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1999 NCC News Archives

Sudan is Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World, Expert Says
Urges Churches to Join "Domestic Political Disturbance" on U.S. Sudan Policy

May 27, 1999, NEW YORK -- With more than two million war-related civilian deaths in recent years and four million internally displaced people, Sudan is unarguably the worst humanitarian situation in the world, and a "domestic political disturbance" is needed to change United States policy toward Sudan.

So reported Roger Winter, Executive Director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR), to the Immigration and Refugee Program Committee (IRP/COM) of the National Council of Churches/Church World Service. The USCR is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C. that regularly monitors the plight of refugees and displaced people around the world. Mr. Winter has been a close observer and often eyewitness of events in Sudan for 18 years.

"One of the three priorities of IRP/COM is to focus on Africa," said Mr. William Sage, CWS/IRP Interim Director. Church World Service is the NCC's , emergency response, human development and refugee assistance ministry and works in more than 80 countries around the world. "With the largest population of internally displaced people in the world, Sudan is the most extreme example of the suffering of refugees in Africa and throughout the world. We need to not only deliver relief supplies there but to push for policy changes."

Mr. Winter described his drive to "build a constituency among churches and non-governmental organizations" that is focused on Sudan and will raise the important questions with policymakers. To that end, Mr. Winter provided startling statistics and extensive analysis about Sudan and urged his listeners to become educators about the issues.

"A Country That Never Gelled"

"Sudan is a country that never gelled," Mr. Winter said. "It was shaped by colonial decisions made in the 1800s but the chances for a peaceful, unified country have been continually undermined by divisions. Ill-intended leaders have used these divisions as a political strategy to maintain their positions of power."

"In the center of the country around Khartoum there are families, clans and religious structures that have traditionally been the power elite," he continued. "Layered on top of this struggle between the power center vs. the periphery are other, intersecting fault lines, between Muslims and non-Muslims and between the Arab world and the non-Arab world."

Thus, although "Sudan achieved its independence in 1956," Mr. Winter said, "in its 43 years, Sudan has been at war for 32 of those, the longest ongoing civil war in the world. The effects of the war include not only a huge body count, surpassing the death toll in any war since World War II, but an extreme level of vulnerability to famine and disease among those who survive." Four out of five Sudanese are either internally displaced or have fled as refugees. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of the country has been destroyed and there are regular slave raids.

Sudan Neglected by Policymakers

"Sudan is as big as the United States east of the Mississippi and is clearly the poorest, most destitute society in the world," he said. "Yet it is suffering not even benign neglect" from U.S. policymakers.

"How is it that we can take action in other situations but not condemn the situation in Sudan which is so dramatically worse?" Mr. Winter asked. He stressed that he was not suggesting that the United States should take military action in Sudan, but that Sudan "should be on the foreign policy screen" rather than mostly ignored.

Mr. Winter said he believes the reasons for the lack of U.S. response to the Sudan conflict are complex. "U.S. policy tends to be driven by the issue of international terrorism rather than balancing this with peace and justice concerns," he said. Also, "Sudan is seen through a Middle East prism, and will soon be producing oil, so the problems in the southern third of the country are eclipsed. The fact that people are dying in droves doesn't touch our hard political interest."

"The conflict in Sudan is like most wars these days," Mr. Winter explained further. "It is a communal, civil war, where one ethnic-religious group is pitted against another. It is genocide prone." Yet "the trend is for governments of developed countries of the world to try to stay out of these kind of conflicts. The international community needs to find mechanisms to deal with genocide and ethnic cleansing."

"Racism is also a factor in the mix of why Sudan doesn't get more attention," Mr. Winter said. "If two million Europeans of any stripe had died, I think the conflict would be in the news more." He added, "Africans don't represent a strategic priority for the United States and their lives are devalued."

Religious Issues and Involvement in the Sudan

Yet Mr. Winter hopes to change this devaluation with the help of people of faith and supporters from refugee and humanitarian agencies. In order to raise awareness, he is asking refugee agencies and religious organizations to focus on Sudan both within their churches and in their advocacy work on government policy issues.

Because "although it doesn't seem that the warring parties are yet done warring in Sudan," he said, "it is also the case that there isn't much pressure from the outside to resolve the conflict. We need a political drive to bolster the movement toward peace."

Mr. Winter said there are two reasons that people of faith should be concerned about Sudan. Firstly, "religion is a factor in the conflict." Although the religious issues are too often oversimplified in media and other accounts, the current government does promote a militant form of Islam and there is persecution against Christians, who live mostly in the South. "Churches are burned and destroyed regularly and the church is so poor that words can't describe it," he said, although he stressed that at the same time "the church in the south of Sudan is vibrant and growing."

Secondly, the humanitarian facts and statistics are "clearly the worst in the world," so "any kind of spiritual command to be concerned about people who suffer would point to the Sudan." Mr. Sage also noted that "NCC/CWS denominations are interested in the Sudan crisis because it is an issue of peace and stability for Africa's largest country."

Historically, many U.S. and European churches and church organizations have been involved in the Sudan giving direct development aid, Mr. Winter said. He highlighted the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for "real leadership in trying to negotiate solutions between Southern groups." The Episcopal Church and Norwegian Church Aid also have been heavily involved, he said.

Though food and medical aid is being provided through governmental and non-governmental channels, Mr. Winter said "a key thing not being provided is capacity building and training." He explained, "There is an aging population with skills and experience, but a whole group of young men and women who have not been given formal education. They have learned either how to just survive or how to make war, but have not been trained in a full range of skills, including governance, agronomy and public health."

Mr. Winter stressed that he didn't have the answers himself. "What is needed is to get the attention of people in the Clinton administration who have the diplomacy skills and can start to hash out solutions."

"Both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats can understand how unacceptable the Sudan situation is," Mr. Winter said. Indeed, in the coming week, three congressional leaders will be traveling to the Sudan to make firsthand observations, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colorado) and Rep. Donald Payne (D-New Jersey).

"CWS/IRP has resettled Sudanese refugees here in the United States and has been concerned about the refugees who have fled to other countries in the region such as Kenya and Uganda," Mr. Sage said. "Our interest is to see an end to the uprootedness in Sudan."

"Sudan has long been synonymous with crisis," Mr. Sage said. "If the U.S. would demonstrate some leadership in the international community to bring about a new peace process there, maybe the crisis pattern could break and hope could emerge. Too many people have already been lost."


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