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China, Human Rights and the Sudan

JURIST Guest Columnist Chandra Lekha Sriram, Chair of Human Rights at the University of East London School of Law (UK), says that China's economic interests in the Sudan - especially as the consumer of over 60 percent of Sudan's existing oil production and the holder of large concessions for further exploration - make it an unlikely agent of pressure on the government for human rights improvements in Darfur...


On the eve of President Hu Jintao's visit to Africa, including a stop in Sudan, attention is focused on what China's interest in the continent is, and whether it can have a positive rather than negative effect on resolving the Darfur crisis. The Chinese government has announced that the situation in Darfur will be one of the topics for discussion. Unfortunately, China's record of supporting the Sudanese government through previous conflicts and severe human rights abuses, and the Sudanese government's intransigence in the face of continuing international pressure, even from the African Union, would indicate that China is unlikely to put significant pressure on Sudan, and that Sudan could and would easily resist such pressure. This is true not least because of China's significant economic interest in Sudan, which means it needs to stay on the good side of the government or risk losing out to Russian companies.

Last November's China-Africa summit drew a great deal of attention, and concern, for obvious reasons. China is becoming an economic powerhouse, with rapidly increased capacity to offer trade, aid and investment, and to engage in extractive industries such as oil exploration and mining, around the world. Its interest in Africa in particular has an obvious potential benefit-bringing trade to, and developing the resources of, a desperately poor continent. This was highlighted by the announcement on Monday that China will make some $3 billion in loans over the next two years. The Chinese interest in Africa is not new, although we are just beginning to notice it. In the decade between 1995 and 2005 trade between China and Africa increased tenfold, and Chinese loans to the continent also grew significantly.

However, given China's long-standing enmity to many facets of international human rights law, its interest in a continent, and in particular countries, where conflict and human rights violations are endemic, has naturally raised severe concerns among human rights advocates. China not only does not, as many Western democracies do, condition trade and aid on human rights criteria, but it has actively engaged countries with abusive regimes.

Nowhere is this more true than Sudan.

China's interest in Sudan is entrenched, predates the situation in Darfur, and will likely contin?ue for the foreseeable future. China's rapid growth relies upon oil, and it currently consumes about 64% of Sudan's oil production. To gain access to that oil, China has been a staunch supporter of the Sudanese government, selling it some $100 million in arms between 1996 and 2003 alone. These weapons included jets and helicopter gunships, reportedly used for repression of civilians in the south as part of the now-terminated north-south conflict. The weaponry, including helicopters, which China sold to Sudan through the 1990s helped the government to target villages in the South during the long-running conflict with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), resulting in massive civilian casualties and forced displacement, effectively depopulating Unity State in the south, as a means to remove populations from areas targeted for oil exploration by the Chinese National Petroleum Company. And Chinese companies have had no interest in curbing abuses by the Sudanese government, but rather have benefited from and facilitated them. The Sudanese army provided "security" to the Chinese company in question, the Chinese National Petroleum Company. The Chinese government helped to build the road that facilitated the attacks on civilians. While Western oil companies, based in countries which place human rights and conflict conditionalities upon investments, and in which companies can even face civil suits for commissioning of or complicity with human rights abuses, withdrew operations from Sudan, Chinese (and to a lesser degree Russian) companies seized the opportunity. Oil exploration and arms sales to the government of Sudan continued notwithstanding the north-south conflict and human rights abuses.

That record provides a clue to likely Chinese behavior regarding Darfur: economic interests will probably trump any desire to pressure Sudan. Already, Chinese arms sales to the government continue despite despite UN Security Council Resolution 1591 of 2005, imposing an arms embargo to all parties to the Darfur conflict. Inevitably many of those have been reported to be in use in the conflict in Darfur, in particular through government air support for attacks on civilians by the janjaweed militias. The Sudanese government is engaged if, not genocide, then crimes against humanity, resulting so far in the deaths of some 200,000 and displacement of another 2.5 million people.

China holds the concession for exploration of a huge tract of Sudanese territory, ranging from West Kordofan to large parts of Darfur. Given the patterns of displacement and attacks on civilians that have come with oil exploration elsewhere in Sudan , oil development could exacerbate what is already termed by Jan Egeland, the UN's chief humanitarian official, the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

So much for China's interest in resolving the Darfur situation. Even if President Hu placed serious pressure on Sudan's President Bashir to accept the expansion of the UN Mission in Sudan's mandate and presence to cover Darfur, authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1706 last August, it is unclear that Bashir can be pressured. He has already withstood intense pressure from the international community and has prevented the expansion of the mission currently on the ground to support the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the north and the south. The African Union (AU) mission has proven woefully unable to prevent janjaweed attacks and has several times threatened to withdraw before any handover is possible. Bashir has offered to support the AU mission, which is a bit like to fox offering to guard the henhouse. In this light the triumphant announcement by new UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, that Bashir seemed prepared to accept a joint AU-UN mission, must be regarded with some skepticism. Indeed, speaking on Monday at the AU summit, the Secretary-General placed public pressure on Bashir, an acknowledgment of Sudan's continued intransigence.

That intransigence has continued despite a pressure and a snub by the African Union for the second year in a row. Last year's AU summit deferred Bashir's expected chairmanship of the organization because of the conflict in Darfur. This year, Bashir expected to take up the post, but neighbor Chad threatened to quit the organization if that happened. AU members instead chose the leader of Ghana to chair the continent's premier diplomatic body. This is perhaps particularly remarkable given the AU's, and African governments' generally, reluctance to condemn states for internal activities, even atrocities. Instead, deference to sovereignty has been the norm, with states insisting that no action should be taken, or that any action should entail "African solutions to African problems", which were generally not forthcoming. As I noted last year, in the context of AU recommendations regarding the disposition of former Chadian dictator Hissene Habre, that deference seems to be eroding, and "African solutions" are being proffered.

In the case of the AU mission, however, the solution is too weak. And unfortunately, even the repeated rejection of Bashir for the chairmanship seems unlikely to sway him. It certainly has not done so, so far.

In light of the intransigence of the Sudanese government, it is perhaps not surprising that some are looking for leverage in the Chinese. Even the United States has apparently asked China to pressure Sudan. And the record, while extremely bad, is not all negative. On the positive side, China has encouraged Sudan to accept a UN peacekeeping mission, and did not veto resolution 1706, although it might have done. It also may have significant leverage in Sudan, precisely because of its investments there. It may have not only the leverage but the credibility, precisely because of its criticism of so-called Western human rights. Nonetheless, it seems unlikely, given Chinese economic interests, and the potential for Russian investors to replace Chinese ones, that strong pressure will be forthcoming or that Bashir would bow to it.


Chandra Lekha Sriram is Professor of Human Rights and Director of the Centre on Human Rights in Conflict at the University of East London.

January 30, 2007


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