Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Francis M. Deng
Francis M. Deng Former Brookings Expert

April 30, 1999

The scenes of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Kosovo recall tragedies the world over. One is the Sudan, where a brutal conflict between the Arab-Muslim north and the more indigenous African-Christian south has raged intermittently for four decades.

Of course, all necessary measures need to be taken to restore security and dignity for the people of Kosovo. But the universality of human dignity should not permit a glaring disparity in the way the international community responds to human tragedy in different parts of the world.

The Sudan is clearly a case in point. Government troops and paramilitary forces, operating jointly with Arab tribal militias, have devastated southern tribes, razed their villages, looted their cattle, destroyed their crops, killed at random, and even enslaved children and women. War-generated famine in which the government has impeded and sometimes blocked access to international humanitarian agencies accounts for at least a half-million of the lives lost in the conflict.

The pressing question is how to end the war. In 1993 the neighboring countries of the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD) initiated a peace process that stipulated a declaration of principles recognizing the right of self-determination for the people of the south, giving unity priority, and creating conditions for separation of religion and state, pluralistic democracy, decentralization of power and respect for human rights. But IGAD lacks the capacity to impose any agreement on the parties.

Despite the ambivalence of the Arab-Muslim north toward the United States, both sides concur that it is the only power capable of brokering and guaranteeing a viable peace agreement. Although Americans are probably tired of hearing it, the fact is that the United States enjoys an unrivaled position of world leadership, which carries both advantages and the burdens of responsibility. This does not mean that the United States should address all the crises around the world on an equal footing. It simply means developing a global vision and tailoring responses to specific situations.

What the Sudanese situation calls for is a concentrated diplomatic effort with commensurate incentives and disincentives carried out under a determined American leadership but in concert with regional and international actors. The following steps need to be taken:

  • Despite the shortcomings of the IGAD process, it has acquired international legitimacy and should be strengthened financially, administratively and diplomatically.

  • The IGAD Partners Forum, which includes the United States and a number of Western countries, should, with the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity, contribute financial and technical support.

  • As for the substantive issues, the focus should be placed on ensuring self-determination for the south — on which all parties agree — but that needs to be formally adopted in a binding and guaranteed agreement.

  • The existence of such a choice should motivate those in the north advocating national unity to strive harder to create conditions favorable to the option of unity in the referendum on self-determination.

  • The National Democratic Alliance, which includes all the opposition parties, should be involved in the negotiations to address the need for reform in the whole country.

  • For self-determination to be credible, international enforcement mechanisms involving the IGAD partners, the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity must be adopted. These include guarantees for a sustainable cease-fire, negotiating an interim administration and security arrangement in the south, and an internationally supervised referendum.

The time is long overdue for the international community to go beyond generous humanitarian response and stop the war. The United States is called upon to offer a low-cost leadership to do this much.