Eight years ago, nearly all United Nations member states and many international organizations committed to a series of ambitious steps designed to respond immediately to critical needs within the developing world, and particularly in Africa. Known as the “Millennium Development Goals” (MDG), these included the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, reduction in child mortality, and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other major diseases. 2015 was set as the deadline for meeting specific targets in all of these areas. But the reconvening of the U.N. General Assembly last month proved yet another occasion for lamenting our distance from meeting the MDG’s objectives. There are many reasons for these delays, and they lie on both sides of the “developmental divide.” Richer nations, especially in the developed West, have provided neither sufficient financial resources nor the essential tools for developing nations to confront the daunting challenges they face. And poor governance, corruption, and financial mismanagement have plagued many of the nations most desperately in need.
But the largest and most influential group of developing nations has added an ill-considered and wholly gratuitous burden to the challenges of the MDG: they have selected the Sudan government, which continues to perpetrate genocide in Darfur in front of the eyes of the world, to be their chair in the coming year. The “Group of 77,” as it’s known, made this extraordinary decision at the very moment the General Assembly and the U.N. Secretariat were highlighting a number of discouraging shortfalls in MDG progress. The Group of 77 now has 130 members (77 was the number at its inception in 1964), including virtually every African nation. Since it was the African countries’ turn to pick the chair of the organization, and since the selection of Sudan was supported by China, the outcome--however outrageous--is hardly surprising. Strong support from the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference helped ensured Khartoum’s diplomatic victory. The selection of the National Islamic Front regime as chair is no mere symbolic exercise, though the symbolism of the choice is intensely dispiriting. For it comes at a time when the head of the regime faces a likely arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court---for crimes against humanity and for genocide in Darfur.
Certainly the evidence of genocide, as gathered and reported by the world’s most distinguished human rights organizations, is overwhelming and serves to indict President Omar al-Bashir, Vice President Ali Osman Taha (who represented Sudan at the U.N. last month and carried the Darfur portfolio through 2005), Defense Minister Abdelrahim Hussein (Interior Minister during the most violent phase of the genocide), Salah “Gosh” (head of the regime’s ruthlessly efficient security apparatus), and senior presidential adviser Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e (who currently holds the Darfur portfolio). It is a regime of brutal génocidaires, and yet now it carries primary responsibility for advancing the collective economic interests of 130 member states as well as increasing the organization’s negotiating capacity at the U.N.
A glance at the regime in Khartoum’s record on the economic interests of the Sudanese people, let alone its responses to the U.N. and other international bodies, underlines the cruel joke of this appointment.
Eastern Sudan has extremely high rates of poverty, unemployment, and disease; almost nothing in the way of infrastructure investment benefits the regional populations. Southern Sudan remains a region ravaged by the effects of decades of brutal civil war, and a total absence of national investment. There are extraordinary development needs in the South, arguably the greatest in all Africa. Darfur’s grievances over the lack of development and economic opportunity led to rebellion in 2003, and in turn to Khartoum’s ongoing genocidal counter-insurgency campaign. And even as malnutrition runs to emergency levels in much of Sudan, the regime and its cronies benefit from food exports by their large-scale agribusinesses. The National Islamic Front has run up huge debts with profligate military spending, which continues to this day. With approximately $29 billion in external debt, oil-rich Sudan is arguably the most indebted nation in the world on a per capita basis.
Additionally, Khartoum has obstructed the relief work of the U.N. and other international nongovernmental humanitarian relief organizations. It has stymied the work of the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Sudan. It has refused to cooperate in any way with the International Criminal Court--and this was true well before the Court was close to issuing arrest appeals. It deliberately bombed the worksites of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Southern Sudan --and has exacerbated insecurity for the organization in Darfur. Khartoum and its Janjaweed militia allies have also repeatedly attacked U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur, and relentlessly impeded deployment of the U.N. force.
Is this a regime capable in any way of speaking credibly to the developed nations of the West about achieving Millennium Development Goals? Who could possibly think that these génocidaires have the moral standing to support these crucial global needs, given their own domestic ambitions? These are questions to be asked as well about Khartoum’s destructive attitude to the African Union, whose military forces are the ones that have been targeted in Darfur. At every step, African initiatives to provide robust civilian protection to acutely vulnerable populations have been opposed, undermined, starved of resources and access, and denied an appropriate mandate. Khartoum has succeeded in these efforts by wielding its blackmail card: withdrawal from the A.U., thereby creating a possibly fatal split between sub-Saharan and Arab Africa. Knowing full well that the Arab League will support it without serious qualification (as will the Organization of the Islamic Conference), Khartoum has defied both the A.U. and the U.N.
The Group of 77 has chosen Khartoum to be its chair at a critical moment in the world’s pursuit of Millennium Development Goals. International development aid will surely contract in the wake of the economic crisis facing the United States, and looming in Europe and Asia. Even China, a member of the Group of 77, is likely to be more tight-fisted as it also faces the prospect of a severe economic contraction. Making the case for large outlays to fund international development efforts was already difficult; with widespread needs for domestic fiscal stimulus and support for foundering credit markets, that case is becoming much more difficult. Choosing a genocidal regime to lead the Group of 77 could hardly be a more irresponsible decision by the very nations most likely to suffer if Millennium Development Goals are not met.
Eric Reeves is a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan.
By Eric Reeves