On 2 October 2000, The
Washington Post published an article by syndicated columnist
William Raspberry, entitled 'Some Things Simply Must Not
Stand', alleging the existence of slavery in Sudan. Mr Raspberry
based his article on claims made by Joe Madison, described
as Washington radio's "Black Eagle". Mr Raspberry
stated that Mr Madison had just returned from Sudan "where,
along with Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International,
he participated in the redemption of 4,435 slaves".
The basis of Mr Raspberry's claims was hearsay. It is perhaps
unnecessary to point out that accusations of slavery and
involvement in slavery are amongst the most serious that
can be levelled at a country or people. One would therefore
have expected a vigorous professional approach to such an
issue and such claims.
It is apparent, however,
that Mr Raspberry simply did not do even the most elementary
of journalistic research before propagating these claims.
Had he even fleetingly checked their sources, he would have
immediately realised that the credibility of Christian Solidarity
International (CSI), and the claims made by it - and echoed
by Mr Madison - have been seriously questioned.
Christian Solidarity International, Madison and Raspberry:
"overeager and misinformed"?
Christian Solidarity International
has for several years been actively involved in what the
organisation has termed "slave redemption" within
Sudan, whereby it claims to have been "buying back"
large numbers of southern black villagers who had been taken
as "slaves" by northern Sudanese forces. These
activities have for several years been criticised as both
lacking credibility and perhaps actually fuelling kidnapping
and abduction within war-torn southern Sudan. Perhaps the
most devastating criticism of the claims made by Christian
Solidarity International was contained in the Canadian Government's
Human Security in Sudan: The Report of a Canadian Assessment
Mission, which was published in February 2000. This
report was drafted by the Canadian special envoy to Sudan,
John Harker. 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 clearly
critical of many human rights abuses in Sudan, he clearly
questioned claims of large scale "slave redemption"
such as those claimed by CSI (and echoed by Messrs Madison
and Raspberry) He specifically touched on the credibility
of Christian Solidarity International's claims of large-scale
[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.
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 Sudan People's Liberation Army,
money which he also stated is used to purchase arms and
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
The Harker Report further documented the deliberately fraudulent
nature of many "slave redemptions":
Sometimes a "redeeming
group" may be innocently misled, but other groups
may be actively committed to fundraising for the SPLM/A
& deliberately use "slave redemption" as
a successful tactic for attracting Western donors.
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
Christian Solidarity International's
claims of Government-backed slave raids in Sudan have also
been criticised by human rights activists such as Alex de
Waal, a former director of African Rights. Despite the fact
that there are no "slave markets in the 19th century
image", de Waal states that:
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.'Tens of thousands of
Sudanese Christian men, women and children have been kidnapped
and sold as slaves by government soldiers.' This despite
the fact that there is no evidence for centrally organized,
government-directed slave raiding or slave trade.
Peter Verney, the author of an official 1997 Anti-Slavery
International report on allegations of Sudanese slavery, has
also commented on allegations of Government involvement in
[T]he charge that government troops engage in raids for
the purpose of seizing slaves is not backed by the evidence.
The Harker Report's conclusions
echoed earlier concerns. In a July 1999 article entitled
'The False Promise of Slave Redemption', published by The
Atlantic Monthly, for example, an article fiercely critical
of the Sudanese Government, American journalist Richard
Miniter provided unambiguous first hand evidence that there
was fraud and corruption in the process of "slave redemption"
accepted at face value by Madison and Raspberry and The
Washington Post.. This evidence confirmed precisely
the concerns about such fraud previously expressed by Anti-Slavery
International and Alex de Waal.
Miniter documented at first
hand how SPLA officials were fraudulently presenting local
villagers as "slaves" to be "purchased"
or "redeemed" by Westerners. Miniter and an accompanying
American Christian activist, Charles Jacobson, were offered
children from a neighbouring village as "slaves",
would-be stand-in "slaves", for purchase. Miniter
records that the price per person was US $100. He also stated
that CSI "bought" "slaves" at a special
rate of US $50 each.
A Reuters report in July 1999 has also confirmed the "massive
corruption" reported by Jacobson:
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
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
Christian Solidarity International's
claims of tens of thousands of people "enslaved"
in Sudan have also been challenged by human rights professionals,
and experts on the issue of "slavery". Anti-Slavery
International, in its 1999 submission to the Working Group
on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, for example, 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
It has been said that the
road to hell is paved with good intentions. Even assuming
CSI claims about abduction and "redemption" were
remotely accurate, CSI's cash-rich visitors have probably
created their own market in kidnapping and abduction. CSI's
"slave redemptions" and its claims about the numbers
of "slaves" in Sudan and the Nuba Mountains have
also been challenged by reputable human rights groups and
activists. Perhaps of equal concern has been Christian Solidarity
International's close and willing association with the SPLA.
The Economist has summed up the general image of
the SPLA when it stated that:
[The SPLA] has.been little
more than an armed gang of Dinkas.killing, looting and
raping. Its indifference, almost animosity, towards the
people it was supposed to be "liberating" was
all too clear.
The New York Times,
a vigorous critic of the Sudanese Government, states that
the SPLA: "[H]ave behaved like an occupying army, killing,
raping and pillaging". The New York Times has
also categorised SPLA leader John Garang as one of Sudan's
"pre-eminent war criminals". CSI's over-identification
with men clearly guilty of systematic and deliberate crimes
against humanity makes a mockery out of out its claims to
be a "human rights organisation" helping those
"suffering repression". These are the people to
whom, by his own figures, over one hundred thousand dollars
was handed over in the course of Mr Madison's brief African
It is abundantly clear, therefore,
that there are significant question marks regarding CSI
and its claims of "slave redemption". It is also
clear that far from being the "hero" Mr Raspberry
claims Mr Madison to be, Mr Madison may well have naively
been party to a process described as fraudulent by, amongst
others, the Canadian Government. He may in all likelihood
have participated in a process which has handed money over
to a rebel movement with an appalling human rights record
and, in so doing, helped to perpetuate the Sudanese civil
war. At worst, given that there undoubtedly have been abductions
and kidnappings in parts of Sudan, such ready cash may have
served to sustain a self-perpetuating market for abductions
aimed at satisfying naïve Western visitors such as
Mr Madison. Mr Raspberry's role in eulogising such a deeply
questionable process is regrettable to say the least. It
is unfortunate that Mr Raspberry could not have found the
time to check with reputable human rights groups such as
Anti-Slavery International or African Rights on CSI's standing
It has to be stated that
The Washington Post would appear to operate a journalistic
apartheid. It apparently has one set of journalistic
standards for reporting on people in North American and
Europe and another for reporting on the developing world.
In reporting on the latter, one seemingly does not need
to research the story or check sources: hearsay is sufficient.
Mr Raspberry would never have dared produce an article with
such serious claims about alleged situations in Europe or
North America without at least attempting to check the credibility
of the sources. To have accepted such serious accusations
at face value is the journalist equivalent of a lynch mob.
Mr Raspberry has produced
notable and commendable journalism on many issues. Sadly,
on this issue, he was simply out of his depth. Sources are
all in journalism, and the questionable sources for the
basis of Mr Raspberry's article are all too clear. There
are two things, however, that should be said in defence
of this otherwise outstanding journalist. Firstly, war,
and particularly civil war, inevitably produce distortions
of the truth and reality, with or without the deliberate
use of propaganda by participants. He will not have been
the first commentator on events several thousand miles away
to have been misled. Secondly, The Washington Post has
shown itself to be all too receptive to claims about Sudan
that are at best clearly questionable and at worst simply
untrue. Mr Raspberry was merely following already lax editorial
and journalistic standards in reporting on Sudan. Had such
an article been written on a different issue by a novice
reporter, a reporter who had not checked sources, and who
had nonetheless made very serious allegations without checking
sources, the journalist in question would have been severely
taken to task by his editors. It would seem that with regard
to Sudan such elementary journalistic standards and ethics
have been swamped in the all too questionable prejudice
that passes for reporting on that country.
To use African Rights' description of similar Western commentators
on Sudan, William Raspberry has been overeager and misinformed,
and has relied upon lazy assumptions in his claims about Sudan.
All in all, given his reputation one would have expected considerably
more from Mr Raspberry - if not perhaps from The Washington