Background Briefing

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Since February 2003, Darfur has been the scene of massive crimes against civilians of particular ethnicities in the context of an internal conflict between the Sudanese government and a rebel insurgency. Almost two million people have been forcibly displaced and stripped of all their property and tens of thousands of people have been killed, raped or assaulted.1 Even against this backdrop of extreme violence against civilians, several incidents in March 2004 stand out for the extraordinary level of brutality demonstrated by the perpetrators. In one incident, Sudanese government and “Janjaweed”2 militia forces detained and then conducted mass executions of more than 200 farmers and community leaders of Fur ethnicity in the Wadi Saleh area of West Darfur. In a second incident in neighboring Shattaya locality, government and militia forces attacked Fur civilians, detained them in appalling conditions for weeks, and subjected many to torture.

To date, the Sudanese government has neither improved security for civilians nor ended the impunity enjoyed by its own officials and allied militia leaders. Immediate action including an increased international presence in rural areas of Darfur is needed to improve protection of civilians and reverse ethnic cleansing. International prosecutions are also essential to provide accountability for crimes against humanity and ensure justice for the victims in Darfur. The Sudanese government is clearly unwilling and unable to hold perpetrators of atrocities to account: a presidential inquiry into abuses recently disputed evidence of widespread and systematic abuses and instead of prosecutions, recommended the formation of a committee.3   The United Nations Security Council, following receipt of the January 25th report of the international commission of inquiry’s investigation into violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law and allegations of genocide in Darfur, should promptly refer the situation of Darfur to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.

[1] See Human Rights Watch reports: Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan, Vol.16, No.5 (A), April 2004, Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan, Vol.16, No. 6(A), May 2004, “Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia Support,” July 20, 2004, “Empty Promises: Continuing Abuses in Darfur, Sudan,” August 11, 2004, and “If We Return We Will Be Killed,” November 2004.

[2] The term “Janjaweed” has become the source of increasing controversy, with different actors using the term in very different ways.  The term historically referred to criminals, bandits or outlaws.  In the wake of the conflict in Darfur, many “African” victims of attacks have used the term to refer to the government-backed militias attacking their villages, many of whom are drawn from nomadic groups of Arab ethnic origin.  Victims have also used other terms, such as “fursan” and “peshmarga” to describe these government-backed militias.  The Sudanese government and members of the government-backed militias themselves reject the name “Janjaweed”, see “Sudan Arabs Reject Marauding ‘Janjaweed’ Image,” Reuters, July 12, 2004. Other terms used by the Sudanese government include the terms “outlaws” and “Tora Bora,” to refer to the rebels, and the terms “knights,” “mujaheeden” or “horsemen” which appear to refer to members of its own militias. See also “Who are the Janjaweed?” in Human Rights Watch report, Empty Promises: Continuing Abuses in Darfur, Sudan, pp.11-13.

[3] “Sudan inquiry denies Darfur genocide,” Agence France Presse, January 20, 2004, at

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