Slavery, abduction and forced servitude in Sudan

Originally published


Released by the Bureau of African Affairs
Report of the International Eminent Persons Group


We gratefully acknowledge the generous assistance and valuable information provided to us by Sudanese from a wide range of viewpoints and allegiances - so many that it is impossible to mention them all in this brief space.

We must, however, express special thanks to Dr. Ahmed El Mufti, Chair of the Committee for the Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children and to Mr. Elijah Malok, head of the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association in Nairobi, two figures from different sides of Sudan's political divide who nevertheless have a common gift for dialogue and hospitality.

We also wish to acknowledge the particular assistance and gracious hospitality we received from His Excellency, the Commissioner of South Darfur. Our sincere thanks go as well to the dedicated staff of the World Food Program, the United Nations Children's Fund and Save the Children UK for their invaluable assistance, including the aircraft and logistical support without which our travel would not have been possible. Our mission is also grateful for the support it received from the US Agency for International Development as well as from US embassies in Khartoum and Nairobi and the embassies or representatives of the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Norway in Khartoum.

Finally, we would like to record our deep gratitude to three Sudanese researchers, Priscilla Joseph, Rhoda Joseph and Maluak Ayuel, whose knowledge and skill in serving as our cultural guides and interpreters made communication and understanding possible.


The members of the mission would like to thank the Government of Sudan (GoS) and the Sudan Peoples' Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) for the help and support we were given in the areas of Sudan under their respective control. We were permitted to visit militarily sensitive regions and given access to officials at the highest levels. This reception confirms our sense of a new willingness among Sudanese in both the north and south to address what have been one of the bitterest and most divisive issues of the civil war: the practices of slavery, abduction and forced servitude.

Our purpose on this mission was to find practical ways to advance peace in Sudan, where nineteen years of civil war and associated famine and displacement have produced one of the worst human disasters of modern times. Our mission was invited to Sudan by the two parties through an agreement mediated by former United States Senator John Danforth1. The agreement may be considered an acknowledgement by those directly involved that the problems we have addressed are an important factor in the conflict that divides their country. This itself is an important step forward.

Both parties to this conflict affirm their desire for peace. In recent times they have taken steps that, though limited and uncertain, give reason for hope they may actually take that path. For this reason we felt a special responsibility to speak candidly about the character and causes of the problems we addressed. Our description of them is offered as diagnosis, not as judgment. Until these issues are satisfactorily addressed, we believe, peace will prove elusive.

Our Group found a wide array of grave human rights violations in Sudan. Among those that fall under our terms of reference, we found that abduction of civilians and forcible recruitment by the armed forces of all sides in the war was commonplace. Of particular concern are incidents of abduction and associated abuses that occur in conjunction with attacks by pro-government militias known as murahaleen on villages in SPLA-controlled areas near the boundary between northern and southern Sudan. The Group concluded that the Government of Sudan and its predecessors have been responsible for arming murahaleen groups, for using them as auxiliary military forces and for allowing members of such forces to enjoy impunity for a wide range of serious crimes committed in the course of attacks.

The Group concluded that in a significant number of cases, abduction is the first stage in a pattern of abuse that falls under the definition of slavery in the International Slavery Convention of 1926 and the Supplementary Convention of 1956. The Group was unable, however, to establish the scale of abduction and enslavement. Responsibility for the lack of reliable information on this subject lies with the government and the SPLA, both of which have obstructed the necessary research by independent investigators.

The Group notes with alarm the recent intensification of fighting in the oil development areas of Western Upper Nile, and the emergence there of a pattern of human rights abuses similar to that experienced in Northern Bahr al Ghazal, including abductions and large-scale population displacements.

The Group recognizes that a wide range of economic relationships exist between northerners and displaced southerners in the north (including victims of abduction and/or slavery). The majority of these relations, while they may involve economic exploitation, do not fall under the rubric of slavery. Such relationships range from debt bondage at one extreme to benign relations of sponsorship or adoption at the other.

The problems we analyze in this report are the expression of a profound lack of respect among certain Sudanese for the rights of some other Sudanese. Overcoming these attitudes and the conduct that flows from them constitutes a basic challenge in the spheres of politics and law. Beyond this, it involves a reshaping of relationships between those from different cultures and faiths in Sudan. Such changes should not be considered impossible. We encountered people on all sides, in north and south, including members of the government and of the opposition, who spoke of their desire to resolve their problems openly and peacefully.

There are many sources of conflict in Sudan. There are also indigenous practices of mutual cooperation and conflict resolution between neighboring groups. And there are political and religious traditions that are capable of building on these practices to establish a just, democratic and pluralist society. It is the responsibility of the government and of the SPLM/A to encourage such practices and traditions.

Eliminating the abuses described in this report will require, in our view, major political initiatives on the part both of the government and of the SPLM/A. We hope that the same spirit of openness that made our mission possible will be extended to embrace the recommendations we make in this report. The initiatives we propose can only succeed with assistance from the international community. This assistance must be substantial, long-term, carefully conceived and, above all, rigorously monitored.


1Through the mediation of Senator Danforth, the Government of Sudan and the SPLM/A agreed in December, 2001, to facilitate and support the visit to Sudan of a U.S.-led and internationally supported mission to investigate, on the ground, means for preventing abductions, slavery and forced servitude. Accordingly, an Eminent Persons Group comprised of experts from France, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States was formed to undertake this mission and to make recommendations to the parties to the conflicted, as well as others concerned, on practical measures that could be taken to end these abuses. Progress on this issue was identified by Senator Danforth as one of four key indicators of the seriousness of the commitment by the parties to the pursuit of peace. The agreement notes: " The Government of Sudan categorically rejects the allegation that slavery and forced servitude exist within its borders". (See Appendices)

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