Rhetoric on Darfur Needs to be Backed by Action

Nov 17, 2004 12:34 AM EST

The New York-based non-governmental organisation made the appeal in Nairobi on Monday during the launch of a new report on the political and humanitarian crisis in Darfur entitled ‘If We Return, We Will Be Killed’.

This came ahead of a visit to the Kenyan capital by the Security Council – which will mark one of the few instances in which the body is being convened away from the UN in New York.

The council will meet in Nairobi on Nov. 18 and 19 to throw its weight behind talks to end another conflict in Sudan – the 21-year civil war between Islamic authorities in Khartoum, and Christian and animist rebels in the south of the country.

However, the situation in Darfur – where government is accused of persecuting civilians while seeking to put down a rebellion – is also expected to feature high on the council’s agenda.

Addressing journalists in Nairobi, Human Rights Watch (HRW) counsel and researcher for Sudan – Jemera Rone – dismissed as ineffective previous UN resolutions on Darfur.

"The UN and the international community as a whole slackened to take action on Darfur. The UN has not acted adequately on this issue," she said.

Noted Michael Clough, deputy director for the Africa division of HRW, "We hope the UN Security Council will be more clear on actions to be taken against the Sudan government if it fails to disarm the Janjaweed."

The Janjaweed ("men on horseback") – Arab militias – have been accused of terrorizing the members of three ethnic groups in Darfur which are suspected of giving support to two rebel factions – the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Low-level conflict between nomadic Arabs and settled farmers from the Fur, Masaalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups has persisted for years. However, attacks by the Janjaweed appear to have been stepped up after February 2003, when the SLA/M and the JEM took up arms against Khartoum, accusing authorities of neglecting the needs of those living in Darfur.

Sudan’s government is accused of creating a proxy force by backing the Arab militias, who have reportedly engaged in mass killings, and the abduction and rape of women and girls. Houses are also said to have been torched and crops destroyed in what some term a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

UN figures indicate that about 70,000 people have been killed in the violence, while over 1.5 million people have fled their homes, some to neighbouring Chad.

While Khartoum has promised to disarm the Janjaweed and restore security to Darfur, HRW says nothing of the sort has occurred.

"HRW received numerous accounts of people who had attempted to return to their villages during the 2004 planting season starting in May-June; they intended to assess security and try to plant crops," notes Monday’s report.

"The vast majority of returnees were forced to flee again due to continuing harassment, intimidation, and violence at the hands of government militia or nomads benefiting from the collapse of law and order, and the opportunity to graze livestock on the ample farmlands previously denied (to) them," it adds.

"Some nomads began farming, or hiring others to farm deserted farms," observes the 43-page document, which also accuses the rebels of abducting civilians and stealing their property.

As a result, HRW believes the UN should extend an arms embargo on the Sudanese government, freeze the assets of high-ranking officials and impose a travel ban on them. It has also floated a proposal for government to pay reparations to the victims of human rights abuses in Darfur, using Sudan’s oil revenues.

For its part, the Sudanese government maintains that civilians in Darfur are going back to their homes at will. Last week, Humanitarian Affairs Minister Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid told journalists in Nairobi that 270,000 displaced persons had returned to their villages, "not forced by government but at their own free will".

On Nov. 9, Sudan, the SLA/M and the JEM signed two accords aimed at improving security in Darfur and improving the humanitarian situation there – this during a second round of peace talks held under the auspices of the African Union (AU). The parties met in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja (Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo is currently chair of the AU).

About 700 AU troops have been deployed in Darfur to monitor a ceasefire signed by government and the rebels in April this year. However, the union has pledged to increase this number to more than 3,000 in the coming months. HRW says it is essential for the AU force in Darfur to be expanded, and given a mandate to protect civilians.

On the topic of a final peace agreement between Khartoum and southern rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), HRW has expressed concern at "the absence of any substantive human rights language in the Naivasha peace accord" – claiming that this has a direct bearing on Darfur.

Government has been holding talks since 2002 with the SPLM/A in Kenya under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, a regional grouping.

To date, the parties have signed a number of accords in the southern Kenyan town of Naivasha. These include provisions for the creation of a government of national unity, and a referendum on self-determination for southern Sudan about six years after a final ceasefire has been agreed on.

However, "The Naivasha peace agreement does not address how it will tackle human rights abuses. No truth commissions or anything to address past abuses has been stipulated in the signed agreement," said Rone.

"The agreement fails to address action on human rights perpetrators in the war in southern Sudan and the impunity, which has trickled down to Darfur," she added.