In January, southern Sudan held a historic self-determination referendum. Final results, announced this Monday, show that 98.83 percent of voters cast their ballots in favor of the region becoming independent, and Sudan’s president, Omar Al Bashir, is making all the right noises to suggest he is willing to let one-third of his territory go peacefully. The Obama administration, which played a major role in supporting the referendum and getting Khartoum to accept it, rightly sees this as an enormous achievement. But there is an uncomfortable footnote that does not fit into this success story: Darfur. Video footage shot there and posted last week by the White House raises questions about the level of attention the administration is giving the conflict-wracked region.
While the international world was focused on the referendum, Khartoum was steadily ramping up its military offensive in Darfur. The hybrid United Nations-African Union mission tasked to the region, UNAMID, reports that over 40,000 people were newly displaced in December alone because of fighting between rebel and government forces, both of whom, Human Rights Watch reports, have been targeting civilians based on their ethnicity. More displacement means more people in need of humanitarian assistance—and here, too, the prognosis is bleak. A recent report by Tufts University concludes that international relief efforts have been impaired to the point that the population is more vulnerable now than at any time since the height of massacres back in 2003.
Compounding all these problems is that there is now less international scrutiny of events on the ground in Darfur than there has been in years—since Khartoum first attempted to bar external observers from the region eight years ago. In the last six months, there has been no mainstream media coverage from the region, because the Sudanese government has made it nearly impossible for foreign journalists to get there—and those few who do face tight restrictions.
This information vacuum made it all the more remarkable that, last Wednesday, the White House posted footage from rural Darfur. The video, part of a series called “West Wing Week,” follows Scott Gration, the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, as he travels throughout the country during the referendum. It includes a two-day visit he made to Darfur, during which he visited a town called Deribat in the Jebel Marra mountains. A portion of the voiceover on the video is striking:
The government of Sudan retook this town from rebels recently, a step the government hoped would lead to greater feelings of security among the populace, but we arrived to find an army garrison guarding an empty town. Homes and businesses abandoned, the air eerily quiet. (emphasis added)
That’s certainly one way of putting it. Here’s what Human Rights Watch (HRW) said about the same event in a November press release:
Credible accounts from witnesses to the attacks indicate that Sudanese government forces committed serious laws-of-war violations during attacks in August, September, and October on populated areas around Deribat, Jawa, and Soni in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur. The attacks resulted in civilian deaths and injuries, mass displacement, and destruction of property … (emphasis added)
To summarize, the White House video says that recent Sudanese government actions in Deribat were undertaken with the intention of doing something good for the civilian population. Why that population is no longer in the town is left unexplained. The truth is hard to pin down without independent reporters in the area, but the information from HRW suggests that the White House video is missing a vital piece of this puzzle.
Asked if the White House knew of the credible allegations that Deribat was emptied as a result of Sudanese government actions, which could be war crimes, a senior administration official offered a less-than-direct answer on background. The official neither confirmed nor denied that the White House knew of the allegations but did say the administration did not deliberately exclude any such allegations from the video. The official added that the video was simply a travelogue of Gration’s visit, produced by a video team and not meant to present a policy position, and that President Obama continues to strongly support justice and accountability for violations of international law in Darfur.
This response, denying that the U.S. ignored any war crimes allegations, suggests one of two things. One possibility is that the White House did not know of the allegations. One would hope this is not the case, as U.S. officials working on Sudan policy should be aware of important human rights information about places their envoy is visiting. The other possibility is that U.S. officials responsible for Sudan policy knew of these allegations but were not involved in reviewing the video. But this is also no excuse. “West Wing Week” is a tech-savvy tool in the U.S. government’s public diplomacy. It is surely the responsibility of the White House, which commissions the weekly videos and then posts them online, to review what is being presented in its name.
Saying that the video is just a “travelogue” does not absolve the administration of this responsibility. The fact that the only recent footage the world currently has from Deribat is accompanied by a narrative that presents the Sudanese government’s explanation of why the population has fled is troubling enough. That it has the White House’s stamp on it is even more disturbing. Although it may not have meant to, the Obama administration has come dangerously close to perpetuating Khartoum’s propaganda.