Background Briefing

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Sudanese government pledges: empty promises?

The Sudanese government—hardly a credible actor regarding protection of its citizens given its record of human rights abuses in other areas of Sudan and its responsibility for the campaign of terror in Darfur—now acknowledges that it cannot rein in the Janjaweed militias while continuing to deny its role in their creation and instrumentalization.  At the same time it refuses to permit international forces to be deployed to protect civilians.  If the government of Sudan is serious about protecting civilians, it would welcome an increased international presence to help it get the violence under control and put in place the conditions necessary for the voluntary safe return of civilians to their home villages.  It would permit international monitoring of its claims of progress in Darfur.

A climate of total impunity

As one observer who visited a number of different sites in Darfur as recently as late-July noted, “the level of impunity is unbearable.”77  Patterns of violence, including regular attacks on women and girls, take place in a climate of total impunity. Even when reported to local police or government officials, victims of attacks consistently report that no effort is made to detain, investigate or prosecute the perpetrators of the attacks. In a rare case documented by Human Rights Watch in which a woman who was raped by four men reported the case to the police of a small town in West Darfur, they identified the perpetrators, took them into custody, and removed their weapons.  However after intervention from the local militia leadership and a senior local government official, the men were released and their weapons returned to them. The woman was told that no further cases of rape would be pursued by the local justice system.78

The July 3 Joint Communiqué includes Sudanese government commitments to “undertake concrete measures to end impunity,” “undertake immediate investigation of all cases of violations, including those brought to its attention by the UN, AU, and other sources,” and “ensure that all individuals and groups accused of human rights violations are brought to justice without delay.”  As of August 1, while the government has announced several steps to reduce impunity, on closer examination, all appear to be token gestures aimed at showing the international community it is taking action, with little real substance. 

1) In May, 2004, the Sudanese government stated that under Presidential Decree No 97, it would set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate “alleged human rights violations by armed groups in the Darfur states.” The commission of inquiry has, however, not declared any intention to investigate abuses by government forces, which seriously limits its credibility.  As of early August, 2004, this commission has yet to visit Darfur and has apparently received little or no budget.

2) In mid-July, in response to the many cases of rape being reported by women and girls in the displaced and refugee camps, the Sudanese government asserted that it would create committees of women judges, police officers and legal consultants investigate rape accusations and help victims through criminal cases.79  To date, these committees have yet to take any serious steps to address abuses.

3) On July 19, 2004, the government of Sudan announced that it had sentenced the first ten “Janjaweed” militia members for crimes including armed attacks, robbery and illegal possession of arms. The sentences included six years in prison and cross-amputation—amputation of the right hand and left foot.80 The process of these trials raises a number of concerns.

One, the use of limb amputation is considered to be cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment that violates Sudan’s international law obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.81  

Two, since the creation of special courts in Darfur in May 2001, which have jurisdiction over offences such as armed robbery, weapons smuggling, crimes against the State, murder, as well as crimes relating to drugs and public nuisance,82 trial procedures in Darfur have regularly failed to conform to fair trial standards under international human rights law.83  Key failings of these courts include violations of due process such as lack of legal counsel and lack of appeals to a higher tribunal.84

Three, the identities of the convicted men and their precise connection to the government-backed Janjaweed militias remains unclear and it appears that the majority of the individuals who have been presented as militia members and leaders are in fact common criminals, many of whom have been charged with crimes such as the illegal possession of weapons.  Witnesses who visited the prison and Nyala in July 2004 and were presented to detainees alleged to be the convicted militia men told Human Rights Watch that the prisoners were often petty thieves and some individuals convicted of serious crimes, but that none had been convicted of rape, for instance, and that the vast majority of the individuals presented were convicted of crimes unrelated to the attacks by government-backed Janjaweed militias, long before July 2004.85

The questions raised by the Nyala trials highlights anew the need for international monitoring of these trials, both to ensure that judicial processes conform to international fair trial standards, and that the individuals standing trial are actually those alleged to be responsible for the abuses.

Disarmament questions

Under increasing international pressure to disarm the Janjaweed militia, particularly due to U.N. Security Council threats to impose sanctions, senior Sudanese government officials pledged on July 3, 2004 to disarm the Janjaweed militias while at the same time continuing to deny their responsibility for actively supporting the groups and tolerating their abuses. The July 3 U.N.-Government of Sudan Joint Communiqué committed the government to, “immediately start to disarm the Janjaweed and other armed outlaw groups.”  The UNSC resolution of July 30 reiterated this obligation.

Following the adoption of UNSC resolution 1556, the Sudanese government vacillated several times, first rejecting the document, then agreeing to abide by its terms, and finally stating that it was impossible to implement the demand to disarm the Janjaweed within thirty days, and that it would instead implement a 90-day period allegedly specified in the Joint Communiqué.86

On August 6, the government agreed with the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative Jan Pronk on a “Plan of Action for Darfur” in which the Sudanese government would apparently set up “safe areas” for displaced civilians, work to disarm the Janjaweed militias, and curb military operations in the vicinity of the “safe areas.”87 

To date, instead of good faith efforts to control, regulate or disarm the Janjaweed militias it has supported and continues to support, the government of Sudan continues to exploit differences in language and terminology to evade its responsibility, such as using the term “Janjaweed” in its traditional sense: to refer to criminals and outlaws, rather than acknowledging that the Janjaweed militias have been key auxiliaries to their military effort. In public Arabic statements and in government correspondence, the terms “knights,” “mujaheeden” or “horsemen” are used by Sudanese officials to refer to members of the government-backed militias rather than the term “Janjaweed,” which is considered to be a pejorative. 88 

Government reluctance to disarm the militias it has recruited and supported is likely based on two main concerns. First, the government claims that if the pro-government militias are disarmed, the rebel movement may make substantial gains militarily given that the militias, by whatever name they are called, are the mainstay of the government’s ground forces in Darfur. There are reports that both government and rebel forces have been using the past few months to regroup forces and fighting is clearly continuing. While there is no question of the Sudanese government’s right to protect national security interests and combat insurgencies, the government is also obliged to respect fundamental principles of international law in the conflict. The use of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and the policy of recruiting and using the Janjaweed militias have instead resulted in crimes against humanity and war crimes.

A second reason for the government’s reluctance to disarm the militias is that clearly disarmament of the militias is neither an easy nor clear-cut task in a region where access to arms is a given rather than an exception to the rule, and where members of the government-backed militias are not only an instrument of military policy, but also local stakeholders in the conflict who have acquired land, livestock and other forms of wealth and power as a result of their alliance with the government. Some Arab nomadic communities could also no doubt fear reprisals if only one side were to be disarmed. For the government, any attempted forced disarmament of their militia allies presents the unsettling possibility that their former allies could turn against them.

Nonetheless, disarmament—or some form of regulation of the government-backed Janjaweed militias—remains the key priority to improve protection of civilians in Darfur and stop the violence. There are increasing reports that the Sudanese government’s commitment to deploy a 6,000 member “strong credible and respected police force in all IDP areas” has been a thinly-veiled reorganization of militia members into these forces.89 Human Rights Watch has received reports that for instance, members of the militia led by Musa Hilal in North Darfur, based in Mistriya, north of Kepkabiya, are being photographed and registered as part of a new “Special Operations” mobile police force.90

Instead of incorporating militia members who may have been responsible for crimes against humanity into these forces, which would then be deployed to “protect” the very civilians they violently and forcibly displaced over the past sixteen months, members of government-backed militias should be registered, identified and screened, and those suspected of abuses against civilians should be detained pending investigation and trial.

Forced return and resettlement

On July 2, 2004, the Sudanese Minister for the Interior, Major General Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein stated the government’s intention to create 18 “settlements” to host more than one million displaced persons, a plan which would “facilitate offering services and protection of the villagers who were previously living in numerous scattered villages.”91  This statement appears to match descriptions of the “safe areas” described in the recent “Plan of Action” signed by the U.N. Special Representative and the Sudanese government.92

The prospect of this resettlement plan and the notion of “safe areas” raises the concern that rather than being enabled to return to their homes and lands in safety and dignity, displaced civilians will be forced to remain in camps or permanently resettled in new locations, confined in their movement and unable to access their lands, effectively consolidating the ethnic cleansing that has taken place and further destroying their livelihoods. The prospect of “safe areas” secured by Sudanese government or security forces is even more troubling given the human rights record of these groups.

The government’s plan to address the displaced civilians seems to involve two elements:  the forced return of small numbers of communities to their original villages, and the forced resettlement of a much larger population of displaced civilians to new locations.  Efforts to force the return or resettlement of displaced civilians include bribing local displaced leaders, through both offers of money as well as threats of physical violence and intimidation, to take their communities back to certain villages or new locations. Human Rights Watch received several communications from different locations in West Darfur, for example, where tribal leaders have been harassed and intimidated in just this manner.93  A displaced woman from Wadi Saleh, West Darfur told Human Rights Watch “the men are currently under a lot of pressure from the authorities, the Janjaweed, and the chiefs. They started pushing us twenty days ago. Actually the authorities have changed their strategy. A month ago they were threatening to send us to jail if we did not return….Now they try another strategy, they offer money to the tribal chiefs.”94

A U.N. report also noted the same pattern in South Darfur, stating that “on 29 July four [displaced] leaders were reportedly beaten to the point of requiring hospital treatment in Kass, allegedly for not moving the [displaced persons] back to their villages of origin.”95  In North Darfur, the U.N. reported “intimidation of [displaced persons] has increased in various settlement sites including in Fata Borno, Tawilla and Zam Zam.”96

Displaced civilians have legitimate concerns for their safety if they are forced to return to rural areas under the control of the Janjaweed militias. There are numerous reports of violent attacks on displaced men, women and children who attempt to move around Janjaweed-controlled areas (see above) whether voluntarily or by force. U.N. sources on the ground reported several incidents of displaced persons being killed when they attempted to return to their villages in July.97

In addition to concerns over any potential use of force in this resettlement process, there are concerns about the underlying aims and nature of such resettlement camps. The description of “safe areas” in the Plan of Action bears striking similarities to the “peace villages” created by the government of Sudan to house displaced civilians in the past in many other areas of Sudan, including around Khartoum, in the Nuba Mountains, and around government garrison towns such as Wau, in southern Sudan. 

These “peace villages” tended to concentrate and put under government control in camps those civilians belonging to ethnicities from which the rebel insurgencies were drawn. They were often located in insecure areas, usually some kilometers from the periphery of government-controlled towns. Security conditions routinely constrained the ability of the residents to leave the camps and cultivate crops or access markets, education or secondary medical care, all of which are usually located in the larger towns, rendering them totally dependent on humanitarian relief.

When creating these displaced camps or “peace villages” in the past, the government has routinely forcibly displaced or evicted thousands of civilians to inhospitable locations with totally inadequate conditions, such as non-existent or minimal access to shelter, water, health care and other objects essential to the survival of the civilian population. Humanitarian access has often been provided only under unacceptable government conditions, in which food and other humanitarian assistance has been diverted to military forces and rape and other forms of violence have been prevalent within the camps.

[77] Human Rights Watch interview, July 23, 2004.

[78] Human Rights Watch interview, July 23, 2004.

[79] Associated Press, “Sudan's government forms committees to investigate rape in Darfur,” July 17, 2004.

[80] Associated Press, “Court jails 10 Sudanese Arab militiamen for armed attacks, robbery,” July 19, 2004.

[81] Sudan acceded to the ICCPR on March 18, 1986.

[82] Report of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, E/CN.4/2005/7/Add.2, August 6, 2004.

[83] See also Amnesty International, Sudan: Darfur: Incommunicado detention, torture and special courts: Memorandum to the government of Sudan and the Sudanese Commission of Inquiry, AFR/54/058/2004.

[84] Ibid. See also, Human Rights Watch report, Behind the Red Line: Political Repression in Sudan, May 1996.

[85] Communications to Human Rights Watch, July 22 and July 29, 2004. See also Marc Lacey, “Sudanese Suffer as Militias Hide in Plain Sight,” New York Times, August 6, 2004.

[86] BBC, “Darfur abuses continue, UN says,” August 3, 2004. The Joint Communiqué actually does not specify a specific timeframe for the disarmament process.

[87] “Text: UN Darfur Agreement,” BBC as reported by Reuters, August 7, 2004.

[88] “Sudan Arabs Reject Marauding ‘Janjaweed’ Image,” Reuters, July 12, 2004.

[89] Confidential communications to Human Rights Watch, See also, Marc Lacey, ““Despite Appeals, Chaos still stalks the Sudanese,” New York Times, July 18, 2004, Koert Lindijer, “Analysis: Reining in the Militia,” BBC, August 5, 2004.

[90] Human Rights Watch telephone interview, July 2004.

[91]Agence France Presse, “Sudan to set up 18 “settlements” for million Darfur refugees: report,” July 2, 2004.

[92] “Text: UN Darfur Agreement,” BBC as reported by Reuters, August 7, 2004.

[93] Human Rights Watch interview and telephone interview, July 23, 2004.

[94] Human Righs Watch interview, July 2004.

[95] U.N. Weekly Humanitarian Roundup, 25 July – August 1, 2004, at http://

[96] Ibid.

[97] Five people were apparently killed in South Darfur when they left Kalma camp to return to their villages—three were killed in Masarana and two in another location. U.N. Humanitarian Situation Report: Darfur Crisis, Sudan, July 15, 2004.

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