Sudan's Bloody Crackdown on Civilian Protestors: Does the U.S. Have Anything to Say?

10/07/2013 06:35 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2013

The title the widely distributed Agence France-Presse wire dispatch became inescapable, however often it may have appeared elsewhere with a different heading. "Kerry avoids criticizing crackdown in talks with Sudanese foreign minister" (e.g., the important online Arab news source Al-Arabiya, September 30, 2013). And indeed the most important news within the AFP account was both conspicuous -- and outrageous: "US Secretary of State John Kerry Monday met with his Sudanese counterpart Ali Karti in Washington but failed to repeat strong U.S. criticism of the deadly crackdown on protestors." So that there was no ambiguity, AFP further reported from Washington:

On Friday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki blasted which she called a "brutal crackdown" by Khartoum on the protestors, adding it was "heavy-handed and disproportionate." But in Kerry's meeting with Karti at the State Department on Monday, the crackdown was "not a topic," Psaki said.

And yet this was the day after a long and bloody weekend in Khartoum, Omdurman, Wad Medani, Port Sudan, and elsewhere in Sudan. Public statements by professional groups on the ground (including medical staff and those working in mortuaries), as well as by a wide range of intensifying and expanding social media communications, make it clear that well over 200 people have been killed and hundreds more wounded or injured, some very seriously. Most of these occurred during the time following the U.S. State Department readout of Friday, September 27 (describing Khartoum's crackdown as "brutal" and declaring that the use of force has been "excessive"). Even last week Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Sudan Centre for Justice and Peace Studies and others all offered authoritative accounts making clear just what instructions were given to security personnel: "shoot to kill."

As many as 1,000 have now been arrested -- perhaps many more, but it is difficult to collate and tabulate the immense number of reports that I've seen, many from sources on the ground. Since Khartoum has entirely shuttered both newspapers and the broadcast media (which it has always controlled), it is difficult to get public accounts with any independence. In a telling move, on Wednesday September 26, Khartoum temporarily cut off Sudan's access to the world's Internet. The shutdown proved more newsworthy than the events that were being suppressed, so the outage lasted only a day. Next time it will be longer -- much longer. There is, in short, a complete news black-out; foreign correspondents are experiencing strange outages of mobile phone service; travel restrictions have been tightened; and outrageous efforts are being made by the security services to obscure the evidence of what has happened and what is ongoing.

So what had changed between Friday, and Monday's meeting between Khartoum's Foreign Minister, Ali Karti -- a man with a great deal of blood on his own hands -- and the U.S. Secretary of State, nominal architect of the Obama administration's foreign policy? Why had this not become for Kerry the ideal occasion on which to inform his counterpart that the U.S. was outraged over the "brutal," finally murderous tactics by which his regime had put down protests throughout Sudan (the vast majority of gunshot wounds have been to the head and chest).

Why not use this occasion to make clear that the U.S. would do all in its power to support non-violent freedom of expression in Sudan -- and that this necessarily entails liberalizing Sudanese political culture? That culture has badly eroded during 24 years of tyranny by President Omar al-Bashir and his National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime; it has brooked no meaningful political opposition, and to ensure its monopoly on national wealth and power, the regime has conducted three genocidal counter-insurgency wars: in the oil regions now predominantly in South Sudan, in Darfur, and presently in Blue Nile and South Kordofan -- and particularly the Nuba Mountains, which were the site of yet another campaign of human annihilation during the 1990s.

Only powerful reform can allow Sudan to emerge from present barbarism, and yet Kerry had nothing to say to Ali Karti on the matter.

Political organization as it currently exists in Sudan will not able to sustain this uprising without further popular support; even so, I hear daily from Sudanese sources making clear that more and more families are losing loved ones. Many believe that fear has finally been overcome by anger, and that the regime can delay but not de-rail political reformation. To be sure, there is much that is unorganized; this is to be expected, in part because as political power shifts, there are many contestants--some of which would do much to continue Sudan's nightmare. The old sectarian parties have lost their undeserved status as "the loyal opposition"; and opportunists like Sadiq al-Mahdi, head of the Umma Party, are willing to put their own interests before those of the people of Sudan, including the many marginalized populations of this still vast country. Young people at the forefront of the uprising are at once at once a strength, armed with democratic zeal, and a weakness, lacking understanding of how difficult a task it will be to bring down the regime. And finally, if the rebel military coalition known as the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) takes a political rather than a supportive role in events, calculations become even more difficult.

So why was Kerry unwilling to offer even the most meager support for Sudan's fledgling efforts at democratization during this critical moment in the country's history? Why did he not at least reiterate the State Department outcry of Friday: Khartoum's security actions were "brutal" and "heavy-handed"? It was already a disappointing understatement on Friday; on Monday, Kerry's silence had become the voice an expedient Realpolitik.

With a real commitment to liberalize Sudan's political culture, what threats might the U.S. pose, given the layers of sanctions that have been imposed on Khartoum over the years? Congress could clamp down on companies that trade on the New York Stock Exchange and do business with the regime and its many cronies. The U.S. could also tighten even further "monetary sanctions," the ability of the U.S. to make international banking extraordinarily difficult, depending on what measures are taken (not all have been taken against Khartoum).

And finally, make bluntly clear that the U.S. will energetically veto any IMF plan to offer debt relief to Khartoum, which in addition to its other severe economic woes, has run up external debt of more that US$42 billion. Much of this was given over to profligate military expenditures over the past two decades; much of it funded gross self-enrichment schemes. Yet, bizarrely, Khartoum has come to count on international debt relief, despite its behavior throughout Sudan, including ongoing genocide by attrition in Darfur. Germany and Britain are cited as supporters of a "plan," the regime-controlled Sudan Media Services have claimed. If there is any truth to this, the U.S. should push hard on London and Berlin to disabuse Khartoum of this presumptuous vision of its economic future.

But none of this answers the question, "Why would Secretary of State Kerry remain silent over events in Sudan, given the extraordinary opportunity provided during a meeting with the regime's foreign minister?"

There are a range of answers; none of them flattering to the Obama administration.

[Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and has published extensively on Sudan; his most recent book on Sudan is Compromising With Evil: An archival history of greater Sudan, 2007 - 2012, available at no cost: www.CompromisingWithEvil.org ]

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