Background Briefing

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Since early 2003, Sudanese government forces and government-backed ethnic militias known as “Janjaweed” have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity and ”ethnic cleansing” in the Darfur region of Sudan.1 They have targeted for abuse civilians belonging to the same ethnic groups as members of two rebel movements, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). More than two million people of the region’s estimated population of 6 million have been directly affected by the conflict through attacks on villages, killings, sexual violence, looting of livestock and household goods, destruction of property, and other abuses. An additional two million people have been affected by the near total collapse of the region’s economy.

According to recent United Nations figures, the attacks have led to the deaths of at least 180,000 people and the displacement of more than 2.5 million others.2  Most of the displaced people remain in Sudan as “internally displaced persons,” but an estimated 200,000 have sought refuge in Chad and are refugees as defined by the 1969 OAU Convention on the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa;3 many are also considered prima facie refugees4 who are entitled to the protections of the 1951 Refugee Convention until their status can be determined.5

Rape and sexual violence against women and girls has been a prominent feature of the “ethnic cleansing” campaign carried out by government forces and militias, both during and following displacement in Darfur.6 Once displaced into camps in Darfur, or into refugee camps in Chad, women and girls continue to suffer sexual and gender-based violence. As discussed below, rape and sexual violence have numerous social, economic and medical consequences, including increasing the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS as a result of the violence.

Although reported HIV prevalence rates in Sudan are currently low compared with neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Chad, the current estimation of 2.3% among the adult population is widely believed to be an underestimate based on poor sentinel surveillance and is likely to be significantly higher. The high levels of sexual violence and displacement which have been features of the Darfur conflict create a risk of increased transmission of HIV/AIDS, particularly as it is recognized that the combination of conflict, sexual violence and displacement offers fertile ground for the transmission of the disease.7

In February 2005, Human Rights Watch undertook two research missions, one to the refugee camps in Chad and another to the displaced persons camps in South Darfur, to conduct research on patterns of sexual and gender-based violence and the response of local and international actors.8 This document does not provide a comprehensive assessment of the many complex issues related to sexual and gender-based violence, nor does it evaluate the diverse response to date on the part of humanitarian agencies providing services in Chad and Darfur. Instead Human Rights Watch seeks to highlight some of the most important elements in the patterns of sexual and gender-based violence—including the urgent need for protection from ongoing violence—and stress the need for an appropriate response.

Despite the existence of clear standards for responding to sexual and gender-based violence, including in the context of conflict, Human Rights Watch’s research to date suggests that humanitarian agencies are not implementing these guidelines on a systematic basis in Darfur and Chad. It is vital that donors and humanitarian agencies give much greater emphasis—and more resources—to preventing sexual and gender-based violence and to responding to its medical, psychological, social and economic consequences.

[1] For further background on the human rights situation in Darfur see Human Rights Watch reports and briefing papers: “Targeting the Fur: Mass Killings in Darfur,” January 21, 2005; “If We Return We Will Be Killed:” Consolidation of Ethnic Cleansing in Darfur, Sudan, November 2004; “Empty Promises: Continuing Abuses in Darfur, Sudan,” August 11, 2004;  “Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia Support,” July 20, 2004; Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan, Vol.16, No. 6(A), May 2004; Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan, Vol.16, No.5 (A), April 2004.

[2] “Homeless in Sudan’s Darfur reach 2.4 million: UN,” Agence France Presse, March 29, 2005 at (retrieved April 7, 2005).  In addition to the 2.4 million internally displaced, as of January 2005, there were 193,000 registered refugees in Chad as of March 2005.  “Chad: Severe malnutrition on the rise in refugee camps,” UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, at (retrieved April 8, 2005).  An estimated 18,000 unregistered refugees are also in Chad, Human Rights Watch interview, UNHCR staff, Chad, February 2005.

[3] OAU Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, 1969, 1001 UNTS 3.

[4] Throughout the world, there are many situations in which refugees have fled conditions of generalized insecurity and conflict. When refugees flee in large numbers to neighboring countries, particularly in less developed regions of the world, it is not usually possible to ascertain whether every person involved in the influx actually meets the criteria for refugee status. Low-income countries frequently do not have the logistical, administrative, or financial capacity to undertake individual status determinations. Instead, there is a general assumption that when conditions are objectively dangerous in a country of origin, refugees are recognized on a prima facie basis (i.e. without the need for further proof), and are afforded protection accordingly. See e.g. “Protection of Asylum- Seekers in Situations of Large-Scale Influx,” ExCom Conclusion No. 22, 1981.

[5] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 UNTS 150 (1951), entered into force April 22, 1954. In 1967 a Protocol was adopted to extend the Convention temporally and geographically. Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 19 UST 6223, 606 UNTS 267 (1967), entered into force October 4, 1967. See e.g. ExCom General Conclusion on International Protection No. 85, 1998, para (d).

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951, No. 2545, 189 UNTS 137 (as amended by the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees).   Sudan became a party to the Refugee Convention in 1974.

[6] Human Rights Watch has also received several allegations of rape by members of the Darfur rebel movements, including near Malam, South Darfur, in 2004. These require further investigation, but available evidence suggests that they have not been systematic in nature.

[7] See, e.g., Paul B. Spiegel and Alia Nankoe, “UNHCR, HIV/AIDS and Refugees: Lessons Learned,  Forced Migration Review, vol. 19 (2004),  pp. 21-23

[8] Human Rights Watch researchers visited nine of eleven refugee camps in Chad and six displaced persons camps and several other sites in South Darfur in February 2005.  Additional information and accounts were gathered in the context of five research missions to Darfur and Chad in 2004. Medical and other services in the camps across Darfur vary widely. The observations on provision of services in the Darfur camps described in this document therefore do not necessarily represent the situation in West or North Darfur.

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