into a policy that promotes an organic process of interaction between refugees and host communities that starts at the onset of a refugee influx and allows both to mutually benefit from each other; that identifies potential areas of tension and encourages collaboration between both communities to identify ways of removing the cause of that tension; and that allows local actors to benefit from the economic and business opportunities that result from the presence of the refugees and thereby minimises xenophobia.

 

[1] The Great Lakes region consists of the territory covering 12 states that are members of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR): Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zambia.