Turning A Blind Eye to Terrorism?: The United States, Uganda and Sudan  



President George W. Bush’s 20 September 2001 address to Congress and the American People, responding to the horrific atrocities of 11 September, declared a war on terrorism. (1) The point was also made that it was not just terrorism associated with Islamic fundamentalism that was to be targeted, but all forms of terrorism. On 5 December 2001, the United States government announced 39 organisations that had been listed on Washington’s “Terrorist Exclusion List” under the provisions of the new USA Patriot Act. (2) A State Department press statement announcing the listing announced: “We are taking a methodical approach to all aspects of the campaign to eliminate terrorism as a threat to our way of life.” (3) One of the organisations so listed is the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda. It is important to note the United States government’s legal definition of terrorism and international terrorism. The relevant definitions come from Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f (d): “The term terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience” and: “The term international terrorism means terrorism involving citizens of the territory of more than one country.” There is no doubt that the Lord’s Resistance Army has engaged in terrorism and large-scale abuses of human rights in the course of its conflict with the Ugandan government in northern Uganda.

The simple question which must be asked, however, is why has the United States listed the Lord’s Resistance Army when it has conspicuously not listed the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), an organisation that has been equally implicated in acts of terrorism and human rights abuses? The parallels between the two groups are stark and disturbing. There is very little to differentiate them. The United States government has described the Lord’s Resistance Army as having “inflicted brutal violence on the population in northern Uganda, including rape, kidnapping, torture, and murder”. (4) ‘The New York Times’ on the other hand, has, for example, described the SPLA as “brutal and predatory”, stating that they “have behaved like an occupying army, killing, raping and pillaging” in southern Sudan, and calling SPLA leader John Garang one of Sudan’s “pre-eminent war criminals”. (5)

The Lord’s Resistance Army and the SPLA lend themselves to further comparison. Both are essentially based on one ethnic group, and have become entangled in vicious inter-tribal conflicts; both have no discernible political programme; and both have refused to respond to repeated offers of amnesties and calls for ceasefire.

It would be difficult to come across a more clear-cut case than the SPLA for listing as a terrorist organisation. Whatever crimes the Lord’s Resistance Army has been guilty of have been equalled and in some instances surpassed by the SPLA. It is ironic that many of these human rights abuses and the SPLA’s pattern of terrorism have been extensively documented by the United States government itself. In addition to the SPLA’s responsibility for widespread abuses of human rights with Sudan, the SPLA has also been guilty of widescale terrorism during its conflict with the Sudanese government. The SPLA has admitted the shooting down of civilian airliners within Sudan, incidents involving considerable loss of civilian life. In one instance the SPLA shot down a civilian airliner taking off from Malakal in southern Sudan, killing sixty people. A further civilian aircraft was shot down with the deaths of thirteen passengers and crew. (6) These incidents were documented by the United States government. SPLA terrorism has also included the widespread murder of Sudanese men, women and children and indiscriminate mortaring and rocketing of urban areas in southern Sudan, resulting in hundreds of further civilian deaths. The American government has itself again, in several of its official human rights studies, ‘Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’, documented numerous examples of SPLA terrorism. It has pointed out that the SPLA has “conducted indiscriminate mortar and rocket attacks on the southern city of Juba, killing more than 40 civilians and wounding many others. These attacks…seemed intended to terrorize the inhabitants”. (7) In another instance, the American government stated that the SPLA had continued the random shelling of Juba, killing over 200 southern civilians. (8) SPLA shelling of civilians has been a feature of the past decade. Similar shelling was reported as recently as October 2001. In February 2000, for example, Reuters correspondent Rosalind Russell personally witnessed: “a pillar of smoke rising from the besieged town of Mayom [on the edge of oil producing areas in southern Sudan], subject to daily bombardments by rebels as they try to advance eastwards to the oil development.” (9) The town of Bentiu has also been shelled in the course of 2001, resulting in civilian casualties. (10)

The United States is also very aware of SPLA involvement in large-scale massacres of civilians. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Sudan has provided graphic evidence of the SPLA’s premeditated use of terrorism against civilians, terrorism which more than matched the savagery of the Lord’s Resistance Army. He documented an incident in which John Garang’s SPLA forces attacked two villages in Ganyiel region in southern Sudan. The SPLA murdered 210 villagers, of whom 30 were men, 53 were women and 127 were children. The Special Rapporteur stated that:

“Eyewitnesses reported that some of the victims, mostly women, children and the elderly, were caught while trying to escape and killed with spears and pangas. M.N., a member of the World Food Programme relief committee at Panyajor, lost four of her five children (aged 8-15 years). The youngest child was thrown into the fire after being shot. D.K. witnessed three women with their babies being caught. Two of the women were shot and one was killed with a panga. Their babies were all killed with pangas. A total of 1, 987 households were reported destroyed…”. (11)

The United States government in its own ‘Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’ records the SPLA’s responsibility for this incident as well as its refusal to account for the incident. (12) The Ganyiel atrocity is sadly only one of many similar instances of SPLA terrorism. Amnesty International, for example, recorded another instance in which SPLA forces lined up 32 women from the village of Pagau, 12 kilometres from Ayod in southern Sudan, and then shot each once in the head. Eighteen children were reported to have been locked in a hut which was then set on fire. Three children who attempted to escape were then shot. The rest burnt to death. In Paiyoi, an area north-east of Ayod, Amnesty International reported that 36 women were burnt to death in a cattle byre. Nine others were clubbed to death by the SPLA. (13)

The international community has particularly focused upon the Lord’s Resistance Army’s abduction of children and their use as child soldiers. (14) In 1998 it was estimated that the Lord’s Resistance Army had abducted eight thousand children. (15) It is equally well-documented that the SPLA has also long been identified with a planned, long-term policy of abducting children for use by their organisation. The SPLA’s direct role in abducting more than ten thousand young southern Sudanese boys and holding them against their will in abysmal conditions has been well-documented. The United States government’s own ‘Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’ have again placed on record that the SPLA had “forcibly conscripted at least 10 000 male minors” (16) and reiterated that the SPLA continued to use southern men for forced labour and portering. Human Rights Watch/Africa and the Children’s Rights Project published studies which described the removal of young boys from southern Sudan by the SPLA in what has been described as the “warehousing” of children for subsequent use in the war. (17) Once suitably isolated these children are then used for forced labour and then forcibly conscripted into the SPLA. The SPLA’s abduction and gathering of children, and their subsequent treatment, is dealt with over almost thirty pages in ‘Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan’. (18) In a separate study, Human Rights Watch/Africa concluded that: “The primary purpose, however, of luring and keeping thousands of boys away from their families…was, in the judgement of Human Rights Watch, a military purpose. This resulted in the training and recruitment of thousands of underage soldiers who were thrust into battle in southern Sudan and briefly in Ethiopia.” (19)

THuman Rights Watch/Africa has also recorded the almost wanton way in which these boys are used by the SPLA. These children were grouped in what was known as the ‘Red Army’. A SPLA officer stated: “Young people, ages fourteen to sixteen…(when) the Red Army fought…(it) was always massacred…They were not good soldiers because they were too young.” (20) In addition to being responsible for the slaughter of thousands of young boys, often in pointless, “human wave” attacks, the SPLA is also directly responsible for the deaths by starvation or disease of thousands of other minors. Former SPLA Executive member Dr Peter Nyaba has pointed to the SPLA leadership’s direct responsibility for these deaths. “For instance, the officer responsible for Bilpam was not held accountable for the deaths from starvation and related diseases of nearly three thousand Nuba youths under training in 1988. And yet it was known that their food was being sold at the Gambella market, and the proceeds appropriated by the commander. Similarly, the deaths from hunger and starvation of hundreds of recruits in the Dimma refugee camp were not investigated.” (21) The SPLA has attempted to offset criticism of its abduction of children and their use as child soldiers by claiming to have demobilised them. However, in its 2001 report Amnesty International stated that the SPLA continues to forcibly recruit child soldiers. (22)


The United States’ war on terrorism is understandable, in some instances long-overdue, and must be supported by the international community. Washington discredits itself and its anti-terrorist credentials, however, when it engages in blatant double-standards with regard to what constitutes terrorism and which organisations it deems to be engaging in terrorism. Regrettably these double-standards also provide those European and developing world countries who voted the United States off the United Nations Human Rights Commission earlier this year with yet more evidence for their anti-Americanism. (23)

Premeditated SPLA attacks on civilians, if carried out by Osama bin- Laden’s al-Qaeda movement – or the Lord’s Resistance Army – would be deemed by Washington to be terrorism. A premeditated attack on an American owned-or-operated oil installation would undoubtedly be seen as a terrorist attack. Terrorist attacks by the SPLA on civilian oil installations and oil workers, many of them Canadian, would, however, appear not to be a terrorist act in Washington’s eyes. (24) Such a position undoubtedly undermines American credibility in the war on terrorism, and also can only but prolong the Sudanese conflict. It is an open secret that American administrations have militarily supported and encouraged the SPLA in its conflict with the Sudanese government. This has on several occasions been placed on record by former President Jimmy Carter. (25)

Playing politics with terrorism, and ultimately human rights, is unacceptable – all the more so in the wake of the 11 September attacks.


1       President Bush, ‘Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People’, 20 September 2001, Washington-DC.

2       These groups were listed under section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as amended by the post-September 11 ‘USA Patriot Act’.

3       ‘Statement on the Designation of 39 Organisations on the USA Patriot Act’s “Terrorist Exclusion List”‘, Press Statement, Philip T. Reeker, Deputy Spokesman, Department of State, Washington-DC, 6 December 2001.

4       ‘Background Notes: Republic of Uganda, February 1998’, Bureau of African Affairs, Department of State, Washington-DC, February 1998,

5       “Misguided Relief to Sudan”, Editorial, ‘The New York Times’, 6 December, 1999.

6       ‘Denying “The Honor of Living”: Sudan A Human Rights Disaster’, Africa Watch, London, 1989,  pp.116-17.

7       ‘Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’, 1990, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, United States Department of State, Washington-DC, February 1991. p.387.

8       ‘Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’, 1992, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, United States Department of State, Washington-DC, February 1993.

9       “Rag-tag Rebels Fight for Sudan’s Oil Riches”, News Article by Reuters on 14 February 2000 at 14:24:21.

10      See, for example, “Seven People Killed in Attack on Bentiu”, News Article by Agence France Presse, 20 October 2001; “Sudan Rebels Say They Attacked Oil Region Capital”, News Article by Reuters, 21 October 2001

11      ‘Situation of Human Rights in the Sudan’, UN Special Rapporteur Gaspar Biro, E/CN.4/1996/62, 20 February 1996.

12      See, for example, ‘Country Reports on Human Rights Practice’, 1996, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, United States Department of State, Washington-DC, 30 January 1997, p.2.

13      ‘Sudan: The Ravages of War: Political Killings and Humanitarian Disaster’, Amnesty International, London, AI Index: AFR 54/29/93, 29 September 1993,  p.25.

14      See, for example, ‘Breaking God’s Commands: The Destruction of Childhood by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda’, Amnesty International, London, 18 September 1997; “Human Rights Watch Condemns Abduction and Killing of Children by Ugandan Rebel Group”, Human Rights Watch, New York, 18 September 1997; ‘Congressional Human Rights Caucus: Members’ Briefing: The Abduction of Children by Rebel Forces in Northern Uganda’, U.S. Congress, Washington-DC, 10 March 1998; “Abducting Children to Win a War”, ‘Electronic Mail and Guardian’ (Johannesburg),

13 February 1998; and various other reports, articles and resolutions.

15      “Abducting Children to Win a War”, ‘Electronic Mail and Guardian’ (Johannesburg), 13 February 1998

16      ‘Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’, 1991, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, United States Department of State, Washington-DC, February 1993, p.382.

17      ‘Children of Sudan’, Human Rights Watch, New York, 1995, p.75.

18      ‘Civilian Devastation: Abuses by All Parties in the War in Southern Sudan’, Human Rights Watch, New York, 1995 pp.195-224.

19      ‘Children of Sudan’, op. cit., p.75.

20      Human Rights Watch/Africa, press release for ‘Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied Boys in Southern Sudan’, Human Rights Watch, New York, 11 November 1994.

21      Peter Nyaba, ‘The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View’, Fountain Publishers, Kampala, 1997, p.55.

22      See “Sudan”, ‘Amnesty International Report 2001’, London, 2001.

23      See, for example, “U.S. Loses Seat on U.N. Human Rights Commission”, News Article by Associated Press, 3 May 2001; “U.S. Ouster From Rights Body Reflects Hostility”, News Article by Inter-Press Service, 5 May 2001.

24      See, for example, “Press Release: SPLA Forces Destroy Three Oil Wells”, Commander Yasir Said Arman, SPLM Spokesman, 27 January 2001; Press Release: SPLA Attacks Oil Fields’, Dr Samson L. Kwaje, Commissioner for Information and Culture and Official Spokesman, SPLM/SPLA; “Sudan Rebels Say They Attacked Oil Region Capital”, News Article by Reuters, 21 October 2001

25      See, for example, “Carter, Others Say US Has Faltered in Africa”,  ‘The Boston Globe’, 8 December 1999

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