NEW! Canadian Military History Trivia Challenge

Unravelling Sudan

Clockwise from top: Lt.-Col. Michael Goodspeed visits war orphans in Juba; a little girl takes a break from her sweeping duties at the pit where wood carvings are made; a typical family dwelling in southern Sudan.

On the edge of a junky field in Juba, southern Sudan, there’s a small group of war orphans who sleep in the dirt and work all day to make carvings for the African tourist trade.

Among them is a tiny girl of about seven or eight who sweeps up wood shavings to stay alive.

You can visit her if you want, she’ll certainly be glad you came. When Canadian Forces Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Goodspeed stopped by the carving pit in November, the girl took a break from sweeping to pose for a picture. Covered in dirt and flies, with her hair cropped off, she smiled for the camera and her big eyes sparkled and for just a second her graceful little face lit up with joy.

But it’s hard to imagine how she was happy. Weighed against the world’s great and innumerable tragedies, she is likely just another helpless victim, doomed by circumstance to a harsh life and an early death. Or at least that’s what would happen if no one steps in to save her from this fate.

Talking to Goodspeed, it’s clear he would do just about anything to save not only this one, but the dozens of other lost children here, the hundreds more across the city and the thousands in the region. Indeed, for the duration of his six-month tour as deputy chief of staff for the Juba headquarters of the United Nations Mission in Sudan, Goodpeed spent much of his free time devising ways to help these kids and he wasn’t alone in the effort. The Norwegians, the Danish, the British, almost every contingent of soldiers volunteered their time to do whatever they could.

For most of the last half of the 20th century, northern Sudan was at war with southern Sudan. More than two million died before peace was finally established just over a year ago. Now there is a 10,000-member UN mission (The UN Mission In Sudan, March/April 2006) monitoring the peace in the south and so far, while there is still periodic violence, things are staggering toward stability. It is far from safe, however. There are still armed militias and rogue criminal gangs struggling to control the area and on top of them are two armies still squared up for battle. Chaos threatens.

Sudan is one of Africa’s most undeveloped places. The environment is harsh, food is scarce and conflict is ever present. There are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, at risk of starving or being killed. Saving them will not be easy.

Such a task takes more than goodwill and the small project money available to the UN soldiers. It’s going to take an international consensus, an agreement between people of many nations that this little orphan girl, and all the others like her, are not only worth saving but that they can actually be saved. By the old calculus of power politics and national interests, there were few compelling reasons to stage military interventions in order to save people who couldn’t save themselves. It simply wasn’t worth the risks.

But now, thanks largely to a Canadian-inspired doctrine called the Responsibility to Protect, there is a new set of ideas emerging about how and why the international community should find a way to protect the basic human rights of those at risk. Though it’s still in the early stages, this doctrine may be the key to fulfilling the UN’s potential as global peacemaker. Sudan may well be the first place these ideas are put to the test.

At its best, modern Sudan is strikingly cinematic. From capital city Khartoum where the black burkas of the Muslim devout provide a stark counterpoint for the colourful Italian soldiers powering their UN armour through the dusty streets, to remote southern villages where friendly children and suspicious militiamen mingle in equal parts, this is a dramatic country with a wild, alien landscape.

At its worst Sudan is disheartening on a level only African conflict zones can reach. It’s a bitter combination of venal, unworthy leaders, brutally fatalistic soldiers, starving children and a general sense of hopelessness that doesn’t translate so clearly into words. The very basis of civil society is absent or seems to have been transformed into something malignant. Infrastructure is decayed or destroyed, the economy is unbalanced and sinuous ethnic, tribal and religious tensions create chronic low-intensity conflict, often violent.

Nowhere is the struggle more desperate than in Darfur, Sudan’s barren western region, where the conflict over scarce resources has reached a level that former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has termed genocide. But despite a widespread awareness about the situation in Darfur, as of June the international community had not acted to end the violence.

Hard numbers are impossible to verify, but during the past three years at least 150,000–possibly as many as 400,000–have died in Darfur. At least 1,000,000 are currently displaced by fighting and at risk of starvation, and not a great deal has been done to stop it.

Perhaps it is because conditions of existence in Sudan are so harsh that the Sudanese display an almost malevolent indifference to the suffering of those not directly connected to them. You can see this phenomenon not just when talking to the urbanites in Khartoum–who tend to speak about Darfur like it’s a mysteriously eternal conflict on some other planet, well removed from anything they could care about–but down in the rural south, too, when talking to Dinka tribesmen about the Mundari or the Shilluk about the Nuer, or vice versa. It isn’t quite a war of all-against-all, but neither is it peace. It’s every group for itself.

From one perspective, it’s easy to condemn the Sudanese for their indifference to the suffering of their countrymen–surely the urbanites could share the country’s resource wealth with the rural Sudanese, certainly the southern tribes could see beyond their differences and find a way to work together. But, if the sense of collective responsibility is weak in Sudan, it is also weak among the international community. Just like the government of Sudan could do more to protect its citizens, so could the governments of many other countries, including Canada. While the Sudanese lack of action is viewed as nearly criminal, the international community’s lack of action is viewed somewhat differently.

In this way, Sudan presents the most recent in a long line of challenges to the international community. What can be done to end the suffering and human rights abuses in Sudan?

At its core this is a question about values and responsibility. If Canada values human rights and the rule of law, is it then also responsible for trying to export these values to the disordered parts of the world? Is this goal realistic? Is it wise?

However, it is also a question of international law and old rules governing relations between nation states. Intervening in the domestic affairs of states has always been tantamount to a declaration of war, and few nations have proved willing to risk blood and money in a selfless fight to protect the weak.

During the 1990s, the world literally stood aside and watched as thousands were massacred in places like Srebrenica and Rwanda. These were not proud moments and since then many good people have pledged to do better.

For retired Canadian Forces Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, now a liberal senator, the failure of international will to prevent genocide in Rwanda was a life-changing experience. As the military commander of a small UN mission to the tiny central African state, he watched somewhat helplessly as an estimated 800,000 Rwandans died while his pleas for military reinforcement were ignored.

“The international community, of which the UN is only a symbol, failed to move beyond self-interest for the sake of Rwanda. While most nations agreed that something should be done, they all had an excuse why they should not be the ones to do it. As a result, the UN was denied the political will and material means to prevent the tragedy,” wrote Dallaire in Shake Hands With The Devil, his book about the genocide in Rwanda. “We need to eliminate from this earth the impunity with which the genocidaires were able to act, and re-emphasize the principle of justice for all, so that no one for even a moment will make the ethical and moral mistake of ranking some humans as more human than others, a mistake that the international community endorsed by its indifference in 1994.”

At the United Nations General Assembly in 1999, Secretary-General Kofi Annan made a plea to the international community to try to find some new way to build a consensus on how to approach the issue of intervention. “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty,” said Annan, “how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica–to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?”

The Canadian government took up the challenge and in September 2000 announced the establishment of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

The commission, which included the participation of noted Canadians like MP Michael Ignatieff and former minister of Foreign Affairs Lloyd Axworthy, was asked to confront all the legal, moral, operational and political questions rolled up in this debate and then produce a report that could help the secretary-general and everyone else find some new common ground.

What they came up with was revolutionary, a distinctly Canadian idea that promises to challenge impunity of the genocidaires. It’s an idea that grew organically out of the confrontation between Canada’s long peacekeeping tradition and the unmanageable carnage in places like Sudan and Rwanda.

It is an elegant, subtle, but ultimately world-shaking idea–that developed nations have a responsibility to protect human rights of those in peril, and that any nation that imperils the human rights of its citizens will forfeit their traditional claims on sovereignty. This is significant because ever since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 national sovereignty has been assailable only by force of arms–by breaching the norm of non-intervention, by declaring war–but now, according to the doctrine, “no state can hide behind the concept of sovereignty while it conducts or permits widespread harm to its population. Nor can states turn a blind eye when these events extend beyond their borders, nor because action does not suit their narrowly defined national interests.

“The international community has a responsibility to protect the world’s populations from genocide, massive human rights abuses and other humanitarian crises. This responsibility to prevent, react to and rebuild following such crises rests first and foremost with each individual state. When states manifestly fail to protect their populations, the international community shares a collective responsibility to respond. This response should be the exercise of first peaceful, and then, if necessary, coercive, including forceful, steps to protect civilians.”

At the 2005 UN World Summit in New York, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine achieved at least partial recognition. In its declaration of World Summit outcomes, the UN affirmed it is “prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council…on a case-by-case basis and in co-operation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

For Dallaire, this doctrine has the potential to change the way the world responds to these types of crises. “In an era of very complex, ambiguous scenarios, things like nationalism and sovereignty are impediments to progressive solutions,” Dallaire told Legion Magazine. “So to me, the responsibility to protect concept that was articulated by the Canadians, that was presented as one of the recommendations for reform, has finally given us a tool to hold the Security Council that much more accountable. It is a real hammer of accountability on the Security Council by the international community. That’s why it is to me an overriding critical asset.”

Unfortunately, this is coming a little late for the people of Darfur. Beginning in 2004, an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force has been in Darfur, trying to stem the tribal fighting and keep the government-backed militias from killing with impunity. The AU force–undermanned, underequipped and underfunded–has suffered significant casualties and achieved little success.

Beginning in late 2005, rumours began to circulate that the UN may be taking over the AU mission in Darfur, a move that would inevitably see UN soldiers, possibly even Canadians, entering into potential conflict against groups backed by the government of Sudan. Not surprisingly, the government of Sudan has so far not approved of the UN mission, and in early March there were massive street protests in Khartoum against the prospect of foreign soldiers deploying to Darfur. The protestors promised to wage war against the UN and carried signs such as “UN Troops Bring Your Coffins With You.”

In late April, Osama bin Laden got into the act as well, releasing a speech declaring that Darfur would be a new battleground in his war to defend Islam. “I am inviting the holy warriors and their supporters in the Sudan and other countries to prepare all that is needed for a long-term war against the crusaders and thieves in Darfur,” said bin Laden.

In early May the Sudanese government–under heavy international pressure–signed a tentative peace agreement with one of the largest rebel factions in Darfur. As of early June it remained to be seen what this would mean to the people in Darfur, but the agreement does make it more likely that a UN force will eventually deploy to the area. When the planned force will actually arrive–and whether it will be strong enough to end the violence–also remained to be seen.

If the members of this still-unconfirmed intervention force in Darfur do find themselves in conflict with Sudanese government forces, it would put the UN soldiers in southern Sudan under an increasing risk as well, as they are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of well-armed and still mobilized Sudanese soldiers. “Everything is interrelated in this country,” said Alan Bones, chargé d’affaires at the Canadian Embassy in Khartoum. “Sudan is a classic case of you tug one thread and three sweaters are going to unravel. So it’s really important that you direct your attention to where it is most urgently needed but at the same time do not lose track of the fact that everything else is dependent on the balance of activities going on in the country. If the south falls apart, if the south loses faith in the peace and goes back into conflict, then you’ve lost the whole country, the whole country will go back into flames.”

On the issue of Darfur, Dallaire believes there are two reasons that a “sort of paralysis” has surrounded international political leaders. “One, is the fear of taking casualties and two, it’s not necessarily an issue of interest, I mean, there’s nothing (in Darfur). The right thing that did happen in Darfur–because the developed world abdicated again as it did in Rwanda–was in fact that at least this time the African Union was able to put something on the ground. So we’ve seen that evolution since Rwanda.”

Of course, the ideal of protecting the innocent and upholding the rule of law must still confront the darker reality, that such an intervention could turn into a long, ugly war. “As you see in Khartoum, a city like that would soak up divisions and divisions of troops, and what are you protecting?” said Goodspeed. “Even the war here, in the south, is seemingly fairly straightforward but there’s all kinds of complexity to it, that as you get closer to it, the whole tribal nature of the south and how that has developed, it’s not only war between north and south but between south and south, civil wars within civil wars.”

Even the current UN mission in relatively peaceful southern Sudan is not without its problems. The UN mandate claims its force will protect civilians from imminent violence. However, according to Colonel Jeff Sims, the British officer commanding the Juba operation in November 2005, the mission here can only protect civilians in a very limited sense. “The UN will support civilians, and the big term is, within capacity. So it will provide protection and ensure civilians within the community are afforded the protection they deserve under international law within the capacity of the forces that are operating here. Now we are very limited in numbers here so we can’t act as peace support throughout Equatoria so therefore there may be attacks we cannot react to.”

The civilian protection clause, though stated generally, exists in the mandate to provide the authority and rules of engagement to allow localized, limited protection. It doesn’t mean the UN soldiers can actually protect civilians. In the event of widespread hostilities, the UN can expect to take a beating over this clause.

Not only is an intervention to Darfur potentially dangerous, but it also has to be a very large force to cover the terrain with enough force to actually protect civilians. According to Dallaire, an intervention would require more than double the number of international troops now deployed to Afghanistan, far more than any one nation could muster on its own. “When Darfur exploded I said the Darfur operation needed 44,000 troops to be able to meet the requirements.”

Generating such a force would not be easy, but options exist. The UN Standby High Readiness Brigade, which numbers more than 4,000, is one way to get an early force on the ground while other nations, including Canada, consider what resources and troops they are willing to spare.

One certainty is that the AU force now in Darfur, with well under 10,000 soldiers, is not nearly enough. Consequently it seems the international community, symbolized by the UN, is again on the brink of failing to protect the values it claims to hold. Clearly, there is a gap between the idealism of the responsibility to protect doctrine and the history of inaction in Darfur.

Despite this, Dallaire has reason to hope things will get better. From his perspective, the international community, and the UN, has only just begun to grapple with these huge problems and though the situation is clearly bad, there are also reasons for optimism, both internationally and domestically. “I would contend that since Rwanda, governments are being held accountable for non-intervention. So that is one of the most positive results of Rwanda. Now the question is how do you move a country like Canada to the next plateau? I mean what do you do with Canada? Is there a higher calling to the country? Have we stumbled into a higher calling by who we are, by what we’ve been able to achieve and our belief in human rights in the global environment, where all of a sudden we’re realizing that ‘holy shit you can’t divorce yourself from the rest of humanity,’ and so we won’t, it just doesn’t work.”

The way Dallaire sees the problem, saving the little orphan girl in Juba is not just a commendable act, it is actually a Canadian responsibility. For Goodspeed and all the other soldiers on the ground–anyone who saw her smile–it didn’t take a bold new doctrine to force action, they already knew she was worth saving. But it’s not the soldiers who need to be convinced.

In the end, it comes down to widening the circle of compassion beyond tribal and national interests to include all who need protection. For Dallaire–whose mother was a Dutch war bride–fighting to protect strangers is really just one small leap beyond what came before. “Did we fight World War I and II only because we had friends in Europe, because they were white, they were like us and they were repressed? Or did we do it because we believe in human rights, that people should be free to live in democracies and shouldn’t be oppressed? Exactly why did we go over there–because it was family or because we really wanted that stuff to stop? So if it was good enough to make these incredible sacrifices to help our own, what makes us say that the others, who are not like us, don’t count as much? Are they not as human?

“We’re into an era where it’s far more complex–it’s the globe, it’s humanity now, it’s not just central Europe amongst ourselves–and that’s the leap ahead. But it’s the same problem, people are being crapped on and it’s not right.”

Making hard sacrifices for the cause of humanity, not just national interests, is something Canadian peacekeepers have been doing for a long time. All that remains is to close the gap between the idealism of the responsibility to protect doctrine and the reality of continued inaction. Part of what makes this leap so difficult however is the need to answer one very hard question: how much money and blood should be sacrificed to save distant strangers?

Ultimately the question of what it’s worth to protect the innocent can’t be answered by the UN or by the governments involved it has to be answered by the people. A majority of people in many nations will need to assert that little Sudanese girls are worth saving, even at dear cost.

Until that day of consensus comes, there will be atrocities in Africa.

Sign up today for a FREE download of Canada’s War Stories

Free e-book

An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.