Background Briefing

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Since February 2003, in the context of a military counter-insurgency campaign against two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) 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.  Government forces and militias have systematically targeted civilian communities that share the same ethnicity as the rebel groups, killing, looting, raping, forcibly displacing and destroying hundreds of villages.  For their part, the rebel groups have abducted civilians, attacked police stations and other government institutions, and raided and looted substantial numbers of livestock and commercial goods from trucks and vehicles traveling on roads in Darfur. The rebels have also been responsible for some direct and indiscriminate attacks that have resulted in deaths and injuries to civilians and for the use of child soldiers.

To date, all parties continue to violate the April 8, 2004 humanitarian ceasefire agreement.  The government in particular has continued to use helicopter gunships in bombing attacks on civilian objects.  Fighting and displacement continue, particularly in South Darfur. The large-scale ground and air attacks on civilian villages by Sudan government forces and militias that marked the early phases of the conflict have diminished. It does not mean that security and protection for civilians has improved-it is a sign that ethnic cleansing has largely been completed in Darfur.  Protection for the civilian population in rural areas and outside the displaced camps remains almost non-existent due to the continuing presence of the government-backed Janjaweed militias.  Many people who try to return to their homes have been attacked again, often several times, by these militias who continue to operate with full impunity in spite of government pledges to bring to justice all those responsible for atrocities.  The increased police presence has not resulted in an increase in civilian protection. The police are too poorly armed, trained, and equipped to defend from Janjaweed or other military attacks, too few to protect farmlands or more than isolated clusters of homes, and in some cases are hostile to returnees.

Neither the government nor the international community has an adequate plan to reverse the ethnic cleansing or to assist those few who have voluntarily returned home. Unless and until displaced persons can voluntarily return in safety to their farms and plant crops, particularly by spring 2005, the economy of Darfur and the region will continue in a downward spiral. This could result in food shortages on a much greater scale than yet seen in Darfur, and international agencies are already forecasting greatly increased need for food in 2005.

The United Nations Security Council has passed two resolutions on Darfur, threatening sanctions against Sudan's government if it does not disarm and prosecute the militias and others responsible for abuses in Darfur. But these resolutions have had little effect in either restraining the Sudanese government, its allied militias or in improving security and protection for civilians. Unless the Security Council backs up its ultimatums with meaningful and strong action, abuses against civilians will continue and ethnic cleansing in Darfur will be consolidated in full view of the international community, and with hundreds of U.N. and other international personnel present on the ground while it happens. 

A key element to reversing ethnic cleansing is removing the threat of violence posed to internally displaced persons by the Janjaweed militias. The Sudanese government itself has demonstrated that it is unwilling or unable to control the militias, maintain law and order, and protect civilians.  The increased African Union mission, even with the agreed-upon additional troops and slightly more robust mandate to protect civilians under “imminent threat.” cannot by itself do all that is necessary to create the conditions for voluntary safe return and reversal of ethnic cleansing.  It must have a clear mandate, under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter and the African Union Charter, to protect civilians; the United Nations must take the lead in developing and implementing a suitable plan to ensure return and reverse the ethnic cleansing in Darfur. 

Another key step is prosecution of Sudanese government military and civilian leaders and Janjaweed leaders alleged to be involved in the commission of war crimes and other criminal acts.  It is unlikely the Sudanese government will prosecute Janjaweed or government leaders---the Janjaweed represent the only political allies the government has in Darfur, and prosecuting them would raise the possibility that they would provide evidence against higher-level government officials responsible for atrocities. Government efforts to end impunity, such as the creation of a committee to address rape, have been wholly inadequate.  The international commission of inquiry established by Security Council Resolution 1564 is a belated but welcome step. However, a Security Council referral of Darfur to the International Criminal Court will be essential to ensure prosecution of those top-level officials responsible for atrocities.

This report documents and analyzes the continuing violence by all parties to the conflict, obstacles to return and to the reversal of ethnic cleansing, the government’s efforts to end impunity and the international community’s response so far to the ongoing human rights crisis in Darfur.  This report is based on two Human Rights Watch research missions: one to North Darfur in July-August 2004, and another to Khartoum and Darfur in September-October 2004. In some cases, the precise locations of incidents and other identifying details have been withheld to protect the security of the victims and witnesses.

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