Sudan: Ending impunity in Darfur

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Walt Kilroy, in Trócaire's East Africa Regional Office.

Peace talks between the Sudanese government and the two rebel groups involved in the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region are expected to resume on Friday, June 10. The negotiations, aiming to put an end to the war in Sudan, were originally due to resume on May 30, but were delayed by the parties involved.

The two-year old conflict in Darfur has killed between 180,000 and 300,000 people and displaced more than two million and is considered to be one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.

The International Criminal Court's announcement that is has launched a formal investigation into the serious human rights abuses which have taken place in Darfur is an important step on the road to ending the culture of impunity. For too long, the most appalling abuses in Darfur have been carefully documented but have gone unpunished.

The Court's investigation is a landmark in itself: it's the first time that the UN Security Council has used its power to refer a case to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

It followed a detailed investigation by a UN Commission of Inquiry, which found that war crimes or crimes against humanity had probably occurred in Darfur. The evidence of extra-judicial killings, the systematic use of rape, ethnic cleansing, and repeated attacks on civilians had been clear for many months.

The fact that it took three months of behind-the-scenes negotiations at the UN Security Council before it could decide on what do to is not a good reflection on the members of the Council. Some put their own perceived national interest ahead of the desperate needs of the people of Darfur.

Concerns about oil exploration (China), arms sales (Russia), and an ideological opposition to the Court (USA) were all weighed up against real action by the Security Council.

In the end, it referred the situation to the ICC last March, when the US agreed to allow it go through by abstaining. It involves 51 individuals. The Sudanese government has reacted strongly, and says it will not allow its citizens to be taken before court. Demonstrations were organised, and international NGOs and UN agencies working on relief in Darfur found themselves in an uncomfortable situation in Sudan. Quite apart from the issue of how these 51 people might be arrested and taken to the Hague, the legal process of indicting them will also take many months.

But it has already had a political and symbolic effect. Sudan has said it will set up its own court system. (The UN Commission of Inquiry indicated that the legal system was unwilling and unable to address the situation). If this does really happen, and if it operates in a just and effective manner, it would help to tackle the culture of impunity which has been such a important part of the problem in Darfur. There are many others besides those referred to the ICC whose crimes must be addressed. But this will require real change.

Other forms of redress should also be considered, especially those which are in line with indigenous mechanisms for administering justice. Paying some form of compensation to those who have suffered attacks could be one way of recognising the wrong that was done, and of facilitating a process of communal healing. Special efforts must also be made to deal sensitively with the issue of rape, which has been common in this conflict. New approaches and training are needed at all levels.

So far, there is little sign of this. The systematic use of rape has been well documented for many months by the UN and reputable agencies, often implicating the Janjaweed and government forces. Yet those women with the courage to report being attacked have faced obstacles and even arrest by the Sudanese authorities. Rather than dealing with the perpetrators, officials from Médicins sans Frontières (MSF) were arrested and charged in May, after their organisation issued a report documenting the systematic use of rape in Darfur.

While many thousands of lives have been saved by the massive relief effort in Darfur, others continue to die needlessly. The immediate needs are still huge: the number of displaced people is now 1.9 million - more than twice the figure of a year ago, when the world was finally waking up to Darfur's crisis. As the rainy season gets underway, people should be preparing to plant their crops.

But a third of Darfur's population has been displaced, so for the second time, an entire year's harvest will be lost for many people. The World Food Programme now estimates that 3.5 million people in Darfur will need food aid in the coming months. With many villages emptied and burnt out, the worst of the attacks on civilians may be over; but their suffering continues.

Darfur's nightmare is not inevitable. It can be tackled if all parties work together, rather than treating each other as the enemy. We know what is needed. The attacks on civilians and relief workers must end; many more African Union monitors must be deployed, with a stronger mandate to protect civilians; and those responsible must be brought to justice.

Both the government and the rebel groups must engage seriously in the African Union-sponsored talks in Abuja, which finally resume in June, more than six months after they last adjourned.

If not, the hundreds of thousands who are already estimated to have died will be joined by yet more. The point when action was needed was a long time ago. As the toll mounts, we should aim to act decisively before we are numbed and become accustomed to the situation - while others learn the lesson that they can carry out the most appalling acts with impunity.