Human Rights Developments

The government of Sudan remained a gross human rights abuser, while rebel groups committed their share of violations. In the seemingly endless seventeen-year civil war, the government stepped up its brutal expulsions of southern villagers from the oil production areas and trumpeted its resolve to use the oil income for more weapons. Under the leadership of President (Lt. Gen.) Omar El Bashir, the government intensified its bombing of civilian targets in the war, denied relief food to needy civilians, and abused children's rights, particularly through its military and logistical support for the Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), which held an estimated 6,000 Ugandan children captive on government-controlled Sudanese territory. As for the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the principal armed movement of the south and of all Sudan, its forces continued to loot food (including relief provisions) from the population, sometimes with civilian casualties, recruit child soldiers, and commit rape. On both sides, impunity was the rule.

Sudan's human rights record of gross abuses was one factor in the General Assembly vote in October that denied a Security Council to Sudan, nominated by the Organization of African Unity, and instead granted the African seat to Mauritius.

In Khartoum and other government-controlled areas, the Islamist government's repression of political opponents continued. While some openings in civil liberties occurred, and one major opposition party, the Umma Party, returned from exile, these openings did not appear to be uniformly applied. The Umma Party sought more human rights guarantees before it would participate in presidential and legislative elections that the government announced for December 2000.

The government's outreach to exiles appeared to grow out of the internal power struggle within the ruling Islamist party, the National Congress (previously the National Islamic Front or NIF), which the president controlled. Expulsion of the Hassan al Turabi faction led him to create a new political party, the Popular National Congress (PNC), which felt the heat of arrests and injuries in anti-government demonstrations.

Negotiations to end the war appeared fruitless, whatever the forum or venue. The parties remained stalled on the issues of the relation of religion to the state and self-determination. Sudan's Arab and African, Muslim and non-Muslim population is spread between nineteen major ethnic groups and 597 subgroups speaking Arabic and more than 115 indigenous languages.

Government Abuses

Torture and impunity remained a government policy. Security forces continued a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and persecution targeting political opponents and human rights defenders by means of arbitrary searches and arrests, followed by incommunicado and protracted arbitrary detention without judicial review. Security used "non-detention" as a ploy as in prior years: it ordered individuals to report to security headquarters early in the morning and sit there all day, doing nothing. They were released at night but ordered to return the next day.

Two Catholic priests and more than eighteen other defendants who had been tortured to confess to charges of sabotage and conspiracy in 1998 were pardoned in January 2000. Their credible allegations of torture were not investigated. Islamic student militias operating under the protection of the security forces abducted and tortured a number of student activists. Security agents enjoyed de jure and de facto immunity from prosecution. Despite formal complaints by families of torture victims and the U.N. special rapporteur for Sudan, the government did not seriously investigate any cases. A doctor at Atbara hospital demanded an investigation into the torture he suffered at security's hands, but government officials disavowed responsibility, downplaying torture as a personal act committed by security agents whom the state cannot control.

Some sixty or more PNC members were arrested by security and blamed for fomenting a series of September demonstrations where deaths and destruction of public property occurred, as in western Fashir, where one woman student was killed and fourteen injured (as were five police) in a street protest against utility shortages and nonpayment of teachers' salaries.

Press-gang military recruitment of young men and underage boys from buses and public places continued. Demonstrators in Khartoum and other cities participated in anti-conscription protests that damaged government property and banks. Authorities responded with what appeared to be excessive force, killing several students and unemployed.

Conditions in Omdurman Women's Prison remained shocking: chronic overcrowding, lack of sanitation, diseases, and death from epidemics among children who lived with their mothers. The government annually pardoned women, temporarily easing overcrowding before bringing in the next batch of prisoners; in 2000, the government pardoned more than 700 women. These included more than 500 mostly poverty-stricken, illiterate southerners convicted of brewing and selling alcohol to help their families survive.

Public Order Police frequently harassed women and monitored women's dress according to the government's stereotype of Islamic correctness. Public Order Courts remained the state's primary weapon against women striving for freedom and equality; women received summary justice in these courts, often followed immediately by flogging, without effective right to appeal.

In September 2000, the governor of Khartoum State decreed that women would be banned from some public service jobs such as gas station attendant and restaurant and hotel employee. Security forces tear-gassed and beat women demonstrating against the decree, arresting twenty-six of them for trial by Public Order Courts. Even the government-created unions protested and the court suspended the decree in September pending a judicial hearing.

The nongovernmental press exercised more freedom despite arrests of journalists. In March 2000, security authorities held five journalists and a poet for questioning over articles deemed "anti-government" and critical of the armed forces. In August, security forces arrested two journalists from private newspapers, both of which had been shut down several times in 1999 for accusing the government of corruption.

In an encouraging development, in July the government issued exit visas to some political party leaders, advocates, and activists to attend a convention in Kampala, Uganda, also attended by NDA and civil society members, on the future of Sudan and human rights in transition. Representatives of the Masaalit in western Sudan denounced new attacks on their people, and on the Dagu, Fur, and Zaghawa, by Arab militias armed, supported, and given immunity from prosecution for their acts by the government. In July, reported massacres of these Africans by Arab militias claimed nineteen, sixteen, and five victims in different incidents.

The government pursued its policy of harassment of Christian churches and believers. Apostasy, or conversion by Muslims to another faith, remained a capital crime. The accelerated top-level discourse of jihad to encourage enlistment for the war against the infidels in central, east and southern Sudan sustained a climate of intolerance.

About twenty security officers stormed and searched the Catholic Comboni College compound in July 2000. In early July, a Mexican clerical student was detained and suffered abuse at the hands of security. The Khartoum state government continued to destroy Christian structures such as chapels, schools, and clinics that served the southern population in the city's vast slums. Two of the four million Khartoum residents were people displaced from other parts of the country, most of whom struggled to survive in the informal economy.

War-Related Abuses

Government of Sudan

Fighting spread further into the southern area of Western Upper Nile, inhabited mainly by the African Nuer. The government continued its campaign of creating a cordon sanitaire around new oil fields by forcibly displacing the Nuer population. In addition to aerial bombardmentand scorched-earth attacks by government troops, the government armed Nuer proxies to fight against anti-government Nuer. The government routinely banned U.N. relief aircraft from Western Upper Nile on security grounds, although its military campaigns produced tens of thousands of freshly displaced civilians, who were burned and looted out of their homes by pro-government Nuer militia and the government army.

The government's 1997 Khartoum Peace Agreement with former rebel forces, headed by Nuer ex-rebel leader Riek Machar, unraveled when Machar, claiming the government had materially breached the agreement, resigned in January 2000 from the government and returned to the bush. He formed a new rebel group. Many Nuer commanders, without Machar's presence, had reached a degree of unity at a conference at Waat, Upper Nile, where on November 4, 1999, they announced they were fighting against the government. That ended in July, when Machar's new rebel group fought in the oil fields against the Nuer troops of Peter Gatdet, who was by then allied with the SPLA. Machar's troops had apparently accepted government arms again.

The warlord syndrome, where human rights were rarely recognized by the local toughs, spread in Upper Nile wherever local commanders could secure direct government funding and arms, serving as government militias.

The Mine Ban Treaty, signed by Sudan in 1997, remained unratified and the government did not destroy antipersonnel landmines as required. It continued to use landmines in some areas, such as the eastern front. The government refused the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to those detained in connection with the conflict; failure to acknowledge holding rebel soldiers prisoner pointed to a continuing government policy of secret summary executions.

The government announced that its new oil revenue, constituting 20 percent of its 2000 revenue, would be used for defense, including an arms factory near Khartoum. Defense spending in dollars increased 96 percent from 1998 to 2000. Not coincidentally, government use of air power and bombing increased.

When SPLA violations of the cease-fire in Bahr El Ghazal temporarily halted the movement of the government's military train, the government counterattacked by bombing not only the cease-fire area, but also the rest of the south, the Nuba Mountains, and the eastern front. In July, 250 bombs hit civilians and their infrastructure in the attacks, which set a new high, according to conservative calculations based on U.N. relief reports. In August, government forces stepped up targeting of relief, health, and school facilities, apparently aiming to deter or shut down the U.N.-led humanitarian operation in the south, Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS). And despite promises to stop the bombing in September, more government bombs in October hit Catholic church facilities in different locations in Equatoria.

The government bombed a school in the Nuba Mountains in February, killing fourteen, mostly children and one teacher. Although the government gave permission for U.N. needs assessments in the rebel areas of the Nuba Mountains in 1999, only two were completed before the government put a halt to the activities, in the middle of a vaccination campaign.

The government also armed tribal militias of the Arabized Baggara tribes (the muraheleen of Western Sudan) for use as proxy fighting forces against the Dinka civilian base of the SPLA in Bahr El Ghazal. Although slave-taking became their trademark, the muraheleen conducted few successful slave raids in 2000 because the SPLA deployed forces in northern Bahr El Ghazal and armed the Dinka boys guarding the cattle camps. Even so, the government continued to use the muraheleen to guard the military train to Wau, from which they attacked villages and looted cattle and food.

Meanwhile, those captured in prior years remained in slavery-like conditions, forced to work hard for no pay: physical punishment and verbal and sexual abuse were common. The numbers of those still in captivity were estimated by different groups to be from 5,000 up. The government denied all slavery allegations, but in May 1999 set up the Committee for the Eradication of the Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC) to address abduction and forced labor. Its members included James Agware, a Dinka nongovernmental activist experienced in locating and retrieving Dinka children from slavery. Although the committee retrieved slaves from their owners through local political/tribal intervention, its work was marred by the detention of Agware himself several times by local authorities. The government's deliberate decision to not record the identity of the abductors or forced labor owners, let alone prosecute anyone involved, was a serious setback in the fight against abuse of women and children. All the while, Western anti-slavery groups continued to redeem slaves by the thousands, notwithstanding UNICEF's denunciation of the buying of human beings for any purpose.

At an international conference on war-affected children in Canada in September, the Sudanese government was condemned in strong language by the former UNICEF Deputy Director Stephen Lewis, who claimed the government routinely lied to and manipulated the donors. He denounced Sudan's broken promises to facilitate the release of some 6,000 Ugandan children held in LRA camps inside Sudan. His remarks received a standing ovation. Sudan and Uganda agreed in October that the LRA would be disarmed and its camps moved 1,000 kilometers from the Ugandan border, and that the abducted Ugandan children would be returned. Uganda agreed to halt support for the SPLA.

SPLA and Other Rebel Groups

Despite church peacemaking efforts between the Didinga of Chukudum in Eastern Equatoria, and the Bor Dinka who dominated the SPLA garrison in Chukudum, hostilities continued. Sometime after the August 1999 cease-fire, the SPLA assigned commanders of local origin to the garrison, but the local population remained reluctant to return to their homes and fields because of the landmines that the SPLA promised to remove but did not.

Even though SPLA leaders promised to stop their troops' looting, the confiscation of relief food from civilians by SPLA soldiers and officers continued. In March 2000, an SPLA commander in Bahr El Ghazal took the entire contents of a relief warehouse, valued at $500,000, according to an investigation carried out by the SPLA's relief arm and international relief agencies. Several looting incidents, at or after relief food distributions, occurred in Eastern Equatoria. When angry civilians on one occasion tried to prevent the SPLA from taking the food, the soldiers fired into the crowd, killing several.

In 2000, negotiations on a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the SPLA's Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association (SRRA) and the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in SPLA territory – in which the SPLA sought to impose new demands and operating conditions on relief organizations – foundered. Some eleven of forty NGOs operating in SPLA territory refused to sign for fear of compromising their neutrality and safety. They had to withdraw from that territory by the SPLA deadline of March 1, 2000. The SRRA's executive director claimed he did not care if 50,000 or 100,000 southerners died as a result of the NGO pullout. In later months, several nonsignatories signed the MoU or restarted operations in SPLA territory. Some NGOs did not return. Meanwhile the E.U. withheld funding from NGOs who signed the MoU.

Visitors to rebel areas continued to see armed youth who looked younger than eighteen. Cooperation with UNICEF's program for demobilization of child soldiers was uneven. One SPLA commander remobilized several hundred boys when UNICEF failed to provide promised school books and other supplies for the boys. On the eastern front, visitors received credible complaints from military and civilian victims that the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF), an NDA member, committed abuses against its soldiers accused of spying or defecting to another rebel group, including summary executions, torture, and detention of prisoners in a pit in the ground. The allegations were denied by the SAF.

Defending Human Rights

While one organization, the National Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, continued in outspoken defense of political detainees and others, no other independent human rights organization existed in government-controlled areas until a small group, operating with a commercial rather than nonprofit license, started up low profile in mid-2000. Independent attorneys defended those tried for sabotage, conspiracy, and related charges but the judicial system remained useless for security cases. Churches attempted to defend their parishioners' rights, and the Dinka committee retrieving enslaved Dinka children continued its work, under government CEAWC sponsorship. Women's groups, usually considered less threatening, were organized on a small scale and made their voices heard when the Khartoum governor attempted to ban some women's work.

Human rights monitors operated in the SPLA areas of the Nuba Mountains, but there were no human rights organizations in southern rebel-held areas. The Nairobi-based South Sudan Law Society and women's organizations such as Sudanese Women's Association in Nairobi (SWAN) raised human rights issues in various forums. The Sudan Human Rights Association, based in Kampala, monitored conditions at Sudanese refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda. The New Sudan Council of Churches in Nairobi (encompassing churches working in rebel areas of Sudan) conducted one other peace and reconciliation meeting, but was slow to reinforce the Wunlit agreement of 1999.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

The U.N. continued its massive emergency assistance program for Sudan under the umbrella of Operation Lifeline Sudan. Several organizations withdrew from OLS in protest of its failure to take a lead in negotiating access on their behalf with the SPLA in the MoU controversy among other things. OLS remained severely underfunded due to donor fatigue. Several U.N. agencies on occasion protested in press statements or quietly the government's denial of humanitarian access and government bombing of relief and other civilian facilities.

In April 2000, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights expressed concern about human rights violations in Sudan by the government and SPLA. It renewed the mandate of the special rapporteur on human rights in Sudan. In October, the General Assembly voted against Sudanese membership on the Security Council and for the membership of an African country with a more credible human rights record, Mauritius.

European Union members continued to urge that greater engagement and a less confrontational approach on human rights would lead to improvements. E.U. countries rushed to do business in the petroleum sector, despite government of Sudan statements that oil development would be put to military use.

But in July, the European Parliament issued a declaration condemning the LRA and the government of Sudan for sponsoring it, and in August the E.U. Presidency issued a declaration expressing deep concern about the government bombing of civilian targets in the south. The ACP-E.U. Parliament also issued a resolution condemning Sudan and the SPLA for human rights violations.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom continued to monitor human rights and raise human rights issues with the government. Domestically, it denied many Sudanese applicants political asylum and issued a visa application form for Sudanese that sought to curb their right to apply for political asylum once they reached the U.K. That form was withdrawn with an apology after being widely denounced. The U.K.'s international commerce agency touted Sudan as a country suitable for investment until the Foreign Office, under pressure, reminded the agency of Sudan's human rights problems.

United States

The United States government's policy of isolating the Sudan government diplomatically proved unworkable. The U.S. worked successfully for months, however, on a unilateral campaign to deny Sudan a seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Congressional conservatives sponsored one-year legislation that permitted the president, at his discretion, to provide food aid to the military members of the NDA, of which the SPLA constituted the largest force. In February 2000, President Clinton declined to authorize food aid to the NDA.

Harry Johnston was appointed U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan in 1998 with a mandate to focus on three areas: human rights, humanitarian issues, and peace negotiations. One of the benchmarks the U.S. administration proposed to the Khartoum government for improving relations was that it call a halt to bombing civilians. While Johnston was still in Khartoum with this message, the government bombed a hospital in the south sponsored by a U.S. nonprofit religious group.

A 1997 executive order imposing stiff sanctions on all financial transactions between U.S. and Sudanese persons and entities remained in effect. The State Department's annual human rights report accused both government and opposition forces of human rights abuses.

A divestment campaign against Talisman Energy Inc., a Canadian company engaged in production and development of oil in Western Upper Nile, was endorsed by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The U.S. government balked at another tactic, denial of the use of U.S. capital markets to Sudan and its business partners.


Canadian church groups and NGOs waged a struggle to force the government to impose sanctions on all Canadian companies doing business with Sudan. Canada's Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, announced in October 1999 that he would send a human rights team to investigate whether oil development, and specifically Talisman Energy Inc., had caused an increase in human rights abuses and exacerbatedthe conflict. If so, he threatened, the Canadian government would consider imposing sanctions on its companies operating in Sudan. In February 2000, the human rights team headed by John Harker responded affirmatively to both questions after visiting north and south Sudan and Canadian operations there. Sanctions, however, were never imposed.

This report, Human Rights Watch's eleventh annual review of human rights practices around the globe, covers developments in seventy countries. It is released in advance of Human Rights Day, December 10, 2000, and describes events from November 1999 through October 2000.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.