Propaganda war over Sudanese oil displacements

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USCR, 29 March - Earlier this month, the renown UK organisation Christian Aid presented a thorough documentation on the link between oil development in Southern Sudan and forced displacement of civilians. Sources close to the Sudanese government say Christian Aid is "prolonging war in Sudan" with its report, Christian Aid says this attack "was expected" and UN sources tell afrol News they need more documentation. 

On 15 March, afrol News reported about Christian Aid's new documentation to the old claims that there is a link between oil development and forced displacement and other human rights violations of civilians in Southern Sudan. Christian Aid's report "The scorched earth: oil and war in Sudan," presented new eyewitness testimonies showing that Sudanese government forces and sponsored militias are mounting a systematic "scorched earth" strategy in and around the oilfields where foreign companies operate. The report quotes displaced civilians as saying their villages were attacked by air before government troops burned down their homes and killed those unable to flee. 

Against the overwhelming documentation presented by Christian Aid, the director of the European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, David Hoile, published a ten-page counter report. Hoile claims that Christian Aid's report bad been based "upon faulty or partisan material, with at least one of their central sources being a noted Islamophobe with a track record of gross exaggeration." Hoyle also accuses Christian Aid of "partnership with pro-rebel groups" and of "dictating to the poverty-stricken largely Muslim Sudanese people what they may or may not do with their natural resources." 

Hoile's European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council is known as a pro-Government of Sudan group, which regularly publishes documents attacking NGO reports that are critical of the situation in Sudan. These attacks "are circulated widely through blind email addresses or are distributed by the Embassy of Sudan in London," Dan Silvey, Senior Policy Officer at Christian AID today told "This attack by David Hoile was expected and puts us in the company of Amnesty International and the Interchurch Coalition on Africa (Canada) who both issued reports on oil in the last year to which Hoile responded," Silvey continued. 

Hoile however claims to have the support of the UN agency World Food Programme (WFP), the international organisation with the most massive representation in the Sudanese field. According to Hoile, a WFP officer "was directly asked to comment on ... allegations of displacement around Bentiu [Southern Sudan]" by the news agency Reuters, to which he, again according to Hoile, responded: "At this point in time, however, there is unfortunately far too little information available." Hoile concludes that this WFP statement "fundamentally undermines the entire gist of the Christian Aid report."

afrol News confronted WFP with the alleged statement, made in February 2001. Masood Hyder, WFP's Country Representative in Sudan rushed to answer afrol News that the quotation had been taken out of its context. Furthermore, Reuters had "misquoted WFP and we subsequently insisted on a clarification," said Hyder. 

On 22 February, WFP Deputy Country Director, Nick Siwingwa, had written to Reuters on this aspect, stating WFP's position. Siwingwa specified:

"Currently WFP provides food assistance to displaced people in a number of locations in Unity State including Bentiu and Rubkona in Government-controlled areas. These are locations in the general area described as the oil concessions zone. Our position on displacement around the oil fields in Sudan is that we have witnessed an increasing number of internally displaced people who have required food assistance in these areas. These are indeed people forcibly removed from their homes due to war. They did not choose to flee for their lives. Their numbers have increased from 29,230 at the beginning of the year 2000 to the current figure of 36,539, and with 28% malnutrition rates as reported by our field monitors."

"As southern Sudan remains embroiled in almost 20 years of civil war, which is rendered more complex by widespread inter-factional and inter-tribal fighting and militia activities, tragically, populations are being displaced almost continuously. The oil-rich area of Sudan has seen a great deal of population displacement and in fact, is currently one of the most insecure areas in Sudan."

"Therefore, it is entirely possible and feasible that oil interests in this area have exacerbated the uprooting of people from their homes. In what way? This is precisely what the Canadian government and other parties have been investigating, and what WFP and other humanitarian agencies are most anxious to know at this point in time, however, there is unfortunately far too little information available."

Asking Hyder to comment whether the new documentation presented by Christian Aid does change the WFP position that still is "far too little information available" to determine the link between oil development and forced displacement, he told afrol News "the Christian Aid report reflects their position, based on information they have gathered which is mostly second-hand or from testimonials. We have no way of verifying whether the content of their report is valid or not."

Hyder claims that "many points raised are ones that have been said by other organizations or by displaced people in Southern Sudan. Unfortunately, even in the Christian Aid report, hard, first-hand evidence to make the direct linkage you're referring to is missing. Lack of access to locations in question (either by Government denied locations or insecurity on the ground) is a major obstacle."

Christian Aid's Dan Silvey maintains that thorough documentation is provided. "I don't agree that our testimony from survivors displaced from the oil areas is second hand information - however it is true that it is difficult to get access into the oil concession areas, and certainly once there, it is difficult to get people to speak freely (as security/escorts are provided by Government of Sudan). That is why we think the silence of the oil companies, who are present and could speak out, indicates complicity in the ongoing human rights abuses." 

- We feel our report does add to Amnesty, UN and Canadian Government publications about what is happening in the oil fields and are calling on governments and oil companies to act now, rather than setting up further enquiries," says Silvey. Christian Aid had called for oil companies to suspend their oil related activities in Sudan. 

WFP, though present in Southern Sudan, has so far not been able to document that the increase in displacements is directly linked to oil development, though they are not ruling it out. Says Hyder about the data available to WFP: " We have only what we may hear from beneficiaries in locations where we feed displaced people - that they've been uprooted from their homes. Their statements however cite a mixture of causes - sometimes naming the government, sometimes militia, sometimes other reasons. In other words, there is no clear pattern therefore without further investigation, one cannot conclude." 

While WFP and Christian Aid disagree that sufficient documentation is provided to document "a clear pattern", they agree that further investigations in the affected area are desired. Christian Aid however maintains that documentation is sufficient to ask oil companies to take immediate action. 

Meanwhile, David Hoile's European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council, stands quite alone aside the Sudanese government in totally dismissing the increasing documentation about a link between oil development and forced displacements in Southern Sudan. Its "propaganda war" against NGOs documenting this link is met by rejection. The WFP, although not commenting directly on Hoile's report, did not want to be attached to his views. "No one should take [WFP's statements on Sudan] out of context or eliminate sections in order to distort it," Hyder says. 

Silvey does not want to lose too much time on "David Hoile's piece" as "we feel this distracts attention from the real issue - which is the role of oil in fuelling the war against civilians in Sudan." He however comments: "David Hoile's ten-page attack on Christian Aid is interesting for what it doesn't say. At no point does he attempt to engage with the argument that Christian Aid puts forward, nor does he try to rebut any of our evidence. Instead, he seeks to discredit Christian Aid by saying that we are anti-Muslim and pro-rebel movements."

Christian Aid's report surely has added to the growing amount of information about the situation in the oil fields and has called for there to be free access given by the government of Sudan and the SPLA to UN human rights monitors and UN relief agencies to the areas under their control. "Rather than seeking to hide what is happening in the oil fields, as the Government of Sudan, through David Hoile, and the oil companies seem to be doing, Christian Aid is calling for action by all those concerned for peace in Sudan, to act to stop the commercial production of oil being used to perpetuate and extend the war in Sudan," states Silvey. 

The "propaganda war" on Southern Sudan is in the process of drowning in documentation. Further documentation is expected to be initiated soon, as the Swedish government is reported to be contemplating a mission to oil areas operated by the Swedish company Lundin. Further, today, the UN Special Rapporteur on Sudan, Gerhard Baum, will present his report on the human rights situation to the UN, and comments on the situation in the oil producing areas are expected.


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