“Battling Baroness” or “Blundering” Newspaper?: ‘The Vancouver Sun’, Baroness Cox and Sudan

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“Cox means well but looks ever so slightly unhinged.

The Times’, 30 January 2001, p.27

On 26 January 2002, the Canadian newspaper, ‘The Vancouver Sun’, published an article about Baroness Cox entitled “‘Battling Baroness’ appeals to missionaries: Caroline Cox has both fans and critics after buying slaves in order to free them”. Written by Douglas Todd, the article was both unprofessional and deeply misleading. The article, for example, unquestioningly accepted claims made by Baroness Cox that she was engaged in “buying” the freedom of “slaves” in Sudan. The article also voiced claims which potentially fuel undeserved prejudice against Arabs and Muslims.

Civil war has raged in Sudan off and on since 1955 between the Sudanese government and rebels in southern Sudan. Since 1983 the war in the south has been fought by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). (1) The essence of the claims made by Baroness Cox is that as a consequence of this war there is a flourishing “slave trade” in Sudan. She claims that the southern Sudanese people are enslaved by the northern government. Closely associated with Christian Solidarity International, and then with Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Baroness Cox further claims that on visits to parts of southern Sudan she has bought back or “redeemed” thousands of slaves, often several hundred at a time. Leaving aside the deeply controversial issue of whether she is actually buying “slaves” or people kidnapped for ransom, the Canadian government’s special envoy to Sudan also revealed fraudulent “redemptions” which provided rebel forces with money with which to purchase arms and ammunition.

“Slavery” and “Slave Redemption” versus Kidnapping, Abduction or Fraud?

The unchallenged claims of large-scale “slave redemption” made by Baroness Cox, and echoed in ‘The Vancouver Sun’, can be clearly assessed against more objective sources. One of these is the report by the Canadian government’s special envoy to Sudan, John Harker, into human rights abuses in Sudan. The Harker report, ‘Human Security in Sudan: The Report of a Canadian Assessment Mission’, was published in February 2000. One of the two missions with which John Harker was tasked was to: “independently investigate human rights violations, specifically in reference to allegations of slavery and slavery-like practices in Sudan.” (2)

While Harker was critical of many human rights abuses in Sudan, he clearly questioned claims of large scale “slave redemption” such as those made by Baroness Cox. He specifically touched on the credibility of such allegations:

“[R]eports, especially from CSI, about very large numbers were questioned, and frankly not accepted. Mention was also made to us of evidence that the SPLA were involved in ‘recycling’ abductees…Serious anti-abduction activists…cannot relate the claimed redemptions to what they know of the reality. For example we were told that it would be hard not to notice how passive these ‘slave’ children are when they are liberated or to realize how implausible it is to gather together so many people from so many locations so quickly – and there were always just the right number to match redemption funds available!”

The Harker Report also detailed how fraudulent “slave redemptions” were being used to raise money for the SPLA, money which he stated is used to purchase arms and ammunition:

“Several informants reported various scenarios involving staged redemptions. In some cases, SPLM officials are allegedly involved in arranging these exchanges, dressing up as Arab slave traders, with profits being used to support the SPLM/A, buy weapons and ammunition…”

The Harker Report documented the deliberately fraudulent nature of many “slave redemptions”:

“Sometimes a ‘redeeming group’ may be innocently misled, but other groups may be actively committed to fundraising for the SPLM/A & deliberately use ‘slave redemption’ as a successful tactic for attracting Western donors.

We did speak with an eyewitness who can confirm observing a staged redemption and this testimony conformed with other reports we had from a variety of credible sources. The “redeeming group” knew they were buying back children who had not been abducted or enslaved. The exchange was conducted in the presence of armed SPLA guards. The “Arab” middle man/trader delivering the children for “redemption” was recognized as a member of the local community even though he was dressed up in traditional Arab costume for the event.” (3)

It is not just the Canadian government that has questioned the sort of process to which Baroness Cox was an all too willing party, and which was so unquestioningly reported by ‘The Vancouver Sun’.

The claims made by Cox to have “redeemed slaves” have also clearly been directly challenged by the veteran southern Sudanese politician Bona Malwal. In a letter to her Malwal stated that:

“On at least three different occasions, you have come into Twic County without the permission of the local leadership, using Messrs Stephen Wondu and Martin Okeruk [SPLA officials] as your license to do so. You then say each time that your mission was to redeem slaves and that indeed you have done so, when in each instance this had not been the case. The latest episode was in October [1999] when you landed at Mayen Abun without even the courtesy of informing the local area representative….I know that you have put out for propaganda, and maybe for fundraising purposes as well, that you redeemed slaves at Mayen Abun in October when nothing of the sort happened. I sincerely hope that this type of game stops…I sincerely hope that you do see the harm that could be caused and that you will refrain from this activity in the future.” (4)

Malwal’s standing within the southern Sudanese community is unassailable. He is the publisher of the ‘Sudan Democratic Gazette’. He is a former Minister of Information and Culture and was the editor of the ‘Sudan Times’, the largest English-language newspaper in Sudan before 1989. Malwal went into exile when the present government in Sudan came to power a decade ago and teaches international affairs at Oxford University. Baroness Cox has herself previously described him as “one of the well-respected elders of the Dinka tribe”. (5) The implications of Bona Malwal’s letter to Baroness Cox are serious and it is for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

‘The Vancouver Sun’ quotes Cox as stating: “The Islamic government is waging systematic slavery.” Sir Robert Ffolkes, director of the Save the Children (UK) programme in Sudan, an organisation at the forefront of the abductions issue, contradicts Cox somewhat. Speaking in 2001 he stated: “I have seen no evidence at all of slave trading. And believe me, we have looked”. (6) Sir Robert has also said: “I do not believe the government in involved in slave-taking.” (7) The respected human rights expert, and Sudan specialist, Alex de Waal, while co-director of the human rights group African Rights, stated with regard to claims made by Baroness Cox that:

“(O)vereager or misinformed human rights advocates in Europe and the US have played upon lazy assumptions to raise public outrage. Christian Solidarity International, for instance, claims that “Government troops and Government-backed Arab militias regularly raid black African communities for slaves and other forms of booty”. The organization repeatedly uses the term “slave raids”, implying that taking captives is the aim of government policy. This despite the fact that there is no evidence for centrally-organized, government-directed slave raiding or slave trade.” (8)

Anti-Slavery International has also stated with regard to allegations of government involvement in slavery that: “[T]he charge that government troops engage in raids for the purpose of seizing slaves is not backed by the evidence.” (9)

In a July 1999 article entitled ‘The False Promise of Slave Redemption’, published by ‘The Atlantic Monthly’, American journalist Richard Miniter provided unambiguous first hand evidence that there was fraud and corruption in the process of “slave redemption” in Sudan, whereby southern Sudanese tribesmen, women and children were supposedly “bought back” from northern Sudanese tribesmen said to have abducted them during raids on southern villages. (10)

Miniter documented that SPLA officials are involved in fraud with regard to “slave redemption”:

“[They] set themselves up as bankers and insist that redeemers exchange their dollars for Sudanese pounds, a nearly worthless currency…The officials arrange by radio to have some villages play slaves and some play slave-sellers, and when the redeemers arrive, the Sudanese pounds are used to free the slaves. When the redeemers are gone, the pounds are turned back over to the corrupt officials, who hand out a few dollars in return. Most of the dollars stay with the officials, who now also have the Sudanese pounds with which to play banker again.”

Miniter was accompanied during a visit to southern Sudan by James Jacobson, the president of Christian Freedom International. Jacobson, a former Reagan Administration official, had previously served as Christian Solidarity International’s Washington representative. In 1998, the American branch of Christian Solidarity International USA went its own way as Christian Freedom International, with Jacobson at its head. He was an enthusiastic supporter of “slave redemption” until he actually visited southern Sudan to see the “slave redemption” situation for himself. Jacobson subsequently publicly disowned “slave redemption” because the financial incentives involved encouraged both the taking of captives as well as fraud and corruption. Reuters has confirmed the “massive corruption” reported by Jacobson:

“Local aid workers…say that they have seen children who they have known for months passed off as slaves…And Reuters interviewed one boy in Yargot who told a completely implausible story of life in the north, a story which he changed in every respect when translators were swapped.” (11)

In May 1999, ‘The Christian Science Monitor’ also clearly stated: “There are increasingly numerous reports that significant numbers of those ‘redeemed’ were never slaves in the first place. Rather, they were simply elements of the local populations, often children, available to be herded together when cash-bearing redeemers appeared.” (12)

‘The Vancouver Sun’ article did not adequately deal with the issue of whether the people said to have been “slaves” were “slaves” or rather people kidnapped or abducted for ransoming to Westerners with large amounts of cash. Nor did the article even touch upon let alone discuss the well-documented issue of simple misrepresentation or fraud within the “slave redemption” issue. The article’s inability to adequately question the serious allegations it voiced is clear. It is clear that “overeager and misinformed” also applies to ‘The Vancouver Sun’ in its acceptance of terms such as “slavery” in the Sudan.

Has ‘The Vancouver Sun’ Encouraged Racial Prejudice?

What is perhaps equally disturbing about the article published in ‘The Vancouver Sun’ is that it may have encouraged prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. The sort of claims articulated in the ‘The Vancouver Sun’ have disturbed groups such as Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest human rights organisation. In a submission to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Anti-Slavery International stated:

“There is a danger that wrangling over slavery can distract us from abuses which are actually part of government policy – which we do not believe slavery to be. Unless accurately reported, the issue can become a tool for indiscriminate and wholly undeserved prejudice against Arabs and Muslims. [We] are worried that some media reports of “slave markets”, stocked by Arab slave traders – which [we] consider distort reality – fuel such prejudice.” (13)

Anti-Slavery International would seem to believe that talk of “Islamic” “slavery” as echoed in Todd’s article distorts reality and fuels prejudice against Arabs and Muslims.

Baroness Cox, Sudan and Credibility

‘The Vancouver Sun’ appears to have taken a somewhat unprofessional approach to checking Baroness Cox’s credibility regarding Sudanese affairs. On issue after issue her accuracy has previously been found to be wanting, and her claims have been contradicted by the British and American governments, UNSCOM and human rights groups such as African Rights and Anti-Slavery International. Even ‘The Times’ of London has described her as “ever so slightly unhinged”. (14) Why then did ‘The Vancouver Sun’ allow her to make controversial and deeply questionable claims, referring to her as the “Battling Baroness”? Surely a more apt headline would have been the “Blundering Baroness”?

Leaving aside the clear criticisms of Baroness Cox regarding “slavery” in Sudan, her track record of making other unreliable claims concerning Sudan is a clear one.

On 17 February 1998, in the British Parliament, for example, Baroness Cox claimed that four hundred Scud missiles (including support vehicles, well over one thousand vehicles) had been secretly transferred to Sudan from Iraq since the Gulf War. This supposedly in the face of unprecedented satellite, electronic and physical surveillance of that country by the United States, the United Nations and other concerned members of the international community. It is a matter of record that, on the same day that Baroness Cox made this claim, Reuters reported the statement by the White House that: “We have no credible evidence that Iraq has exported weapons of mass destruction technology to other countries since the (1991) Gulf War.”

The British government also refuted Cox’s claims, stating that: “We are monitoring the evidence closely, but to date we have no evidence to substantiate these claims….Moreover, we know that some of the claims are untrue…”. (15) The British Government Minister also cited UNSCOM, stating that: “Nor has the United Nations Special Commission reported any evidence of such transfers since the Gulf War conflict and the imposition of sanctions in 1991.” (16)

Similarly, in October 1999, Baroness Cox claimed that Sudanese Government forces had used chemical weapons in locations in southern Sudan in July 1999. On 17 October 1999 the United Nations revealed that tests conducted by the laboratories of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta on medical samples taken by Operation Lifeline Sudan members in the areas cited by Baroness Cox “indicated no evidence of exposure to chemicals”. (17) Baroness Cox supplied further samples which she claimed proved her case. In June 2000, the British government revealed the results of the “very careful analysis” of the samples provided by Baroness Cox and all other evidence. The samples had been tested by the British Defence Ministry’s world-renowned chemical and biological weapons establishment at Porton Down. The results showed that the samples provided “bore no evidence of the CW [Chemical Weapons] agents for which they had been tested”. The British government also pointed out that in addition to the American tests, further samples had been tested by the Finnish institute responsible for chemical weapons verification. These too had been negative. The Government commented on the “consistency of results from these three independent sets of analysis”. (18)

As a general view on Baroness Cox’s reliability, it is worth nothing that in Andrew Boyd’s very sympathetic biography of her, ‘Baroness Cox: A Voice for the Voiceless’, Dr Christopher Besse of Medical Emergency Relief International, a humanitarian aid organisation with which Cox is closely associated (Dr Besse and Baroness Cox are both trustees of Merlin), is quoted as saying:

“She’s not the most popular person in Sudan among the humanitarian aid people. She has her enemies, and some of them feel she is not well- enough informed. She recognizes a bit of the picture, but not all that’s going on.” (19)

It must be emphasised that Dr Besse was referring specifically to “humanitarian aid people”. That ‘The Vancouver Sun’ chose to accept at face value claims made by Baroness Cox, of whom even her friends say that she only “recognizes a bit of the picture” with regard to Sudan is simply unprofessional.

Baroness Cox and Canadian Business Involvement in Sudan

Cox was also very critical of Canadian business involvement in Sudan, claiming that such involvement props up the Sudanese government. She is once again characteristically ill-informed and out of touch even with opposition opinion within Sudan itself. In June 2001, for example, ‘The Washington Post’ reported in an article entitled ‘Activists in Sudan Fear Loss of Western Oil Firms’ Influence’ that human rights activists within Sudan “emphasize that as long as the companies involved are Western, their concerns about corporate citizenship provide valuable leverage to …many critics. Talisman Energy, the Canadian firm…has quietly pressed human rights concerns on a Sudanese government over which the West has little other influence, the opposition figures say.” The paper quoted key Sudanese human rights and opposition activist Ghazi Suleiman: “If Talisman were to pull out of Sudan, this doesn’t mean the oil business will come to an end. Talisman will be replaced by some company.” Suleiman said that any replacement company will be less interested than Talisman in the Sudanese people. ‘The Washington Post’ also reported that Suleiman credited Talisman’s presence with some of the freedoms now enjoyed by opposition parties in Sudan. Another voice on the issue has been that of Alfred Taban, himself from southern Sudan. Taban, the publisher of Sudan’s only independent English language newspaper, stated that Talisman has acknowledged some of the difficulties the oil project has brought with it: “The way forward is not to take away companies that admit some of this is going on and have been working to try to end some of that abuse.” (20) It should be noted that both Suleiman and Taban have been detained by the government for periods of time, and are infinitely closer to the reality of events within Sudan than Cox.

It clearly ill behoves Canadians to judge fellow Canadians on the basis of claims made by people such as Baroness Cox.

All in all, there are a number of questions that need to be answered by Douglas Todd and ‘The Vancouver Sun’.

Having simplistically raised the issue of “slavery”, why was the clear issue of exactly what constitutes “slavery” not examined?; Why were clearly articulated international concerns about the possibly fraudulent nature of precisely the sort of “slave redemption” not discussed?; Was ‘The Vancouver Sun’ not at all concerned that it was fuelling undeserved prejudice against Arabs and Muslims in its stereotyped portrayal of “Islamic” slave traders”?; Why was ‘The Vancouver Sun’ not aware that Baroness Cox has previously repeatedly made unsubstantiated or untrue claims with regard to Sudan, and that many of her claims have been dismissed by sources that cannot be described as being supportive of the Sudanese government; Is ‘The Vancouver Sun’ not concerned that the unquestioning acceptance of claims described as being rooted in “lazy assumptions” only serves to distorted an already very confusing picture of events in Sudan?

Notes

1. The SPLA is sometimes also referred to as the SPLM/A, a reference to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement.

2. John Harker, ‘Human Security in Sudan: The Report of a Canadian Assessment Mission’, Prepared for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ottawa, January 2000, p. 1.

3. Ibid., pp.39-40.

4. Letter from Bona Malwal to Baroness Cox, 23 January 2000 posted on South Sudan Net (http://southsudanet.net/baroness_caroline_cox_1_arnellan.htm).

5. “A Response to the Sudan Foundation’ s ‘Questions ‘ and Criticisms of CSI’s Work in Sudan”, ‘CSI Magazine ‘, Issue 90, December 1997 available at http://home.clara.co.uk/csiuk/90page4.html.

6. Sir Robert Ffolkes was quoted in “‘Sudan’, A Special International Report”, ‘The Washington Times’, 10 July 2001.

7. “Anti-Slavery Drive in War-Torn Sudan Provokes Response Critics Say Buyback Boost Market”, ‘The Washington Times’, 25 May 2000.

8. Alex de Waal, “Sudan: Social Engineering, Slavery and War”, in ‘Covert Action Quarterly’ (Washington-DC), Spring 1997.

9. Peter Verney, ‘Slavery in Sudan ‘, Sudan Update and Anti-Slavery International, London, May 1997.

10. The article was published in two parts in ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ and is also available online in two parts. Part one is available at http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jul/9907sudanslaves.htm and part two at http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/99jul/9907sudanslaves2.htm. Miniter’s work has previously appeared in ‘The New York Times’, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ and ‘Reader’s Digest’.

11. “Aid group tries to break Sudan slavery chain”, News Article by Reuters, 11 July 1999

12. “Slave ‘Redemption’ Won’t Save Sudan”, ‘The Christian Science Monitor’ (Boston), 26 May 1999.

13. The reference number of this submission to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights is TS/S/4/97, and is available to view on the Anti-Slavery International web-site at http://www.charitynet.org/asi/submit5.htm

14. ‘The Times’ (London), 30 January 2001, p.27.

15. House of Lords ‘Official Report’, London, 19 March 1998, cols. 818-820.

16. House of Lords ‘Official Report,’ London, 19 March 1998, cols. 818-820.

17. Note by the Spokesman of the United Nations Secretary-General handed to the Sudanese Ministry of External Relations by the UN Resident Coordinator in Sudan, Philippe Borel.

18. Letter from Baroness Symons, Minister of State for Defence Procurement, to Baroness Cox, (Reference D/MIN(DP)/ECS/13/3/3), 5 June 2000.

19. Andrew Boyd, ‘Baroness Cox: A Voice for the Voiceless’, Lion Publishing, Oxford, 1998, p.324.

20. “Activists in Sudan Fear Loss of Western Oil Firms’ Influence”, ‘The Washington Post’, 24 June 2001.

The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council sent this media contribution to Media Monitors Network (MMN)

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