Special Report: "Asleep at the Wheel: Comparing the Performance of Human Rights NGOs on Sudan and Arab-Israeli Issues"

For most of the 20 years of ethnic, religious and racial violence in Sudan, in which over two million people have been killed and over four million displaced, the "international human rights community" expressed relatively limited interest in this human tragedy. It was only in 2003, after the Moslem Arab-led government opened a new front against the Moslem Black population in the western province of Darfur [1], that reports of mass killing got the attention of the human rights community, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission and the NGOs.[2]

At this stage, the major human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others responded with a flurry of reports and press releases.[3] Along with the media, the U.S., and some other Western governments, these organizations deserve some credit for drawing the world’s attention to the atrocities being committed in Darfur. (Amnesty International, for example, recognized the dangers in Darfur quite early, expressing its concern first in January 2003). [4]

However, such activity only serves to highlight the low profile of these "universal human-rights" NGOs, while the massive and systematic violations were being carried out in the south of Sudan. For many years, the extent and severity of the human rights violations against the southern non-Moslem tribes was public knowledge. On March 7, 2001 US Secretary of State Colin Powell, referring to the North-South Sudanese conflict, told Congress that "there is perhaps no greater tragedy on the face of the earth."[5] On March 24, 2001, the New York Times reported that "the Sudanese Government in Khartoum bombs southern villages and blocks food relief flights to areas where it wants the population to starve."[6] In June 2001, the U.N.’s International Labour Organisation published a report concluding that in Sudan (as well as in three other African countries[7]) "the wholesale abduction of individuals and communities is not uncommon."[8] And on October 13, 2001, the New York Times reported eyewitness accounts of murder, abductions, and property destruction against the southern Sudanese.[9]

As a result of these reports, human rights NGOs, such as HRW, Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, etc., should have been very aware of the scale of these human rights violations in Sudan. Yet, as Prof. Don Habibi has noted, "despite the scale, scope, and duration of this genocide, it was never a priority on the agendas of AI, HRW or the UN." Amnesty International, the "world’s largest private human rights organization," and possibly its most prolific, managed to produce a total of 7 reports on Sudan during this time period ( March 7, 2001 to October 13, 2001). [10] 5 of those reports addressed the arrest and imprisonment of specific human rights lawyers. One mentioned the massive human rights violations being committed by the Sudanese military and allied forces. However, this report was not addressed to the government in Khartoum, the Arab League, or the UN, but to the Canadian oil company, Talisman Energy.

Where then were AI’s attentions focused during this time? The record shows that this organization allocated most of its resources to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the period in which AI produced 7 reports on the Sudan, it published and released 39 reports on "Israel/Occupied Territories," the vast majority consisting of one-sided condemnations of Israel, including charges of "war crimes" – a term rarely used with respect to Sudan.[11] While ignoring the large-scale and systematic bombing and destruction of Sudanese villages, AI issued numerous condemnations of the razing of Palestinian houses,[12] most of which were used as sniper nests or belonged to terrorists. Although failing to decry the slaughter of thousands of civilians by Sudanese government and allied troops, AI managed to criticize Israel’s "assassinations" of active terrorist leaders.[13]

Expanding the analysis beyond this critical period to the overall record of AI from September 2000 until the beginning of 2003 when it became active in the crisis in Darfur, the results are very similar. During this 27-month interval, AI issued 52 reports on the Sudan. [14] In comparison, AI officials and researchers issued almost four times as many reports, 192, for ‘Israel/OT’.[15] This lack of balance and objectivity and apparent political bias is entirely inconsistent with AI’s official stated mission.

This extreme disparity in resource allocation is not simply characteristic of these specific time periods, or of Amnesty International alone among the self-proclaimed human rights NGO network. Indeed, these symptoms are reflective and indicative of the highly politicized agenda of these organizations. As in the case of AI, Human Rights Watch has displayed a similar disproportionate allocation of resources and emphases. Since its first statement on Darfur, on March 9, 2004[16], HRW has issued 37 reports on the situation there. However during the mass human rights violations that occurred in southern Sudan before this date, the group was not nearly as attentive. From September 2000 (the start of the wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence) until March 2004, HRW issued a total of 40 reports for Sudan.[17] This was less than half the number of reports issued on "Israel/Occupied territories".[18] In fact, HRW’s attention was so focused on Israel during this time period, that it issued more reports for ‘Israel/OT’ than it did for Libya, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan combined.

The International Commission of Jurists, another major human rights organization that lays similar claims to impartiality in defending human rights, has displayed a similar unbalanced focus. This NGO issued 19 reports for Israel/Palestine since September 2000 (almost entirely hostile to Israeli policy, and largely ignoring Palestinian terrorism)[19], as opposed to a total of 6 for Sudan.[20]

The disproportionate and unbalanced allocation of resources and public relations emphases reinforces other evidence leading to the conclusion that these major human rights organizations carefully select their "targets" on the basis of a clear political and ideological agenda. This agenda damages their credibility and affects the credibility of the human rights community as a whole.

The real tragedy, however, belongs to the millions of black African Sudanese whose lives have been destroyed in mass campaigns of murder, rape, abductions, and forced displacement. They are the ones who bear the costs of the political biases of the human rights NGOs that use their resources to promote private agendas, while failing to fulfill their proclaimed objectives of drawing the world’s attention to the most grievous of human rights violations.

Asher Ahuvia Fredman
NGO Monitor


  1. For many years, the violence resulted from fighting between the Arab Islamic minority in the North (with its southern allies), and the black African Christian and animist South. "Sudan’s Perfect War", Randolph Martin, Foreign Affairs, March-April, 2002 (Vol. 82, No. 2). In 2003, a new front was opened when the dominant Moslem Arab sectors and their allies began attacks against Black (non-Arab) Moslems in Darfur, in which tens of thousands have been killed and more than a million have been displaced. "U.S. Congress declares ‘genocide’ in Sudan", Associated Press, July 23, 2004
  2. Don Habibi, "Human Rights NGOs and the Neglect of Sudan," University of North Carolina at Wilmington, July 2, 2004. () http://www.ngo-monitor.org/archives/news/sudan.doc
  3. See www.amnesty.org and www.hrw.org.
  4. See "Sudan: Preliminary conclusions of Amnesty International’s mission".
  5. Quoted in Anthony Lewis, "No Greater Tragedy", New York Times, March 24, 2001.
  6. Anthony Lewis, "No Greater Tragedy," New York Times, March 24, 2001.
  7. Liberia, Mauritania, and Sierra Leone.
  8. Reported in ‘Human trafficking on the rise’, ( www.cnn.com), July 5, 2001).
  9. Norimitsu Onishi, "Sudan Government Tops List of Those Causing Agony for Oil", New York Times, October 13, 2001.
  10. http://web.amnesty.org/library/eng-sdn/index. Statistics for Amnesty are based on country searches of www.amnesty.org, (‘library’ section).
  11. http://web.amnesty.org/library/eng-isr/index. For an analysis of political bias in Amnesty’s reports, see "Amnesty and Human Rights Issues in the Arab-Israeli Conflict," NGO Monitor, Vol. 1 No. 4, 27 February 2004; "Human Rights’ Organizations Join in Distorting Israeli Policy – A Critical Analysis," NGO Monitor, Vol. 1 No. 9, 24 June 2003; and "Amnesty’s Latest Report Grossly Unbalanced," NGO Monitor, Vol. 2 No. 1, 11 September 2003.
  12. See for example 4/15/2001-"Israel: House Destruction-Palestinian civilians." and "Amnesty International Update – 2004 Annual Report," NGO Monitor, Vol 2. No. 10, 15 June 2004.
  13. "Israel and the Occupied Territories: State Assassination Policy Must Stop." and "One-Sided Condemnation of Assassination of Hamas Leader Sheikh Yassin," NGO Monitor, 31 March 2004.
  14. http://web.amnesty.org/library/eng-sdn/index. For further evaluation of this pattern see Don Habibi’s report "Human Rights NGOs and the Neglect of Sudan."
  15. http://web.amnesty.org/library/eng-sdn/index. See Don Habibi’s article ( "Human Rights NGOs and the Neglect of Sudan,") as well as "’Human Rights’ Organizations Join in Distorting Israeli Policy – A Critical Analysis," NGO Monitor, Vol 1. No. 9, 24 June 2003.
  16. http://hrw.org/doc?t=africa&c=sudan
  17. http://www.hrw.org/doc?t=africa&c=sudan . Statistics for HRW are based on country searches of www.hrw.org.
  18. http://www.hrw.org/doc?t=mideast&c=isrlpa . For more on HRW’s record on reporting on the Middle East see "Summary Report on Human Rights Watch," NGO Monitor, April 14, 2004; "’Human Rights’ Organizations Join in Distorting Israeli Policy – A Critical Analysis," NGO Monitor, 24 June 2003; and "Human Rights Watch: Continuing the Anti-Israel Campaign," NGO Monitor, 15 April 2004.
  19. See "Palestinian Affiliates of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)," NGO Monitor, Vol. 1. No. 6, 31 March 2003.
  20. Statistics for ICJ are based on country searches of www.icj.org (legal resource center).