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Civil Rights Leaders Criticized for Silence on Sudan Slavery

  • Marc Morano Senior Staff Writer
  • 2003 5 May
  • COMMENTS
Civil Rights Leaders Criticized for Silence on Sudan Slavery
(CNSNews.com) - Leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement are being taken to task for failing to make the human rights situation in the African country of Sudan a policy priority.

The Islamic government of Sudan has allegedly facilitated the enslavement of Christians and animists in the southern part of the country for 20 years, long-time observers say, yet most American civil rights leaders have said little or nothing about the issue. Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton is among those criticizing his fellow civil rights leaders in the United States.

"I am outraged that more of us, particularly of the African American leadership, have not talked about the slave trade that I witnessed with my own eyes in the Sudan," Sharpton told CNSNews.com. Sharpton traveled to the Sudan on a fact-finding mission in the spring of 2001.

The Sudanese government denies the slavery allegations despite eyewitness accounts by Sharpton and others, as well as documented evidence.

Sudan is on the U.S. State Department's list of states sponsoring terrorism. Its government has been at war with the southern-based rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in a conflict that is motivated by religious differences and what to do with the oil-rich field of southern Sudan. The war has resulted in allegations of widespread abuse, including slavery, the deaths of at least two million people and the displacement of millions more.

Sudan slave trade

Critics say American civil rights leaders have mostly ignored the Sudanese slavery issue.

"It took about five years, and principally because of the black churches...around the country and the American Anti-Slavery Group based in Boston, to get some type of momentum," said Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff in an interview with CNSNews.com. Hentoff has written extensively about Sudan.

Hentoff said some civil rights leaders have spoken out on the issue, like former U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, who also served as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and District of Columbia Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. However, the overwhelming majority of African American civil rights activists have remained silent, he said.

"There hasn't been anything recently. As a matter of fact, an even worse [human rights] situation is in Zimbabwe, and I haven't heard anything from any black leader nationally on that one. Why? I don't know," Hentoff said.

Sharpton also could not explain why U.S. civil rights leaders choose to remain silent on the issue of human rights in Sudan.

"I have no idea why they haven't done it, but I will continue to do it and even went there to try and dramatize how outrageous I felt that is in the 21st century to be seeing this kind of behavior," Sharpton said. To see the situation "go almost uncovered is unthinkable," he added.

Brad Phillips, president of the Persecution Project Foundation, a Christian ministry aiding the current victims of strife in Sudan, pointed to slavery in that country as evidence of a double standard among American civil rights leaders.

"Where is the outrage? The same people that want reparations for American slavery - where is their outrage for Africans who are being slaughtered today?" Phillips asked.

Hentoff criticized Jesse Jackson in particular for failing to show leadership on the Sudan slavery issue.

"When he went to Africa with [then President Bill] Clinton (in 1998), neither of them said a word about what was happening in Sudan, and Sudan was one place they didn't go to," Hentoff explained.

Jackson served as a U.S. special envoy to Africa during the second term of the Clinton administration. A spokesman for Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition defended Jackson's stance on the human rights violations in Sudan.

"[Jackson] has been addressing [Sudan] off and on ...We are engaged in Sudan, and we have been talking to the parties and stuff, and we have reached out to civil societies in both the north and the south, so we are engaged," James Gomez, director of international affairs for Rainbow/PUSH, told CNSNews.com.

"It might not be on the news, and [critics] might not get the information, but do not believe that these people are not engaged," Gomez added.

Gomez also indicated Jackson has met "several times" with Sudan's ambassador to the United States, Khidir H. Ahmed. When asked whether Jackson includes references to Sudan and slavery in his numerous speeches across the country, Gomez could only point to a press release that Rainbow PUSH distributed on April 21, 2001.

In that statement, Jackson wrote in part: "People everywhere should be outraged that in the new millennium, human trafficking and enslavement continues. Slavery is unacceptable and immoral, and I call on the government of Sudan to immediately take all the necessary actions to help end this inhumane practice."

"In terms of what was most specific [to Sudan], was that statement...that was a press release," Gomez explained.

Hentoff believes Jackson was forced to issue the 2001 press release by black ministers across the country. "Jackson had to be intimidated about speaking out about slavery," Hentoff said.

Hentoff also believes Sharpton has failed to adequately address the subject of slavery in Sudan. "[Sharpton] went [to Sudan], and he spoke out briefly. I follow this. I have not heard him say anything in a long time," Hentoff said. "Sharpton is running for president. There is not much of a constituency about slavery."

But when asked to respond, Sharpton was quick to defend himself. "I went to Sudan three years ago, and I publicly said that it was one of the great atrocities of the world."

Hentoff believes that if it were not for the pressure applied by African American clergy, Jackson, Sharpton and the Congressional Black Caucus would have had even less to say about the Sudanese controversy. Hentoff pointed to an open letter, written by black ministers, addressed to the Congressional Black Caucus in 2000, urging the group to become more visibly engaged in the issue.

"We African American pastors from around the nation write to ask the Congressional Black Caucus to come to the front of this battle. As the descendants of African slaves, we must not rest until those now held in bondage are freed - until the African villages in Sudan are protected from murderous slave raids, until the Sudan Air Force is made to stop bombing African schools, churches and hospitals," the letter dated June 1 read in part.

For its part, the Black Caucus now claims to be heavily involved in solving Sudan's human rights problems, pointing to its role in the passage of the Sudan Peace Act last October 21. The act provides for the U.S. to impose economic sanctions and other punitive measures in the event the government in Khartoum fails to continue negotiating an end to Sudan's decades-old conflict and requires the U.S. to monitor the progress of human rights abuses.

Repeated calls to the Congressional Black Caucus and its current chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) for further information were not returned.

In defense of Sudan

Minister Louis Farrakhan, the sponsor of the Million Man March and head of the Nation of Islam, questions whether the Islamic government of Sudan is guilty of slavery.

In a February 17, 2002, speech, the text of which is available on Farrakhan's website, he accused the U.S. of using the pretext of slavery to gain access to the oil field of southern Sudan.

"What America is trying to do is foster the revolution to break off the southern Sudan from the Islamic regime in Khartoum so that America can have access to the oil. But they say it's them Moslems killing Christians, making slaves out of these people in the south," Farrakhan stated.

Hentoff believes the reason so many African American civil rights leaders and heads of other African nations have been quiet about Sudan's human rights situation is because of a desire to remain in "solidarity because it's an African country."

Phillips, from the Persecution Project Foundation, put forth a theory on why African American civil rights leaders might be reticent about commenting on Sudan.

"Could it be because of the increasing Muslim influence in black America? Perhaps," Phillips said.

Phillips believes there is enough blame to go around regarding the silence on the situation in Sudan.

"There are some [civil rights leaders] who are doing great things, but in large part, it isn't getting the attention it deserves from any segment of American society and the media, let alone civil rights leaders," Phillips explained.

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