Help the people of Darfur: reclaim Sudan's stolen oil

Oil theft fuels the genocide. The US can stop it by creating a Clean Hands Trust.

Imagine that a soldier named Bashir overthrows the United States government. Bashir's militias leave everyone in Pittsburgh dead, and force everyone in Nevada to flee their homes. Bashir puts Alaska under military rule, and trades its oil to China for weapons and money that he will use to seize the oil fields of Texas.

Gen. Omar al-Bashir overthrew the government of Sudan in 1989. Since his militias attacked in Darfur, Sudanese in numbers equal to the population of Pittsburgh have been killed, and Nevada-sized numbers have fled their homes. Mr. Bashir has traded Sudan's oil to China for billions in arms and cash, and is eyeing the oil fields of south Sudan.

The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has demanded that Bashir be arrested for crimes against humanity. Steven Spielberg cut ties with the Beijing Olympics in protest of China's support for Bashir. And the US government has responded to Bashir's gross violations of human rights by declaring a genocide in Darfur and tightening economic sanctions.

These efforts are admirable, but we need to stop Bashir's power at its source: stolen oil. The oil that Bashir sends to China is not his to sell. America should act to safeguard Sudan's oil for its rightful owners: the people of Sudan.

The principle at stake is that the natural resources of a country belong to the people of that country. George W. Bush insisted on this principle for Iraq's oil: "The oil belongs to the Iraqi people," Bush said, "It's their asset." Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei have proclaimed this principle for the oil in their own countries.

All of these leaders are asserting one of the deepest ideas in modern international law. As article 1 of the dominant human rights treaty (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) puts it: "All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources..."

But the citizens of Sudan cannot now freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources – far from it. Millions of Sudanese are barely surviving in the armed chaos created by Bashir's thugs; millions more are girding for Bashir's next military assaults.

What Bashir is doing in Sudan is like a gang leader selling your car after shooting your family and tying you up. Bashir is wrenching oil from the country not by right, but by force. Which means that when China pays Bashir for Sudan's oil, China is quite literally buying stolen goods.

This black market in Sudan's oil is disastrous for the Sudanese, and it affects Americans too. Stolen Sudanese oil percolates through China's factories, becoming part of the Chinese imports that Americans buy every day. Right now, Americans can't help dirtying their hands with stolen Sudanese oil when they buy Chinese imports at Wal-Mart and Costco.

The US government can protect the American people and the Sudanese people together. The US should immediately establish a Clean Hands Trust for the people of Sudan. This trust is a bank account that the US government will fill to match the value of any oil that China buys from Bashir. The trust will be funded by duties on Chinese imports entering the US. That money will be held in trust until it can be turned over to a decent government in Sudan that respects the basic rights of all of Sudan's citizens.

This is a win-win-win policy. The duties will prevent American consumers from being tainted with stolen Sudanese oil. The trust will save the value of that oil for the oil's true owners: the Sudanese people. And the policy will give China a big incentive to help ease Bashir from power, instead of funding his next bloody civil war.

Bashir cannot stay in power if he cannot trade Sudan's oil for weapons and cash. The US can stop Bashir by denying that his ability to terrorize the Sudanese people gives him the right to sell off Sudan's natural wealth.

Leif Wenar is the incoming chair of ethics at the School of Law, King's College London.

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