Inter-Church Coalition on Africa Speaks Out on Sudan

Thursday, March 04 1999

The following statement by Msgr. Peter Schonenbach, General Secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), was made at a media conference held in Ottawa on February 24, 1999, that was organized by the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa.  Msgr. Schonenbach was representing the Canadian Council of Churches, of which the CCCB is a member. Other participants in the media conference were Senator Lois Wilson, Mr. Manock Lual, a southern Sudanese, and Mr. Gary Kenny, Director of the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa.

“Genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are very deeply disturbing terms, yet they are being used increasingly in connection with the civil war in Sudan. In 1998, they were uttered by representatives of human rights groups, humanitarian aid agencies, Sudanese Church leaders, academics, activists and foreign journalists as they continued to assess the staggering numbers of civilian dead and displaced in Africa’s longest-running civil war.

Since 1983, the war in Sudan has killed an estimated 1.9 million African Sudanese. Another four million have been displaced. Sudan now has more internally displaced people by far than any other country in the world. The number of Sudanese forced to live as refugees in neighbouring countries is approaching half a million.

Let me put a Canadian face on these astronomical numbers. Several years ago I was pastor of a Roman Catholic church in Kanata. When full, the building contains 1,000 people. If we were to fill the church every day for five years we still would be below the estimated 1.9 million dead.

Where do the suffering Sudanese people see genocide? They see it in the systematic and wanton destruction of their communities. Fifteen years of war have destroyed vital social and physical infrastructure, and left literally millions of people vulnerable to famine and disease that forever follow just a few steps behind. In mid 1998, for example, southern Sudan was devastated by the worst famine since the Ethiopian famine of 1983-84. Sudan’s famine was not an accident of nature. It was the direct result of the civil war and, more pointedly, the policies and practices of the Government of Sudan. It was a famine engineered in the war room.

My colleague in southern Sudan, Most Reverend Paride Taban, Bishop of the Diocese of Torit, says the planes come almost daily. The bombs they drop rip my people’s ambitions apart, he says. Who knows what terrible psychological and emotional scars they have suffered?

The people of Nuba Mountains in central Sudan know the face of genocide too. Government forces there regularly launch raids into rural areas. In a process called “combing”, they burn crops, raze buildings and depopulate large areas. Local Nuba are either killed or abducted and taken to what the government euphemistically calls “peace camps”. There the captives are stripped of their culture and religion, and forced to work as virtual slaves to their captors.

Intentionally created famine, indiscriminate aerial bombardment, forced human displacement, forced acculturation – according to the international Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, drafted by the United Nations in 1948, this is exactly what the face of genocide looks like.

For too long, and despite years of careful reporting by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and many international human rights agencies, genocide in Sudan has gone unchallenged.

In January, Canada began a two-year term on the UN Security Council. We wish to offer our congratulations to Mr. Lloyd Axworthy, Minister of Foreign Affairs, for all the hard work he and his staff did to secure this privileged position.

A seat on the Security Council brings with it many solemn responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is to stand up for the oppressed and downtrodden, especially for those whose rights have been crushed; those whose very existence is threatened; those who are stalked by genocide.

We therefore call upon Minister Axworthy to do everything in his power, using Canada’s good name and standing on the Security Council, to help stop the genocide in Sudan. The report by the Inter-Church Coalition on Africa, called Cries from the Heart: Who will Stop the Genocide in Sudan?, suggests several policy interventions Canada could make at the UN with this worthy goal in mind. I would like to highlight three.

First, Canada should call for the immediate establishment of no-fly zones in areas of Sudan that are continually subjected to indiscriminate aerial bombardment. If the international community can do it in Iraq and Kosovo, then why not Sudan?

Second, Canada should call for the appointment of a special representative of the UN Secretary-General to carry out vital shuttle diplomacy between rounds of regional peace talks on Sudan. Focused political attention by the UN is needed to breathe new life into the peace negotiations, which are carried out under the auspices of the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development.

Third, Canada should call on the UN to take decisive measures to prevent the Government of Sudan from banning humanitarian access to any population in need, whether that population be in government or rebel controlled territory.

On behalf of the Canadian Council of Churches, I would like to say that we stand ready to help the Government of Canada achieve these important objectives in any way possible.