Moving Stones and Speaking Trees: the War in South Sudan
In 2012 John Kerry declared in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing that the United States had “helped midwife the birth of this new nation” of South Sudan. His choice of verb—soon to become fashionable—is revealing, not only about the motivations and world view of the speaker and government he represents but it also raises the question of what child was brought into the world. What does the word reveal? To begin with, the “midwife” peddlers delete the South Sudanese from their long, traumatic history of liberation struggle against the North, dating back at least to the Torit Mutiny of 1955, blithely skipping over the fact that the United States was actually on the side of the oppressors. In fact, when the SPLM/A (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army) was founded in 1983, the Khartoum government was Africa’s biggest recipient of US aid and arms. The relationship only soured after the First Gulf War when Khartoum supported Saddam Hussein and, especially, after 9/11 when it was known that the regime had harbored Osama bin Laden.
There has been plenty of foreign interference in South Sudan, going at least as far back as the Egyptian slave raiders of the third millennium BCE, all the way through to nineteenth-century Christian missionaries, the ineffectual regime of Governor General Charles George Gordon who, the British believed, as Deborah Scroggins writes, brought “peace and orderly government” (p. 53) to a territory as big as Western Europe before he ended up beheaded, and the toxic meddling of the British Lonrho (“Investing in the growth of Africa”) mining tycoon Tiny Rowland, who bankrolled politicians all over the continent in the 1980s and supported both North and South Sudan in order to prolong the war because, that way he believed, he would get access to mineral-rich zones away from government control. The US, then, cannot claim all the glory but it certainly played its part in the birth pangs of the independent state of South Sudan. This “nationhood by whatever means necessary” was helped along by a bunch of, let’s say, forceps wielders, among them the powerful US Israeli lobby (after all, South Sudan is a good customer of Israel’s surveillance and weapons technology, and in 2013 it promised it would sell oil to Israeli companies) and, naturally, homegrown US oil interests, especially given the strong foothold of China in the country and, notably, of the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation.+
The cozy relationship between Washington, UN and South Sudanese elites is an important background to Nick Turse’s new book, Next They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, because it at least partly explains the awful silences he addresses. The Center for Public Integrity has shown that the government of South Sudan spent $2.1 million on Washington lobbying and public relations firms from 2014 to the end of 2015, trying to brush up its image while some five million of its people were in dire need of humanitarian assistance and about 20% had fled their homes. Unable to pay its civil servants, the “government” that needed the image makeover is intermittently headed, in a highly volatile partnership, by Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, Dinka and Nuer respectively, with a long history of enmity which they both periodically whip up by manipulating tribal sentiments among their factions inside (more or less) the SPLA, which is purportedly the new country’s “regular army”. They also got a bit of freebie air-brushing by the head of the much-criticized, failing-to-protect UN mission, UNMISS, Hilde Johnson, who has a penchant for referring to her high-up friends as “cadres”, “freedom fighters” and “comrades”. There are other cover-up buddies such as a decades-old clique of US-based policy wonks who called each other names like “Emperor”, “Deputy Emperor” and “Spear Carrier”, at least two of whom are now special advisors to Kiir.
In fact, in terms of what are usually thought of as government functions, the South Sudanese variety can hardly be called a “government”. For more than two decades, small empires in the day-to-day running of the country have been conquered by sundry humanitarian organizations (many run by American evangelical Christians) shaping a sort of “republic of NGOs” (for more on this, see Haiti). The anti-governance repercussions are far-reaching because the NGOs may have taken over state powers but they do not have the capacity for dealing with nation-wide problems like emergency response in a catastrophic situation of actual or perpetually looming civil war and its attendant disasters of famine, hunger, refugees and the unburied dead. In one of the most heavily armed countries of the world, stockpiling weapons with no policy for managing the excess has clear priority over health, education, public service, infrastructure and especially justice.
Turse’s book is essentially about justice. He gives a voice to today’s victims of the latest round in centuries of foreign interference which, since it must be concealed behind words like “midwife” or President Obama’s description of the new era ushered in by two rival warlords as a “time of hope”, also means that sufferers must be silenced or, equally horribly, never mentioned, even when dead. So “[…] year after year, President Obama provided waivers to sidestep the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act by which Congress prohibited the U.S. from providing military assistance to governments filling their ranks with children […]”, in order to keep up political and military backing for known war criminals. It was a gamble of “looking the other way” (p. 72) or prettying up the unspeakable that would have dreadful results in the civil war which broke out in South Sudan in 2013. The pain described by Turse’s informants is unbearable and it is even worse knowing that western governments knowingly loosed the “blood-dimmed tide” of a ghastly birth. No wonder Turse quotes from Macbeth, “Blood will have blood” (p. 11).
The lines immediately following Macbeth’s prophecy—“Stones have been known to move, and trees to speak. / Augurs and understood relations have /[…] brought forth / The secret’st man of blood”—well describe the distressing task Turse has set himself with this book. When gravestones move and trees speak, when the guilty are brought to justice, then the dead may have a measure of justice. And when the crimes are so heinous that there are no gravestones, the trees, the augurs and “understood relations” must whisper the truth. “They’re not supposed to kill old ladies” (Bor, p. 45); “We had to hide the past by collecting all the remains […] (Mayor of Bor, p. 56); “They gave me a gun […] I followed big men around” (Osman, 15, p. 66); “I want to go to school” (Zuagin, child soldier, maybe 15, p. 70); “They lined us up outside of a building and started shooting at us” (Nuer man, Malakal, p. 93); “They shot the [baby] boy in front of his mother” (woman in Bentiu, p. 119); “Watch how we will rape your daughter” (government-allied militiamen to a woman in Unity State, who raped the younger daughter, set her on fire and raped another daughter, pp. 119-120). Listen to the “understood relations” here for they give a portrait of the “government” which Hilde Johnson wants to support with more international “engagement”.
Even the bodies must be silenced. No one knows how many there are, who they are or where they are. But “Naming the Ones We Lost” is an unfunded volunteer-reliant, project aiming to do just this, “since neither the government, nor the opposition, nor any foreign NGO, aid organization, or civil society group has bothered to identify the victims of South Sudan’s conflict”. This “one-of-a-kind work”, Turse says, “is meant to plant the seeds of accountability in this otherwise justice-barren land” (p. 105). The ages of the first seven victims, three generations, on a “spreadsheet of pain, regret and loss” read by Turse, were 11, 81-85, 15, 12, 28, 31-35 and 14 (p. 105). Imagine what they meant to their families, their communities. But this is lost on all the NGOs which have declined to support the project. However, the South Sudanese human rights activist Edmund Yakani does. “This argument—peace first, justice later—doesn’t work. Peace is a result of justice.” (p. 73). The mere idea is so dangerous that Yakani is in danger from none other than the “National Security Service” but, “Quitting is not an option” (p. 111). Among his many projects of trying to bring justice to South Sudan is a database, an “encyclopedia of horrors” (p. 107) compiled from “South Sudan Eye Witness Declaration Forms” consisting of pages of detailed questions.
For all the beautiful words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, many peoples have no rights, not even to be named after they are murdered by government forces. You only have to do a thought experiment, transferring the experience of the mother who saw two daughters raped and one of them set alight to the streets of Chicago, London or Berlin and imagining the outcry. What Nick Turse describes happened in South Sudan…. It is not as if the South Sudanese are any less eloquent than their fellow humans in the West. They are simply not heard because very few people think their suffering is significant enough to know about and others who do know about it need to silence it.
Nick Turse is a most honorable exception. A South Sudanese reporter who could not speak (because, in South Sudan, journalists are harassed, imprisoned, abducted and murdered) asked him to “write the first draft of this history” although he had another book in mind. He accepted the challenge and took a step towards justice in this devastated country. However, in a recent interview he says, “Long-standing grievances have basically just been papered over. I am hoping against it, but I fear that in the coming months or years we are going to see the country collapse back into conflict. I fear it could be even worse than what happened in 2013. I hope against hope that I am wrong about this, but I fear that war will return to South Sudan.”
The present situation of Kiir’s temporary triumph over Machar and ongoing seething tribal grievances among the “freedom fighters” lamentably seems to forebode that he is right to fear. And if war once again returns to South Sudan, who is going to be responsible for the wellbeing of the child that was so wanted but so roughly, so irresponsibly “midwifed”?
Moving Stones and Speaking Trees: the War in South Sudan
A well written piece by Pepe Escobar on a very sensitive and dangerous situation.
Professor Mekonen Haddis
Between a Rock and a Hard (South China) Place
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, backed by the UN, essentially ruled that there is no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to vast sections of the South China Sea included in the ‘nine-dash line’.
Here it is, in full legalese: “China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘nine-dash line’ are contrary to the Convention and without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements under the Convention.”
Well, nothing is black and white in such an immensely complex case. The Philippines were advised by a powerhouse Anglo-American legal team. China had “no agents or representatives appointed.”
Beijing argues that all the attention over the South China Sea revolves around conflicting sovereign claims over islands/rocks/reefs and related maritime delimitations – over which the court has no jurisdiction. Attributing territorial sovereignty over maritime features in the South China Sea goes beyond the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Beijing does abide by Article 298 of UNCLOS – which excludes compulsory arbitration on maritime boundaries. This, by the head of the Chinese mission to the EU, Yang Yanyi, is a fair summary of the Chinese position. And in fact the court did not allocate any islands/rocks/reefs/outcrops to disputing nations; what it did was to point towards which maritime “features” are capable – under international law – of generating territorial rights over surrounding seas.
Yet now the narrative is being calibrated; Beijing is open for talks, as long as Manila sets the ruling aside. Jay Batongbacal, from the University of the Philippines, cuts to the heart of the issue: “Publicly stating that junking the arbitration is a condition for resuming negotiations gives no room for face-saving on either side.”
And face-saving – the Asian way – must now be the name of the game. New Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte – a.k.a. ‘The Punisher,’ due to his stint as a crime-busting mayor of Davao City – does have an agenda, which is to improve his country’s appalling infrastructure. And guess where crucial investment would have to come from.
So Duterte’s domestic reform agenda points to economic cooperation, not confrontation, with China. He already gave – contradictory – signs he would be willing to visit Beijing and strike a deal. Undoubtedly, however, he would have a hard time convincing Beijing to stop military-related construction in the South China Sea, as well as not imposing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
But he might have a shot at proposing the sharing of natural resources, as in the vast South China Sea wealth of unexplored oil and gas. Yes, because once again the South China Sea is all about energy – much more than the roughly $4.5 trillion of shipping trade that traverses it every year; “freedom of navigation” has always been more than assured for all. For Beijing, the South China Sea is an all-out energy must have, as it would constitute, in the long run, another key factor in the “escape from Malacca” master plan of diversifying energy sources away from a bottleneck that can be easily shut off by the US Navy.
Now, with the US Navy already intruding and over-flying the South China Sea, the stakes cannot but get higher.
It’s… a rock!
The absolute majority of the islands/rocks/rocky islets/reefs/shoals claimed by China, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan in the South China Sea are uninhabited – with some of them underwater at low tide. They may cover a total of just a few square kilometers – but are spread out over an immense 2 million square kilometers of sea, and included in China’s ‘nine-dash line’, which claims sovereignty over the majority of island chains and nearby waters.
So in this key department regarding the question: ‘Who’s the rightful, sovereign owner of certain islands in the South China Sea,’ the ruling was a major blow to Beijing. Justification had always relied on historical texts, ranging from the 4th century BC to the Tang and Qin dynasties. During the – short – Republic of China period, 291 islands, reefs and banks were mapped and qualified as part of the ‘nine-dash line’ in 1947.
So ‘Red’ China, in 1949, actually inherited a claim made by the rival Republic of China. Fast forward to 1958, when China under Mao issued a declaration framing its territorial waters within the ‘nine-dash line’ – encompassing the Spratly Islands. Adding to historic irony, North Vietnam’s then prime minister, Pham Van Dong, agreed with then Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.
Now it’s a completely different story. Even though Beijing and Taipei continue to agree, China and Vietnam are on opposite sides. The Hague ruled, “There was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.” An extra problem is that Beijing never really explained what the line meant, legally.
The Hague also downgraded what could be seen as islands to the status of a bunch of rocks. Thus they are not territory-generating. Most of the South China Sea in fact is declared as neutral international waters.
So if we’re talking about rocks, their surrounding territorial sea stops at a mere 12 nautical miles. And they obviously don’t qualify for exclusive economic zone (EEZ) status, with a radius of 200 nautical miles.
If no EEZs apply to the Spratlys, what may happen in the near future is that Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam could each draw their own EEZ-style lines from their major islands or coastline into that section of the South China Sea – and claim the respective rights.
The ruling does spell trouble for the Mischief and Subi reefs – the two biggest land “formations” in the South China Sea after massive Chinese reclamation. Now they have been downgraded to “low-tide elevations” – they only emerge above water at low tide. This means these two major Chinese bases in the Spratlys would have no territorial sea, no EEZ, nothing, apart from a 500-metre safety zone surrounding them.
Meet the Spratly Rocks
And then there’s the extraordinary case of Taiping – the largest “island” in the Spratlys, with an area of about half a square kilometer. Taiping is occupied by the Republic of China, which as everyone knows is not recognized as a sovereign nation by the UN, by the court in The Hague, or by any other Southeast Asian nation for that matter.
Beijing never questioned Taipei’s claim over Taiping. But as Taiwan is part of China, even without physically occupying Taiping, Beijing could still claim the right to draw an EEZ.
The Philippines, for its part, argued that Taiping has neither civilian habitation nor sustainable economic life, because it is a military garrison. The Hague agreed. So Taiping island was also downgraded to “rock” status. No 200 nautical miles EEZ then, which would reach very close to the Philippines’ Palawan province.
So in a nutshell there seem to be no “islands” left among the more than 100 “rocks” in the Spratlys. Time to call them the Spratly Rocks then?
According to the court, none of the Spratlys were “capable of generating extended maritime zones … [and] having found that none of the features claimed by China was capable of generating an exclusive economic zone, the tribunal found that it could — without delimiting a boundary — declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.”
Ouch. As if this was not enough, The Hague also condemned China’s land reclamation projects – all of them – and the construction of artificial islands at seven “rocks” in the Spratlys, stating these had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species.”
Since 2012, all of the Paracel Islands have been under Chinese control. As for the Spratlys, they are a mixed bag; Vietnam occupies 21 “features”, the Philippines 9, China 7, and Malaysia 5. The song, though, remains the same; sovereignty issues cannot be settled under international law, as they all fall outside of The Hague’s jurisdiction.
So what happens next – apart from endless haggling about the conclusions? Beijing and Manila must talk – in a manner that Beijing saves face; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should step up its game and act as a mediator. That does not mean China will cease to create “facts on the sea” – as in most of the South China Sea. After all, they’ve got the (military) power. With or without a ‘nine-dash line’. And be it over islands, reefs, “low-tide elevations” or a bunch of rocks.
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Ted Cruz ain’t cruising anymore, it seems, that Trump is the top dog of the Republican Party. If Trump is what America has to show, how rotten has politics become in the U.S.
Professor Mekonen Haddis
US Sinai pullback payback for islands handover
DEBKAfile Special Report April 27, 2016, 10:40 AM (IDT)
The US withdrew its forces from the Sinai Peninsula last weekend in retaliation for Egypt’s transfer of sovereignty over Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia, according to debkafile’s military and intelligence sources. They also report that the move came after Washington protested to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over its exclusion from the consultations and military coordination between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel regarding the islands.
The US message was clear. Since Riyadh, Cairo and Jerusalem do not report their military steps in the Sinai Peninsula, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea to Washington, the US sees no need to inform them of its military steps in the Sinai.
That message was conveyed by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph F. Dunford, to the Egyptian president during their meeting on Saturday, April 23 in Cairo.
On Tuesday, debkafile’s military sources reported that several days earlier the US military secretly withdrew about 100 of its officers and enlisted men from the multinational peacekeeping force in the northern part of the Sinai. As far as Riyadh, Cairo and Jerusalem are concerned, there is no doubt that it was a retaliatory measure.
US sources refused to specify the current location of the troops. The American force was withdrawn from El Gorah base, located next to the town of Sheikh Zuweid. Gen. Dunford told al-Sisi that the Obama administration is no longer willing to maintain forces in the northern Sinai following the recent shelling of the base by the ISIS affiliate in the restive area. The incident marked the terrorist organization’s first attack on US troops in the Sinai, but its second on an American force in the Middle East.
On March 19, ISIS shelled Fire Base Bell, a US marine base in Makhmur, northern Iraq, about 77 kilometers southeast of the terrorist organization’s de facto capital of Mosul. One marine was killed.
It was not by chance that shortly before he visited Cairo, Gen. Dunford made a visit lasting no more than 90 minutes to the US forward base to award purple hearts to four marines for their bravery during the ISIS shelling.
But while Washington is determined to maintain Fire Base Bell, where it has deployed HIMARS rocket launchers that can fire GPS-guided rockets known as GMLRS capable of reaching Mosul, and awards medals to soldiers serving at the base, it is not ready to treat its soldiers in the Sinai in the same manner because they have the status of multinational observers. Rather than giving out medals, it withdrew those soldiers immediately after the first ISIS attack.
At the same time, US sources launched an unprecedented personal attack on Egypt’s president over his decision to hand over the two islands to Riyadh. Articles attacking El-Sisi’s policy started to appear in the American media, with one saying “The decision to transfer the islands to Saudi Arabia may be the final nail in Sissi’s coffin.” It also described Egypt as being on the verge of a revolution against al-Sisi.
Two other Middle Eastern figures who were involved in Cairo’s decision regarding the islands were Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who said recently that Cairo consulted Jerusalem regarding the transfer of the islands. However, his comment was not mentioned in US media reports, as if the development was not related to Saudi Arabia or Israel.
debkafile’s military and intelligence sources report that one of the main reasons for Washington’s rage was the fact that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel decided to establish and coordinate by themselves a regional defense mechanism covering the Suez Canal, the gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, and the Red Sea.
The Obama administration prefers to ignore the fact that the US withdrawal of its naval and air forces from those areas over the last three years has enabled the Iranian fleet to start operating in those waters.
New power alliances and shifts in the Red Sea Region.
On April 14 and 15, Ethiopia will host the Munich Security Conference (MSC) first event on the African continent as part of its MSC Core Group Meeting series. The joint fight against violent extremism, crisis prevention and management in Northern and Eastern Africa, as well as the security risks posed by epidemics and climate change are among the central topics of the two-day event in Addis Ababa.
Happy to host!! PORAD @MFA
Professor Mekonen Haddis
I am 20% conservative and 80% liberal! Take this quiz to find out how conservative/liberal you are!
You believe in truly liberal principles, such as expanding social security, tuition-free education, and free healthcare for all. You view war as a last resort, and would…