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".
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
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
"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
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
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,
(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
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
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.
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
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,
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