At various moments during the past two decades, partially in response to the Rwandan genocide and other large-scale atrocity crimes, the international community has expressed its collective commitment to the idea of a “responsibility to protect” civilians who cannot be protected by their government, or indeed are being attacked by their government. The Enough Project is the embodiment of this responsibility at the level of collectively engaged citizens of the United States and other countries. And nominally, every member of the United Nations has also committed itself to the “responsibility to protect” or at least they declared as much at the September 2005 U.N. World Summit. That gathering produced an outcome document declaring the international community must be:
prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the UN Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case by case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity and its implications, bearing in mind the principles of the Charter and international law.
This impressive language would be incorporated into U.N. Security Council Resolution 1674. Yet despite the professed commitment by all countries to this principle, essential in securing the foundation of truly international human rights law, for more than a decade the Government of Sudan (the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime) has engaged in a relentless campaign of deliberate aerial assaults on its own civilians and international humanitarian relief efforts. These are war crimes, and together constitute crimes against humanity.
Khartoum’s military campaign is without precedent, presently and historically: Never has a recognized government and member of the United Nations, over many years, deliberately and extensively bombed and strafed its own citizens with almost complete impunity. And these attacks continue today in Darfur on a large scale, and occasionally even in South Sudan, which was the primary target through 2002.
This is extraordinary, and bears repeating: No country has ever, over an extended period of time, used its military aircraft to target, deliberately and systematically, its own civilians as well as humanitarians assisting these civilians. And there can be no doubt about the nature of the attacks, given the enormous number of reports from human rights organizations, relief groups, U.N. officials and human rights special rapporteurs, journalists, and of course the surviving victims themselves. There is also a wealth of photographic and forensic evidence, including compelling evidence from Doctors Without Borders that some bombing attacks on civilians have included the use of cluster bombs and chemical weapons. These aerial attacks on civilian and humanitarian targets are all war crimes; and when considered in aggregate, they come within the legal ambit of crimes against humanity as defined by the Statute of the International Criminal Court (Article 7).
I have this week released a report (www.sudanbombing.org) that attempts to provide context for a large archive of data representing all confirmed aerial attacks on civilian and humanitarian targets in Sudan: the South, the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, the Red Sea and Kassala states, and of course Darfur. The report offers a substantial framing introduction as well as a schematic history, organized by year from 1999 to 2011. (1999 is the first year organized records were kept, though the bombings had been occurring for many years). More than 1,400 incidents have been sufficiently confirmed to be included in the Excel data spreadsheet that represents the heart of these research efforts.
Although numbers of casualties for particular attacks are provided where they are known, in the vast majority of cases, there is no figure available – even when the fact of civilian casualties is explicitly noted by the source – and I have been obliged to indicate simply ‘unknown.’ It is thus not possible to quantify with any precision the numbers of casualties in the attacks, except to say that they are many, many thousands. This may well understate by an order of magnitude, in which case we could be talking about many tens of thousands of casualties.
Given the complexity of the tasks of assembling, collating, and organizing the thousands of reports available, there is also a substantial discussion of methodology for data collection and use (from a great many data sets and reports); I have also included a bibliography of individual sources, data sets, reports, research tools (including maps), and basic bibliographic information for contemporaneous news wire reports.
This is not an historical exercise. These crimes continue to be committed in Darfur. So far in 2011 there have been more than 80 attacks on civilian targets, with a very large number of casualties. Moreover, the consequences of these unrebuked atrocity crimes, beyond immediate civilian death and destruction, are many. Not only have the attacks produced literally countless deaths and injuries, but large-scale displacement is frequently the consequence of sustained bombing attacks. Here the numbers are many hundreds of thousands. Humanitarian relief efforts are also often targeted and in many cases personnel and operations have been forced to relocate; over time, the human costs of curtailing urgently needed assistance are immense. Beyond this, civilian populations subject to repeated, random, or ethnically-targeted assaults become profoundly demoralized. This has been one of the enduring goals in Khartoum’s counterinsurgency efforts. Agriculture in particular suffers as a consequence, as we have seen in South Sudan, the Nuba, Blue Nile, and currently in Darfur.
Without an end to the climate of impunity that reigns in Darfur, an ongoing catastrophe largely ignored as international attention has swung to North/South issues in Sudan, these barbaric attacks will continue, and the chances of bringing perpetrators to justice will diminish. At stake as well, then, is the credibility of the whole idea of an international responsibility to protect. Its demise may prove to be the greatest casualty of all as bombs continue to fall on innocent women, children, and men.
Eric Reeves is a professor of English at Smith College. He has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. His book on Darfur—A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide—was published in 2007.