Date of Publication: April 2001




The death in April 2001 of the senior Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) commander Yousif Kuwa afforded a tangible example of the double standards that have characterised both the stance and much of the "reporting" by human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch with regard to Sudan. Kuwa joined the SPLA in 1984. He served as the SPLA commander in the Nuba mountains and was widely seen as the deputy commander of the organisation. The SPLA stated that Kuwa "has been a prominent member of the SPLA/SPLM and has been part of the Movement Leadership since 1986 where he held several key positions". (1)

Following Kuwa's death, Jemera Rone, Human Rights Watch's counsel and Sudan researcher, was quoted as saying:

"He was a thoughtful man, curious and intellectual. He took liberation seriously, understanding that it included respect for the rights of all." (2)

This was an astonishing statement for someone supposedly concerned with human rights to have made. Ms Rone must be aware that Yusif Kuwa was directly or indirectly responsible for some of the most heinous crimes committed in the course of the Sudanese conflict. Far from showing respect for "the rights of all", he was directly responsible for massive human rights violations including the murder, rape and torture of hundreds if not thousands of his fellow Nuba tribesmen and women. As an SPLA leader he was also directly or indirectly responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of other Sudanese elsewhere in Sudan. Kuwa was also directly responsible for the abduction of thousands of under-age Nuba children for use as child soldiers and their transporting to Ethiopia: nearly three thousand of these children died from malnutrition or disease while in the hands of the Kuwa's SPLA.

Kuwa's Responsibility for Systemic Human Rights Abuse in the Nuba Mountain

Reporting on his 1993 visit to the Nuba Mountains, the United Nation's Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan spoke of a "very dark picture" of gross violations of human rights by the SPLA. The Special Rapporteur was given lists of hundreds of victims of SPLA terrorism. Local Nuba chiefs described murders, torture, rape, kidnappings, abductions, the forced conscription of Nuba children, and the destruction of homes and looting of property by the SPLA. (3) Yousif Kuwa was the commander of the SPLA in this area.

Ms Rone ignored the fact that Amnesty International reported that the SPLA imposed a "civilian exclusion zone" around areas it controlled in the Nuba mountains in order to deter civilians leaving. (4) Those attempting to leave were murdered or punished by the SPLA. Yousif Kuwa was the SPLA commander at the time of the introduction of this "civilian exclusion zone".

Ms Rone would appear to have forgotten the thousands of Nuba children who were forcibly removed from their parents by the SPLA. The fate of these children has still not revealed by the SPLA. An indication as to what happened to many of them was given by Dr Peter Nyaba, a serving member of the SPLA national executive council. In his 1997 book, The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider's View, Nyaba publicly criticised the SPLA for not disciplining those of its members responsible for the deaths of thousands of under-age Nuba children:

"For instance, the officer responsible for Bilpam was not held accountable for the deaths from starvation and related diseases of nearly three thousand Nuba youths under training in 1988. And yet it was known that their food was being sold at the Gambella market, and the proceeds appropriated by the commander." (5)

Thousands more under-age Nuba children are believed to have died while forced to fight as SPLA child soldiers. There are still thousands of Nuba mothers anxiously awaiting news of what happened to their children. As the SPLA commander in the Nuba at the time, Yousif Kuwa was directly responsible for the abduction of these children and their use as child soldiers. As Ms Rone may remember such actions constitute a practice similar to slavery. (6) Kuwa must also be held accountable for the fact that almost three thousand of these children died from starvation or disease while in SPLA hands. The SPLA's abduction and gathering of children, and their subsequent mistreatment, is dealt with over almost
thirty pages in Human Rights Watch's own study Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan. (7) Ms Rone may also have forgotten that on 13 June 1996 she wrote to John Garang on the issue of the SPLA use of child soldiers and the treatment of Sudanese children in SPLA camps.

It is difficult to square Ms Rone's eulogy of Yousif Kuwa as "thoughtful" man committed to the "respect for the rights of all" given what can only be described as his central role in the systematic abduction of thousands of Nuba children and the sad, squalid deaths of so many of them. There are perhaps thousands of families across the Nuba mountains, still unsure as to the fate of their children, who might take issue with Ms Rone's comfortable, long-distance eulogising of Kuwa.

There are hundreds of other examples of gross human rights abuses by the SPLA within the Nuba mountains carried out while Kuwa commanded its forces in the area. Ms Rone also seems to have also forgotten that in June 1998 SPLA forces, under Kuwa's command, murdered several relief workers on a food aid assessment mission in the Nuba mountains.

Kuwa's Responsibility for Broader SPLA Human Rights Abuses

Kuwa's "key positions" within the SPLA leadership also implicated him in responsibility for broader SPLA human rights abuses. It is a matter of public record that the SPLA has been involved in the widespread murder of Sudanese men, women and children, the indiscriminate mortaring and rocketing of urban areas in southern Sudan, resulting in hundreds of further civilian deaths, the torture and execution of opponents, the murder of international relief workers, and the laying of landmines. The SPLA has also admitted shooting down civilian airliners within Sudan, incidents involving considerable loss of civilian life.

Ms Rone would appear to have also forgotten the statements made by eight reputable US-based humanitarian organisations working in Sudan, groups such as CARE, World Vision, Church World Service and Save the Children, no friends of the Sudanese government, who, at the end of November 1999, felt it was their responsibility to publicly state that the SPLA has: "engaged for years in the most serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, beatings, arbitrary detention, slavery, etc."
(8) The Economist 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." (9)

This description jars with Ms Rone's claim that one of the key leaders of the SPLA "took liberation seriously, understanding that it included respect for the rights of all". Ms Rone sounds disturbing like a fawning SPLA camp-follower. Ms Rone's own Human Rights Watch stated in December 1999 that: "The SPLA has a history of gross abuses of human rights and has not made any effort to establish accountability. Its abuses today remain serious". (10) Given that Kuwa was a "key "leadership figure
within the SPLA from 1986 onwards, it is difficult not to reach the conclusion that he was clearly in large part responsible for the "gross abuses of human rights" committed by the organisation in which he played
so prominent a role.

The New York Times, a vigorous critic of the Sudanese government, has further stated 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" (11). Surely, by implication, therefore, senior SPLA commanders such as Kuwa also qualify as "war criminals". One of the SPLA actions which may have focused the New York Times' attention was the Ganyiel massacre. The
United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan, documented this incident in which SPLA forces attacked two villages in the Ganyiel region in southern Sudan. The SPLA killed 210 villagers, of whom 30 were men, 53 were women and 127 were children. The Special Rapporteur stated:

"Eyewitnesses reported that some of the victims, mostly women, children and the elderly, were caught while trying to escape and killed with spears and pangas. M.N., a member of the World Food Programme relief committee at Panyajor, lost four of her five children (aged 8-15 years). The youngest child was thrown into the fire after being shot. D.K. witnessed three women with their babies being caught. Two of the women were shot and one was killed with a panga. Their babies were all killed with pangas. A total of 1, 987 households were reported destroyed and looted and 3, 500 cattle were taken." (12)

This was only one of many similar instances of gross human rights abuses involving civilians while Kuwa was one of its "key" leaders.

Human Rights Watch would appear to have one set of standards for white people and another for black people. Ms Rone appears not to realise that if the crimes Kuwa and others were clearly guilty of had been committed by an armed organisation in Bosnia, Kuwa and other leaders of the SPLA would have been indicted as war criminals to appear for trial in The Hague. She prefers to eulogise such people.

Human Rights Watch states that it is "the largest human rights organization based in the United States" and that it stands "with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice...We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable." (13) It appears that far from exposing human rights violations or holding abusers accountable, Human Rights Watch prefers to describe human rights abusers such as Yousif Kuwa as "thoughtful, curious and intellectual". A man such as Kuwa, directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths and suffering of tens of thousands of Sudanese, most of whom civilians, is said to have taken "liberation seriously, understanding that it included respect for the
rights of all." At a time when European countries are rightly still hunting down, and prosecuting Nazi war criminals for having killed one or more civilians in the course of the Second World War, or for having
been associated with such abuses, it is extraordinary to find someone responsible for the murder of thousands and indirectly for the deaths of thousands of Nuba children, being lauded by a human rights "researcher". For Ms Rone to have then also wished him a longer life defies belief.

The Sudanese government has long complained that human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch were biased, and selective in which human rights were of interest to them. Jemera Rone has provided a clear cut example of the concerns Khartoum have articulated. In so doing she has also badly damaged not only her own credibility, but that of Human Rights Watch and the broader human rights movement.


1. See, for example, 'Three Days of Official Mourning for Cdr Yousif Kuwa Mekki', SPLA, New Sudan Official Website, at

2. 'Leader of Struggle to Free the Nuba Dies', The Guardian (London), 3 April 2001.

3. Situation of human rights in the Sudan, UN Special Rapporteur Gaspar Biro, A/48/601, 18 November 1993.

4. 'The Tears of Orphans': No Future Without Human Rights, Amnesty International, London, 1995, p.89.

5. Peter Nyaba, The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider's View, Fountain Publishers, Kampala, 1997, p.55.

6. See, for example: "d) Any institution or practice whereby a child or young person under the age of 18 years, is delivered by either or both of his natural parents or by his guardian to another person, whether for reward or not, with a view to the exploitation of the young child or young person or of his labour" - Article 7 of the 1956 Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery.

7. Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan, Human Rights Watch, London, 1996, pp.195-224.

8. 'Humanitarian Organizations Oppose Plan Providing Food to Sudanese Rebels', Press Release by InterAction, the American Council for Voluntary International Action, Washington-DC, 30 November, 1999.

9. The Economist, March 1998.

10. 'Rights Group Warns US Against Feeding Sudan Rebels', News Article by Reuters on 14 December, 1999 at 11:34:40.

11. 'Misguided Relief to Sudan', Editorial, New York Times, 6 December, 1999.

12. Situation of Human Rights in the Sudan, UN Special Rapporteur Gaspar Biro, E/CN.4/1996/62, 20 February 1996.

13. 'About Human Rights Watch', Human Rights Watch website at

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