The Financial Times' 5 August 1999 report
was headlined 'Sudan Chemical Attack Inquiry', the Guardian's
6 August 1999 article 'UN To Check Chemical War Claims', and
the Independent's prominent 4 August, 1999 article
was entitled 'Briton Taken Ill After Sudan "Chemical
The Sudanese government categorically denied any such use of
chemical weapons. The Sudanese Foreign Minister, Dr Mustafa
Osman Ismail, stated on 5 August, 1999 that the Sudanese government
was "ready to receive any impartial and credible quarter
to investigate this [matter].Sudan does not possess chemical
weapons.the allegations made by the Norwegian People's Aid.are
mere lies". Sudanese diplomats also pointed out that the
Sudanese government had also recently signed the Chemical Weapons
Convention outlawing any such weapons. The Sudanese army spokesman,
General Mohamed Osman, said the allegations were a smear against
the Khartoum government.
The Sudanese government agreed immediately to a United Nations
investigation of the claims made by Norwegian People's Aid.
This took the form of an Operation Lifeline Sudan medical team
which travelled to the area in which it was claimed the chemical
weapons attack took place. A Spokesman for the United Nations
Secretary-General stated that this medical team had:
gathered medical samples (blood and urine) from 13 of the
35 people who had reported symptoms. The samples were sent
for analysis to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), an independent
laboratory in Atlanta.
The United Nations further stated that the tests run on the
samples had included, amongst others, a test for Lewisite:
The results.as reported to the United Nations, indicated
no evidence of exposure to chemicals.
The British media have been irresponsible in that despite having
been made aware of the findings of the United Nations medical
tests, none of these newspapers, nor the BBC, published the
fact that the allegations they had carried had been shown to
be groundless. This despite the fact that the BBC, for example,
had specifically mentioned "chemical" or "gas"
attack in all six of its reports.
It was not the first time that false claims alleging Sudanese
involvement with weapons of mass destruction have been made.
In August 1998, the United States government launched a cruise
missile attack on the al-Shifa medicines factory in Khartoum,
claiming that the factory produced chemical weapons. The Clinton
Administration failed to produce any evidence, and blocked any
United Nations inspection of the factory. Independent tests
carried out on the factory by a distinguished American chemist
showed no traces of anything associated with chemical weapons.
It is now accepted that the attack was a disastrous blunder
by the American government.
It has to be said that allegations of involvement in weapons
of mass destruction technology are amongst the most serious
that can be levelled at any government. Reporting on sensationalistic
allegations such as the use of chemical weapons against any
target, and particularly civilians carries with it a responsibility.
Running unconfirmed stories about weapons of mass destruction
in Sudan has to be approached with particular caution given
the al-Shifa incident, an incident which was obviously the result
of unfounded allegations. These particular allegations are unusual
in that the United Nations was able to scientifically collect
samples from the area concerned and from the people said to
have been affected. Usually the claims are made and there is
no way of independently verifying what has been alleged.
It may well be argued by journalists that the allegations were
sufficiently important for them to be carried in the public
interest by newspapers and by media outlets such as BBC News
Online. This is of course true. But at the same time, and by
the same argument, it is in the public interest that the conclusion
of any neutral scientific investigations into such claims are
reported - and with the prominence with which they were carried
in the first place.
This incident clearly demonstrates the danger of accepting at
face value the claims of organisations such as the SPLA. The
SPLA has a well-documented history of making claims which have
not been truthful. A serving member of the SPLA's National Executive
Council, Dr Peter Nyaba, placed what he termed the SPLA's "sub-culture
of lies, misinformation, cheap propaganda and exhibitionism"
very much on record in his 1997 book, The Politics of Liberation
in South Sudan: An Insider's View:
Much of what filtered out of the SPLM/A propaganda machinery.was
about 90% disinformation or things concerned with the military
combat, mainly news about the fighting which were always
Similarly, accepting allegations from groups such as Norwegian
People' Aid, Christian Solidarity International and Christian
Solidarity Worldwide, organisations that are unambiguously supportive
of the SPLA, is questionable journalism. NPA's unequivocal claim
that there had been a "confirmed" chemical attack
has been shown to be little more than a propaganda exercise.
A 1997 Norwegian government report into Norwegian People's Aid's
relationship with the SPLA, Evaluation of Norwegian Humanitarian
Assistance to the Sudan, documented stated:
NPA's intervention is that of a solidarity group. It has
taken a clear side in the war. It supports the causes of SPLA/M
and its humanitarian wing SRRA. NPA's solidarity approach
means that in practice the activities of NPA are closely related
to the political and military strategies of the rebel movement.
The report placed on record that Norwegian People's Aid's activities
were said to "support the political and military struggle
of the SPLA/M". It was also clear that Norwegian People's
Aid also serves as propagandists for the SPLA. The Norwegian
government report stated that:
The publicity, which NPA has been able to supply in favour
of the Movement, has.been significant. NPA briefed journalists
and guided them in the field.
This was said to have been "decisive" on several occasions.
In the case of groups such as Christian Solidarity International,
its reliability as a commentator on Sudanese affairs has been
questioned on numerous occasions. Many of the claims made by
Baroness Cox have also been shown to be questionable.
It has been frequently stated that the first casualty of war
in the truth. It behoves all journalists dealing with the sort
of civil war that has been raging in Sudan since 1955 to approach
the partisan claims of either side with a degree of caution.
In the case of the allegations made by the SPLA and its allies
that the Sudanese government has used chemical weapons in southern
Sudan, it is clear that the British media has failed to exercise
even a semblance of caution or objectivity. One can only hope
that British journalists covering Sudanese affairs will exercise
more professionalism in the future. Equally important is a sense
of proportion. Having carried serious allegations in their newspapers,
the fact that these allegations proved to have been baseless
should be reported and not ignored. Not to do so is simply unethical.
The BBC Online Network published no less than six articles
mentioning the allegations in July and August, with headlines
such as 'Sudan "Chemical" Attack on Rebels', 'UN
Investigates "Chemical" Attack', and 'Warning on
Sudanese "Chemical Attack"'.
These allegations were also subsequently repeated by SPLA
supporter Baroness Cox, President of Christian Solidarity
Worldwide, in the British House of Lords on 13 October, 1999.
Cox specifically claimed that the after effects were identical
to symptoms associated with poisoning by compounds such as