Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Sudan's Civil War and Darfur

Roundtable Discussion, May 28, 2004

Darfur, Western Sudan, which the United Nations has described as the region presenting the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, was the focus of a roundtable May 28 hosted by the Global Leadership and Ethics Program of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Scholars from around the United States who specialize in Sudan gathered to discuss how the world community can intervene to provide adequate protection to the people of Darfur and noted the importance of immediate action by world leaders against genocide and ethnic cleansing.

In early June, the top USAID official warned that more than 300,000 people from Darfur are likely to die over the summer from starvation and disease-even if aid is increased. If relief is delayed, the death toll could be as high as 1 million. The number of children suffering from malnutrition in Darfur is estimated to be as high as 25 percent.1 Although a tentative peace was reached in the country's long-standing civil war, the Darfur region is witnessing increasing carnage with over 1 million people displaced, most of them fleeing to neighboring Chad. Participants in the roundtable offered suggestions from many viewpoints on how to end the fighting and start the process of reconciliation and rebuilding.

"Cautious optimism" is a term frequently used to describe prospects for sustained peace in war-weary Sudan. The complex, frequently shifting conflict is difficult if not impossible for outsiders or the English lexicon to accurately describe. As pointed out in the discussion, Sudan's woes can not be reduced to a simple, reductionist model. Not simply a North-South, Arab-African, Muslim-Christian, or Government-SPLA conflict, the region's troubles are myriad and not easily reducible to simple dichotomies. Unfortunately, the norm in the Western media has been to eschew in-depth, penetrating analysis on Sudan and to substitute it with a more convenient reversion to hackneyed terms and journalistic rhetoric.

Delegates to the roundtable explained that although there has been an intermittent North-South conflict in the country for over half a century, many other intricate factors have contributed to the nation's decades of suffering. Ethnic, racial, religious, political, and socioeconomic dynamics and their various confluences have all, at one time or another, underlain the bloodshed. Still, there is wide agreement that something needs to be done now to stop the killing in Sudan, where the UN has reported possible genocide and ethnic cleansing. Along with military intervention, ethical intervention is seen as imperative.

One roundtable participant pointed out that war means opportunity for certain groups and that a key to peace is to convince warring factions that it is in their self-interest to put down their guns and engage in peaceful economic endeavors. Although such a transition would not be easy in a largely manual-labor and agricultural economy such as Sudan's, it would be one of the first steps towards reconstruction. Investment in critical infrastructure and education was also deemed a priority in the process of rebuilding. With corruption in Khartoum, grassroots investment at the local level was advocated. World Bank projects and NGO involvement would also be welcomed to produce lasting tangible results.

Participants also debated the role of NGOs in Sudan. One explained that an unintended consequence of NGOs providing emergency aid was that what should have traditionally been the state's responsibility became the duty of international humanitarian organizations. This inadvertently freed the ruling parties to focus on war and weapons purchases, rather than taking care of the country's citizens. NGO effectiveness has also been compromised by the requirement that they abstain from questioning or criticizing the government. When the government itself a major cause of the bloodshed, how could NGOs truly work for change in the country if they struck deals with Khartoum, one panelist wondered? If activism and criticizing government policy meant expulsion, these organizations oudl have limited opportunities for making progress towards peace in the region.

One panelist recommended that the African Union be a key player in brokering a peace. Yet many of the Union countries accepted Sudan's chair of the UN's Human Rights Committee, a seemingly glaring contradiction given Sudan's long history of blatant human rights abuses. Another participant asked if enforcing a "no-fly-zone" was a possibility, given the reports of aerial bombardments before rebel invasions. Still, the question remained: "Who would enforce it?" Participants also discussed the status of the capital city, Khartoum. The majority Arab government wants Khartoum under Islamic sharia law, which could potentially cause problems for the non-Muslim community in the city. Questions of if and how sharia law could be applied to non-Muslims were posed.

The term that started the discussion, "cautious optimism," was also the note on which it ended. Fifty years of intermittent civil war have not destroyed hopes for peace in the experts and natives of Sudan, but at the same time, there was an acute understanding that the prospects for peace could rapidly unravel if drastic action is not taken immediately.

1. Source: "Time running out for victims, say USAID agency," The Financial Times, London, June 4, 2004. Back

Read more articles and news about global leadership and ethics.