Skip to content

Q&A: A Few Minutes With David Hollenbach, SJ

Fr. David Hollenbach being introduced to the South Sudan National Legislative Assembly by Debuty Speaker Daniel Awet Akot

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Mar. 29, 2012

University Professor in Human Rights and International Justice David Hollenbach, SJ — director of the Boston College Center for Human Rights and International Justice — is an expert on humanitarian crises and the displacement of refugees, and has spent considerable time researching conflicts and issues in Africa. He has been particularly interested in the ongoing crisis in Sudan, and now, in the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Fr. Hollenbach recently discussed his work in an interview with the Chronicle.
You’ve been to South Sudan several times, even before it became a country. Talk about your most recent visit.

Earlier this month, I gave a lecture series to the South Sudan national legislature, titled “The Challenge of Human Dignity, Justice, and the Common Good in the Republic of South Sudan.” The five lectures were on such topics as respect for dignity and ethnic identity, justice, human rights, civil society and restorative justice. This was sponsored by the Catholic Relief Services and Solidarity with South Sudan — a consortium of Catholic religious orders — in collaboration with the Catholic Archdiocese of Juba, the capital city.
There are 250 legislators, and about a third of them were on hand for the lectures, which is a good turnout.
The establishment of South Sudan as a country independent of Sudan last year came after a long, bloody civil war, but it hasn’t truly resolved the conflict, has it?
There are still enormous tensions between South Sudan and the Sudanese government in Khartoum — under Omar Hassan al-Bashir — in the North. One major issue is where the border between the countries falls. This is an issue because the old Sudan was a major oil supplier to China, but when South Sudan went independent it took 80 percent of the oil reserves with it. But the pipeline that carries the oil to the coast, where it can be exported, runs through Sudan — which wants to charge South Sudan $36 a barrel to transport it. When the South refused to pay, the North started seizing the oil and selling it, so the South turned off the oil. Now, nobody benefits from it.
You describe South Sudan as suffering from a “Resource Curse.” Can you explain what that is?
A so-called “resource curse” is possible, not yet actual. The people in the South are desperately poor to begin with, and now, without the oil, there is no income for development purposes. But even if the South were able to build a pipeline through Kenya — which would take years — and be able to derive benefits from supplying oil, the question now becomes one of how the resources are used, whether they truly benefit the people, or the elites. That would be the kind of situation that we’ve seen lead to civil war in countries.

The arrest of actor George Clooney earlier this month at the Sudan embassy in Washington, DC, caused a media stir — but the focus seemed to be more on him than on what he was protesting. What’s the background?
It’s a complicated, and quite tragic, set of circumstances. There is a district in the North, in Sudan, called Nuba Mountains, whose people were allied with South Sudan in the civil war. Khartoum thinks the Nubans want independence to either join the South or become a separate country, which would cause a problem for Sudan — Nuba Mountains are in the only remaining part of the North that has oil reserves. So, Khartoum has instigated heavy bombing of the Nuba, and refused humanitarian aid, and there are an estimated half a million people who could starve within a month from  now. That’s what Clooney and the others were trying to draw attention to.

While there is talk of international intervention in Nuba Mountains, there is a dilemma: Catholic Relief Services is trying to feed almost a million people in Darfur, and if there is intervention in Nuba Mountains, their concern is they will be expelled from Darfur. So, essentially, you trade trying to help a million people in one place to trying to help half a million in another.
The problems South Sudan faces are often depicted in terms of its troubled history with Khartoum. But aren’t tensions within South Sudan itself a cause for concern?

South Sudan — which is about the combined size of Spain and Portugal — began independence with about 35 miles of paved roads. Outside Juba, most of the population is cattle-herders, who tend to move wherever they can find water, or farmers. There are 60 diverse ethnicities and languages, and South Sudan faces the challenge of pulling them all together. South Sudan is trying to build a new state, but first it needs to create a national identity across tribal boundaries.

But the situation really does need a lot of context. Don’t forget, the civil war in Sudan lasted 25 years, and resulted in the deaths of more than two million people and the displacement of four million others. The conflict was built around economic, religion and racial factors: the North being heavily Muslim, the South being Christian or observant of traditional African religion; the North is Arab, the South is African — or “those blacks,” as they were referred to in the North. The North also called them abd, which is Arab for “slave,” and that is in fact how they treated them.

So, when you’re trying to create a new national identity and move forward, how do you deal with the anger, the pain and the memories of the past war? The president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, is extraordinarily committed to avoiding another North-South war and he’s been handling the provocations from the North quite well. He knows how deeply destructive the war was to South Sudan.

How can South Sudan achieve that national identity?

One of the important players in South Sudan is the Catholic Church, which is almost the only functioning institution that is trans-tribal and trans-village. The Church has the structure to help create a civil society. It played a key role in the 2011 referendum, when 90 percent of South Sudan voted for independence.

In talking about the need to get people to think about national questions, and about the need to hold the Juba government accountable, the Church can help develop civic consciousness, and drive home the point that democracy is more than just about free elections.

Despite all the problems it faces, is South Sudan upbeat about its status as an independent nation?

When I was there last August, just after the people had officially voted to become independent, there was extraordinary joy about being released from the North. As poor as it is, South Sudan is very happy to be on its own.