Are human rights an optional extra?

Fifty years after the Holocaust, the UN is complicit in a genocidal war in Sudan
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The Independent Culture
THERE IS no statement of international intent more moving than the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. With the wounds of the Holocaust still raw, the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948 deplored the "disregard and contempt for human rights (that) have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind" and demanded that "human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want".

But on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, the United Nations often seems more concerned with dispensing aid than defending human rights. Aid operations abound. But the UN's Special Rapporteurs, its human rights' monitors, work without salaries or offices.

UN agencies with multi-million dollar investments in despotic states seldom use their economic clout to fight for the victims of despotism. And concern to protect aid programmes, to keep aid flights going out and donor dollars coming in, has at times led the UN to turn its back on the victims of aggression - thereby ensuring that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights fails to be a declaration of universal human rights.

Fifty years after the Holocaust, the UN's disregard for human rights in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan -an area that should be of special interest to Britain - has made it complicit in another policy of annihilation: a genocidal war against a people whose society is a model of political and religious tolerance, whose very existence threatens the National Islamic Front's (NIF) project of a conformist Islamic extremism.

The Nuba, an amalgam of black African tribes in Arab-dominated northern Sudan, are looking into the abyss. The photographs of George Rodger and Leni Riefenstahl have become part of the immortal iconography of Africa. But the Nuba themselves are fighting for survival.

Long a despised minority in Sudan, many Nuba took up arms in 1985 alongside the southern-dominated Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Reprisals followed. The mountains were blockaded and a war to suppress the SPLA insurrection grew into a scorched-earth Holy War. A programme of forced relocation moved more than 250,000 Nuba villagers into distant "peace camps" where they are tortured and killed, denied food and medicine, and press-ganged into the ever-growing "Peoples' Defence Forces" as accomplices in their own destruction.

Women are raped - with the express intent of creating a generation of non-Nuba children - and put to work in mechanised farms that enrich the NIF and degrade the soil. Children are separated from their parents and sent away for military training and Islamic indoctrination.

Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), the UN aid operation mandated to work in all war-affected regions of Sudan, pumps resources into the government- controlled side of the mountains, where aid is deployed as a weapon to lure the Nuba away from their resistance, but acquiesces in the government's refusal to allow relief into rebel-controlled areas.

This year the NIF's war of starvation brought famine to the Nuba Mountains. In May, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made a solemn commitment to get relief into the mountains. Seven months later, the Nuba are still waiting. OLS has spent a million dollars a day in southern Sudan, but has not put a single bag of grain into rebel-controlled areas. Hundreds of Nuba have died from hunger. Thousands have fled into government hands.

Despite this, on their own and away from international attention, the Nuba have established a civilian administration, a judicial system, an embryonic police force, a nursing school and teacher-training college. They have trained human rights monitors, organised a religious tolerance conference and taken a popular vote on whether to fight on or surrender. (After six days' debate, they voted overwhelmingly to fight.)

But the UN is today an integral part of Khartoum's arsenal and Nuba leader Youssef Kuwa has warned that the Nuba will be committing suicide if they continue to let aid enter government-controlled areas unopposed. Fifty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that "Man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression" the UN has become an accomplice to tyranny in Sudan.

Clare Short is correct in asserting that politics, not aid, is the solution to Africa's problems. But in Sudan the injustice of aid is part of the problem. How can the international community broker a peace if it carries no credibility in the Nuba Mountains? Aid is politics, and the politics of aid are killing the Nuba.