Published June 2001





We address this open letter to Anti-Slavery International because of its well-deserved reputation as one of the world's premier human rights organisations, and its particular concern about slavery and slavery-like practices. We call upon Anti-Slavery International to once again publicly speak out with regard to the claims of government-sponsored slavery and "slave redemption" in Sudan being made by groups such as Christian Solidarity International.

A civil war has been fought in Sudan between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) since 1983. As Anti-Slavery International will be only too aware, while there have been legitimate concerns about inter-tribal raiding and abduction in the course of this conflict, several organisations and anti-Sudanese activists have claimed there is a flourishing "slave trade" in Sudan in which the Sudanese government and its northern forces raid southern villages and "enslave" Dinka tribesmen, women and children. These claims have been made by groups such as the Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International (CSI). CSI further claim that in the course of visits to parts of southern Sudan it has engaged in "slave redemptions" whereby southern Sudanese tribesmen, women and children are supposedly "bought back" from northern Sudanese tribesmen said to have abducted them. Christian Solidarity International and other groups claim to have "bought" back or "redeemed" thousands of slaves, often several hundred at a time, from Arab traders . These groups have also been active in taking outsiders in with them on pre-arranged trips. Westerners, often with no experience whatsoever of Africa, then come back believing what they have been told they saw. Having taken these claims at face value, several of these "political pilgrims" have taken somewhat opportunistic positions with regard to "slavery" in Sudan.

This has degenerated into little more than a propaganda circus. African-American activists such as Rev Al Sharpton and pop star Michael Jackson have now also been caught up in this spectacle. Even The New York Post has described Al Sharpton as "a crass opportunist". We now also have further self-promotion in the form of anti-Sudanese activists deliberately getting themselves arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy in Washington. Former District of Columbia Congressional delegate Walter E. Fauntroy, radio talk show host Joe Madison and the Hudson Institute's Michael Horowitz all chained themselves to the fence in front of the Sudanese embassy in protest at "slavery" in Sudan. When they appeared in court their lawyers were Johnnie Cochran, of O.J. Simpson fame and former Monica Lewinsky scandal independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. All these people claim to be responding in large part to allegations about "slavery" and "slave redemption" made by groups such as Christian Solidarity International.

It is also clear that there is concern amongst better-informed sources much closer to the issue about this American campaign. 'Africanews', a Nairobi-based newsletter closely identified with the Roman Catholic Church in Kenya and in southern Sudan, has observed that:

Analysts, mainstream Church officials, and aid workers are worried that the stance taken by the Christian Right might jeopardize relief operations and precipitate a humanitarian crisis in Sudan.Since last year, interest in Sudan by Americans has mushroomed largely due to campaigns led by missionary groups and U.S. based African-American churches, resulting in an unusual alliance of right-wing politicians identified with the Republican Party and members of the Democratic Congressional Black Caucus.Observers also note that some leaders - particularly Rev. Al Sharpton - could be using the Sudanese conflict to build political careers back home.

Anti-Slavery International has itself spoken out in the past challenging many of the claims made by Christian Solidarity International. The official 1997 Anti-Slavery International report on allegations of Sudanese slavery commented on claims of government involvement in slavery: "[T]he charge that government troops engage in raids for the purpose of seizing slaves is not backed by the evidence.

Anti-Slavery International's comments were supported by the then co-director of African Rights, the human rights expert, and Sudan specialist, Alex de Waal:

(O)vereager or misinformed human rights advocates in Europe and the US have played upon lazy assumptions to raise public outrage. Christian Solidarity International, for instance, claims that "Government troops and Government-backed Arab militias regularly raid black African communities for slaves and other forms of booty". The organization repeatedly uses the term "slave raids", implying that taking captives is the aim of government policy. This despite the fact that there is no evidence for centrally-organized, government-directed slave raiding or slave trade.

Anti-Slavery International has also articulated deeper concerns about the sort of claims made by Christian Solidarity International. In a submission to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva you publicly stated:

There is a danger that wrangling over slavery can distract us from abuses which are actually part of government policy - which we do not believe slavery to be. Unless accurately reported, the issue can become a tool for indiscriminate and wholly undeserved prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. [We] are worried that some media reports of "slave markets", stocked by Arab slave traders - which [we] consider distort reality - fuel such prejudice.

Anti-Slavery International has also questioned other claims made by Christian Solidarity International, particularly its claims that tens of thousands of people have been "enslaved" in Sudan. In your 1999 submission to the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, for example, your organisation stated that

A representative of Christian Solidarity International spoke at the beginning of this year of "tens of thousands" of people in slavery in Sudan, and of "concentration camps" for slaves. At Anti-Slavery International, we know of no evidence to justify an assertion that 20,000 people or more are currently held as captives and slaves in these areas of Sudan.

Christian Solidarity International's Claims Challenged by Other Independent Sources

As Anti-Slavery International will know, there have since been further detailed criticisms of the claims made by Christian Solidarity International. One credible source is the report by the Canadian government's special envoy to Sudan, John Harker, into human rights abuses in Sudan. The Harker report, 'Human Security in Sudan: The Report of a Canadian Assessment Mission', was commissioned by the Canadian government and published in February 2000. One of the two missions with which John Harker was tasked was to: "independently investigate human rights violations, specifically in reference to allegations of slavery and slavery-like practices in Sudan. While Harker was critical of many human rights abuses in Sudan, he clearly questioned the credibility of claims of large-scale "slave redemption" made by Christian Solidarity International:

[R]eports, especially from CSI, about very large numbers were questioned, and frankly not accepted. Mention was also made to us of evidence that the SPLA were involved in 'recycling' abductees.Serious anti-abduction activists.cannot relate the claimed redemptions to what they know of the reality. For example we were told that it would be hard not to notice how passive these 'slave' children are when they are liberated or to realize how implausible it is to gather together so many people from so many locations so quickly - and there were always just the right number to match redemption funds available!

The Harker Report also detailed how fraudulent "slave redemptions" were being used to raise money for the SPLA, money which he stated is used to purchase arms and ammunition:

Several informants reported various scenarios involving staged redemptions. In some cases, SPLM officials are allegedly involved in arranging these exchanges, dressing up as Arab slave traders, with profits being used to support the SPLM/A, buy weapons and ammunition.We did speak with an eyewitness who can confirm observing a staged redemption and this testimony conformed with other reports we had from a variety of credible sources. The 'redeeming group' knew they were buying back children who had not been abducted or enslaved. The exchange was conducted in the presence of armed SPLA guards. The 'Arab' middle man/trader delivering the children for 'redemption' was recognized as a member of the local community even though he was dressed up in traditional Arab costume for the event.

Christian Solidarity International's claims of mass "slavery" in the Nuba mountains have also been firmly questioned by human rights experts. Alex de Waal, for example, states that CSI has "also alleged that there is mass enslavement in the Nuba mountains, which is contested by Nuba human rights activists". De Waal states that "African Rights' monitors in the Nuba Mountains have come across two incidents of possible - but unconfirmed - enslavement in two and a half years".

The Reuters news agency has also reported deliberate misrepresentations with regard to "slave redemptions": "Local aid workers.say that they have seen children who they have known for months passed off as slaves.And Reuters interviewed one boy in Yargot who told a completely implausible story of life in the north, a story which he changed in every respect when translators were swapped."

In May 1999, the Christian Science Monitor also clearly stated:

There are increasingly numerous reports that significant numbers of those 'redeemed' were never slaves in the first place. Rather, they were simply elements of the local populations, often children, available to be herded together when cash-bearing redeemers appeared.

It is clear that several independent sources have questioned fundamentally the claims made by Christian Solidarity International. The Canadian government's special envoy has dismissed CSI's claims of "slave redemption" as unbelievable. Anti-Slavery International has itself questioned several of CSI's claims. It is now clear that many "slave redemptions" are staged. Independent sources have stated that while some of those outside groups involved in these "redemptions" may have been innocently misled, other outside groups may be purposefully using "slave redemptions" in order to raise money for the SPLA.

As Anti-Slavery International will know, these "slave redemptions" fuel the Sudanese conflict in at least two ways. They echo inaccurate and stereotyped propaganda images of Sudan and the Sudanese conflict which serve only to misinform the international community, which in turn can distort positions taken by countries such as the United States. And, if what credible outside commentators have said is true, the money raised through fraudulent "slave redemptions" is actually used to procure weapons for the SPLA which are then used to prolong the war.

Anti-Slavery International has previously articulated concerns that claims made by Christian Solidarity International "distort reality" and that fuel "indiscriminate and wholly undeserved prejudice against Arabs and Muslims". It is clear that Christian Solidarity International continues to make these claims, that they have gained even more prominence within the United States and that such claims are fuelling an ill-informed anti-Sudanese frenzy in that country. Anti-Slavery International must have the courage to once again urge the international community to exercise the utmost caution in assessing claims made by groups such as Christian Solidarity International.

Espac Published by The European - Sudanese Public Affairs Council Copyright © David Hoile 2005
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