Canadians turn attention to Sudan’s civil war

Published January 1, 2000

Sudan is one of the most war-shattered countries in the world but until recently, few Canadians likely cared or knew much about Africa’s largest country.

As Canadian media have recently focused on two Sudanese issues ? the resurgence of slavery and the presence of Canadian oil company, Talisman Energy Inc. ? Sudan has entered the spotlight.

But what’s to be done by people eager to help?

African experts agree the peace process needs a kick-start. The need is to get the Islamic government in the north to stop persecuting its mainly animist and Christian population in the south.

Some Canadians are pressuring Ottawa to sanction Talisman so the Sudanese government can’t use its increasing oil wealth to wage war against the south.

Then there is the highly emotional issue of slave redemption. Is it moral and, apart from that, does it make any strategic sense to buy freedom for slaves?

Two Canadians are planning their second trip to Sudan to do just that, this time as representatives of Christian Solidarity International. Jane Roy and Glen Pearson of London, Ont., say they bought freedom for 800 slaves last May. They are raising money and planning a similar trip early in 2000 (they won’t publicize the exact date for security reasons.)

The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund has spoken against slave redemption; so have two other committees of the Anglican Church, offering both theological and practical reasons.

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund takes a similar line. In March it issued a statement that said, “as a matter of principle, UNICEF does not engage in or encourage the buying and selling of human beings.

“Clearly, the practice of paying for the retrieval of enslaved children and women does not address the underlying causes of slavery in Sudan: the ongoing civil war and its byproducts of criminality.

“To roll back and eventually bring a halt to slavery in Sudan, UNICEF believes the main effort should be directed at enlisting the support of the warring parties in ending the armed conflict and all its practices.”

Ms. Roy said she is reminded of the early debates over food banks. People argued that food banks create dependency and got governments off the hook, Ms. Roy recalled. While that may have been true, nonetheless, people were hungry and needed immediate help, she said. At the same time “we can still advocate and get to the deeper causes,” said Ms. Roy, herself a food-bank worker. “Slave redemption is an ‘in the meantime solution’ until we can end slavery.”

Just how bad is the human rights situation in Sudan? Gary Kenny, co-ordinator of ecumenical social justice coalition, the Interchurch Coalition on Africa says, “we don’t have any reservations saying this currently is the worst human rights and humanitarian crisis in the world today.”

The coalition has taken no official stand on slave redemption. Mr. Kenny, who was in Sudan last March, said it’s important to focus on the broad range of human rights violations. That includes forced Islamization and Arabization by the Sudanese government, campaigns of aerial bombardment, including of hospitals and displaced persons camps, and engineered famine.

“Churches are persecuted, church schools and buildings are bulldozed and church leaders are harassed and detained,” he said. “There’s no end to the human rights violations that occur in the country, the bulk of them perpetrated by the Sudanese government.”

The root causes of the current conflict are many and complex, he said. They are connected to the country’s colonial history and its history since independence in 1956. They include the historical tendency of northern populations to discriminate racially and culturally against southern populations and of the governing north to exploit the human and natural resources of the south. Religion is a factor but not the prime cause of the conflict.

Into this mess has waded Talisman, a company increasingly besieged by its critics.

“No corporation ought to be working in Sudan at this time when there is a civil war raging and when ownership of the resource in question, in this case oil, is disputed,” Mr. Kenny said. “Most of the oil fields lie in the south and are claimed by the indigenous population there although no benefits are accruing to it.”

Talisman has enabled the Sudanese government to begin exporting oil, he said. “There’s now very little incentive for the Sudanese government to come to the regional peace table and bargain in good faith.”

Canada has been a strong supporter of the peace process but its efforts may be squandered if it doesn’t inhibit Talisman, as it has threatened, he said. The federal government was sending a special envoy, John Harker, to Sudan in December on a fact-finding mission.

Charlotte Maxwell, Africa development co-ordinator for the Primate’s Fund, says that since corporations can move freely across borders in the global economy, “the corporate agenda has to be tempered by social responsibility.

“We have to have some world rules of social responsibility or we only see unacceptable accumulation of wealth and more and more people pushed into poverty and some into utter destitution.”

The Anglican Church is considering divesting its shares in Talisman.

That leaves the slavery issue. Nobody questions the motives of Ms. Roy and Mr. Pearson, Ms. Maxwell said.

“Slavery and redemption are two very emotive words,” she said. “Nobody is against the freeing of slaves but we are against the buying and selling of human beings on a theological basis. You can’t treat people as commodities, however good your intentions.”

The Primate’s Fund is connected to people in Sudan through the Christian church councils, Ms. Maxwell said. Two generations of children in the south have never gone to school. Now the Christian groups have set up schooling. “This is the only place in the world the Primate’s Fund supports primary schooling,” Ms. Maxwell said.

Buying slaves to give them their freedom perpetuates the practice, keeps the price up (CSI pays up to $75 Cdn. for each slave) and allows the proceeds to reach the government, Ms. Maxwell said. An article in last July’s Atlantic Monthly suggests the slave trade continues to flourish, partly because of redemptions.

But Ms. Roy and Mr. Pearson say CSI has refuted the allegations raised in the Atlantic Monthly article, partly by interviewing the same people quoted. Slave redemption began in Sudan itself as a result of peace agreements, they say. Mr. Pearson said spiritual leaders in the areas most affected by slavery favour slave redemption and believe it is a work of God.

“As a spiritual principle, the idea of redemption is not a bad thing,” Mr. Pearson said; “the idea that God had redeemed us. And Anglicans celebrate that every Sunday along with lots of other Christians of other denominations. We weren’t buying and selling people, we were buying them and setting them free.”

But leaders of the New Sudan Council of Churches spoke against the practice during a visit to Canada in December. “By redeeming people, you are institutionalizing slavery as a legitimate economic market. You reward the criminal and those who practice genocide,” said Telar Ring Deng, peace consultant and facilitator with the council.


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