28/01/2014 12:19 GMT | Updated 30/03/2014 06:59 BST

A Deadly Sleight of Hand

It is a tactic beloved of despots: while the world's attention is on one bloody conflict, you can slaughter with impunity elsewhere. So, while the West was focusing on the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, crushing its brave democracy uprising. And as the West was completing its last minute Christmas shopping on 24 December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the deadly consequences of which our armed forces still face today.

Alas, this inconvenient truth also applies in Africa, despite our sophisticated intelligence infrastructure, our squadrons of diplomats and our early warning systems: the international community cannot concentrate on more than one African war at a time.

Since mid-December the media has watched as the world's newest nation, South Sudan, has torn itself apart. Meanwhile, its old oppressor next door in Sudan is enthusiastically grasping the chance to "end" its own troublesome "rebellion" (1). Between 15 December and 15 January, the Khartoum regime carried out 56 separate bombing raids on civilians in the non-Arab and non-Muslim region of South Kordofan and Blue Nile States (2). This is the most intensive action since the attacks began in mid 2011, when Khartoum launched its latest jihad against the long-suffering civilians of this forgotten region. More raids have been conducted in the last six weeks than in the five months prior to that, with a similar trend of resultant deaths.

The government's brutal military campaign is a variation on a theme that continues unreported in Darfur to this day: the corrupt ruling elite in Khartoum wishes to keep all power and oil revenues to itself, thereby alienating the nation's marginalised states (3). Those who disagree with its miserable and fundamentalist Islamist vision for Sudan are classified as rebels. This includes the thousands of unarmed civilians it targets in daily bombing raids, and the farmers whose fields it destroys, deliberately disrupting the food supply.

A new report by the Sudan Consortium notes,"These strategies - whether as previously deployed by the government of Sudan in the Nuba mountains in the late 1980s and 1990s or in Darfur since 2003 - appear to indicate the intention on the part of those commanding their counter-insurgency operations not simply to attack military personnel, installations and related targets but to conduct a deliberate scorched earth policy aimed at displacing or destroying the civilian population in the communities from which the opposition fighters are drawn."

Since 2011, 250,000 people from Blue Nile and South Kordofan states have fled to refugee camps in South Sudan (4). Those refugees now find themselves in a new war zone. Those facing annihilation back in Sudan no longer have the option of trying to escape south. Things are so bad in South Sudan that some are going to Darfur and the Central African Republic, from the frying pan into the fire.

Meanwhile, the UN, the African Union, and the three nations which were midwives to South Sudan (the UK, the USA and Norway) offer only mild rebuke as Sudan breaks its promises on a daily basis, laying waste to civilian areas and farmland. In an Oscar-worthy display of hypocrisy, Sudan's leaders have fallen over themselves to support the international community's efforts to stop the conflict in South Sudan (an area where Sudan spent most of the last half century trying to slaughter every non-Arab and non-Muslim person it could find).

It is a testament to our gullibility that the nations we think of as "the West" have consistently failed to censure Sudan for its systematic human rights abuses. UN sanctions targeted at the regime's leaders have yet to be enforced. Instead, we are offering to drop Sudan's massive $45billion external debt in return for good behaviour. Only when we hold the architects of ethnic cleansing to their promises, and when we impose sanctions that make their daily lives inconvenient , freezing their internationally held web of assets and companies, will they take us seriously. Surely at the very least we should remove the passports of the eight Sudanese government members rumoured to hold them?

Because Khartoum never faces serious consequences it rightly concludes it can continue its ethnic cleansing campaign without fear of sanction. What kind of example does this set to other despotic regimes? And why should the feuding politicians and war lords in South Sudan take any notice of our threats when we display such an attention deficit disorder?

Those bent on genocide and mass atrocities understand we cannot concentrate on any conflict for long. They know if they do their killing in a media vacuum, and on a small but steady scale, we will look the other way. Is this what we meant when we said "Never again" after the Rwandan genocide twenty years ago?


(1) Sudan: 'Major Military Campaign to End Rebellion in Darfur' - Al Bashir


(3) Sudan: Indiscriminate Bombing, Police Abuses | Human Rights Watch

(4) Sudanese refugees in S. Sudan are facing disaster: SRRA - Sudan Tribune: Plural news and views on Sudan