Background Briefing

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The initial phase of the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, from February 2003 to March 2004, was characterized by a government crackdown on a rebel insurgency in which the government’s use of ethnic militias and indiscriminate bombing resulted in crimes against humanity, war crimes and acts of ethnic cleansing committed against civilians of the same ethnicity as the members of the two rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). These abuses forcibly displaced more than one million civilians from their homes and villages into neighboring Chad, towns in government-controlled areas and some rural areas under rebel control.

Although the patterns of conflict have altered since the government of Sudan and the rebel groups signed a ceasefire agreement on April 8, 2004, conflict in South Darfur and other areas is ongoing as are continuing patterns of violence against civilians, including attacks by government forces and the government-backed militias known internationally as the “Janjaweed.” 

Growing media attention and international pressure on the government of Sudan led to the signing of a Joint Communiqué with the United Nations on July 3, 2004, in which the Sudanese government committed itself to improvements in the areas of humanitarian access, human rights, security and political resolution of the conflict.  Pressure increased with the adoption on July 30 of U.N. Security Council resolution 1556 that reiterated the steps outlined in the Joint Communiqué, called for restrictions on arms transfers to all “non-governmental entities, including the Janjaweed,” and imposed a 30-day deadline on the Sudanese government to disarm the Janjaweed militias. However, an August 6th agreement between the U.N. Special Representative for Sudan, Jan Pronk, and the government of Sudan appears to backtrack on this deadline.

As of early August 2004, aside from humanitarian access, there has been little improvement in the humanitarian and human rights conditions for the more than one million displaced persons in Darfur.  Incidents of rape and sexual violence, looting, and other attacks on civilians continued to occur on a daily basis. Government plans to relocate many of the displaced communities to resettlement camps, “safe areas” or to force them to return to their villages despite continuing insecurity raise new concerns of possible forced displacement. Pledges by the Sudanese government to end impunity for abuses and to disarm the Janjaweed militias remain doubtful. 

Peace talks have stalled with the continuing conflict and increased rebel pre-conditions for negotiations with the government of Sudan. The continuing conflict also threatens regional stability due to the presence of numerous armed groups along the Darfur-Chad border with varying political and economic interests, and the total collapse of law and order in Darfur itself. 

Efforts by the African Union to increase its presence and expand its mandate present one of the few grounds for optimism in a region that is increasingly unstable and where patterns of violence against civilians persist unabated.

The government of Sudan is hardly a credible actor when it comes to protecting its citizens given its record of human rights abuses against Sudanese civilians in other areas of Sudan and its responsibility for the campaign of terror in Darfur.  Khartoum seeks to have it both ways—it claims it cannot control or disarm the Janjaweed militias but at the same time refuses to permit international forces to be deployed to protect civilians and bring the situation under control.  If the Sudanese government were serious about protecting civilians, it would welcome an increased international presence to help it stop the violence and put in place the conditions necessary for the voluntary and safe return of civilians to their home villages.   

This report documents and analyzes the ongoing violence and the government’s claims of progress to address the human rights crisis in Darfur in more detail based on recent Human Rights Watch research in Chad and Darfur. In some cases, the precise locations of incidents and other identifying details have been withheld to protect the security of the victims and witnesses.

index  |  next>>August 11, 2004