Crisis in Darfur

What has happened in Darfur?

Since early 2003, Sudanese government forces and militia called “Janjaweed” have been engaged in an armed conflict with rebel groups called the Sudanese Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). As part of its operations against the rebels, government forces have waged a systematic campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against civilians who are members of the same ethnic groups as the rebels. Sudanese government forces and the Janjaweed militias burned and destroyed hundreds of villages, caused tens of thousands of civilian deaths, displaced millions of people, and raped and assaulted thousands of women and girls.

As of September 2008, some 2.5 million displaced people live in camps in Darfur and more than 200,000 people have fled to neighboring Chad, where they live in refugee camps. In addition to the people displaced by the conflict, at least 2 million additional people are considered “conflict-affected” by the United Nations, and many need some form of food assistance because the conflict has damaged the local economy, markets, and trade in Darfur.

For a period in early 2005, the number of government attacks on civilians decreased, partly because the majority of targeted villages were already destroyed and their inhabitants displaced from the rural areas. In late 2005, however, the situation dramatically worsened, and deteriorated still further after the May 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement.

Rebel allegiances have shifted and split since the conflict began, most notably in November 2005, when the SLA split into two factions, and once again following the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006. As of April 2008, there are some two dozen splinter factions of the SLA and JEM.

Throughout 2006 and 2007 the situation gradually transformed due to the increasing fragmentation and changing allegiances of the parties. As both government and rebel factions jockeyed for position and pursued military gains, violent clashes and outright targeted attacks on civilians continued across Darfur. Civilians also suffered harassment, beatings and rape even outside the context of large scale attacks, at the hands of government forces, militia, rebels and ex-rebel groups and bandits.   On July 14, 2008, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested a warrant for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for orchestrating the government’s abusive counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur. Following the request, Sudanese government forces continued to conduct military operations against civilian areas and mobilize abusive militia forces in Darfur. 

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What is happening in Darfur now?

The government of Sudan in 2007 and 2008 continued its bombing campaign, carrying out massive air strikes on civilian areas purportedly under rebel control in all three Darfur states. Government-backed militias have also carried out large scale attacks on the civilian population across Darfur.

In February 2008, government forces and allied militia carried out a series of coordinated attacks on villages in West Darfur, purportedly in response to military gains by JEM in the preceding two months. On February 8, 2008, three villages—Sirba, Silea and Abu Suruj—were attacked in a single day by the Sudanese Air Force with Antonov bombers and helicopter gunships, backed up by Janjaweed militia on horseback. The Janjaweed followed up the bombing with burning, looting, raping and killing. At least 100 civilians died as a result of these attacks, and at least 10 women were raped or sexually assaulted.  Clashes between the government and JEM persisted in the following weeks and included aerial bombings.

Following an attack on May 10, 2008 by Darfur rebel forces on Omdurman – one of the three towns that form the Sudanese capital Khartoum – Sudanese authorities arbitrarily arrested hundreds of men, women and children in Khartoum. Many were subjected to torture and “disappearance.” The authorities have also intensified censorship of the media and harassment of journalists and human rights defenders in Darfur and in other parts of Sudan.

Government security forces continue to abuse the rights of displaced persons living in camps. On August 26, 2008, 30 civilians at Kalma camp in South Darfur died during an attempt by police and military forces to conduct a civilian disarmament operation.

Darfurian rebel and ex-rebel groups have also carried out abuses. Residents of North Darfur in particular have reported abuses by combatants aligned with former rebel leader Minni Minawi, who had signed the Darfur Peace Agreement in May 2006. These abuses against civilians, as well as clashes between SLA-Minni Minawi fighters and rebel groups, have caused substantial displacement, especially of people from Korma and Tawila, to various camps in the area.

Over the past two years, the Janjaweed militia have increasingly been integrated into more “official” government security forces, such as Border Intelligence, Popular Defence Forces and Central Reserve Police. However, some militia also have grievances against the government, particularly those whose promised salaries have not been delivered. This has led to some outbreaks of violence, such as in El Fasher in April 2008 when militia protesting lack of pay attacked the market and other areas, leaving at least 15 people dead. In addition, some militia have switched allegiances to rebel groups, at least for a period.

Since January 2007 there has also been an increase in violent clashes between Arab armed groups, particularly in South Darfur. The clashes, which reflect increasingly violent competition for scarce resources, have left hundreds dead and forced thousands to flee.  Violence displaced more than 200,000 people in Darfur in the first half of 2008.

Meanwhile, women and girls living in displaced persons camps, towns, and rural areas remain extremely vulnerable to sexual violence – both in the context of attacks and in periods of relative calm. Sudanese authorities continue to allow armed men to carry out rapes and other acts of sexual violence with impunity.

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Who is providing protection for civilians in Darfur?

On July 31, 2007, the United Nations Security Council, with the consent of Sudan, agreed to deploy a peacekeeping force of up to 26,000 international military and police personnel in Darfur. This combined African Union and UN “hybrid” force (UNAMID) formally took over authority from the beleaguered African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) on January 1, 2008.

However, because of Sudanese government obstruction, few additional troops were deployed at the transfer of authority, and even by July 2008, one year after its authorization, the force was barely one third of its authorized strength. The government of Sudan threw up a series of bureaucratic obstructions to the force, including delaying allocating land for bases and the arrival of critical equipment. Khartoum has also insisted that the peacekeeping force be composed primarily of troops from African countries, although there are no equivalent African troops ready to deploy.

In the wake of the request by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for an arrest warrant for President al-Bashir, Sudanese authorities made some minor concessions towards facilitating deployment, such as granting a few hundred outstanding visas. However, as of August 2008, deployment was still seriously hampered by government obstacles, logistical challenges and insecurity.

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Why has the situation in Darfur deteriorated?

One of the key problems is that over the past four years the Sudanese government has continued to follow a policy of supporting ethnic militias, coordinating or tolerating attacks on civilians and permitting serious violations of international law to go unpunished—including attacks on peacekeepers and humanitarian aid workers and their convoys. The continuing conflict and fragmentation of the rebel groups have also contributed to increasing lawlessness in parts of Darfur. This in turn has allowed bandits to flourish and rebels to attack aid convoys and kill civilians. The ceasefire agreement of April 2004 was repeatedly violated by all sides to the conflict, and the Darfur Peace Agreement’s permanent ceasefire is suffering the same fate.

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How does the insecurity affect the humanitarian aid operation?

The deterioration in security, combined with targeted attacks on aid workers, has severely limited humanitarian access to large areas of Darfur. In the first half of 2008, 10 humanitarian workers were killed in Darfur, 74 humanitarian premises were attacked, and by August more than 12o humanitarian vehicles had been hijacked. Insecurity and attacks interrupted aid to over 400,000 people.  In July, armed men attacked UNAMID peacekeepers, killing seven and wounding 22 in one incident on July 8, 2008. The identity of the attackers and their motivations remain unknown, but the attack took place in a government-controlled area.

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What is happening in Chad?

Violence in Chad has been escalating since late 2005, as Chadian rebels backed by the Sudanese government established bases in Darfur and began carrying out attacks on government positions across the border. Chadian rebels attacked N’Djamena, the Chadian capital, in February 2008 but were repelled by Chadian government forces.

Darfur rebel groups have long had a presence in eastern Chad, including within refugee camps, which host more than 200,000 refugees from Darfur. The rebel faction JEM is a staunch ally of the Chadian government, acting as a proxy force against Chadian rebel groups in return for safe harbor, and material and financial support.  In May 2008, JEM forces, including forces supported by the Chadian government, staged a raid on a suburb of Khartoum, leading to a break in diplomatic relations and an expectation of renewed hostilities between the two countries after the rainy season ends in September.

In addition to Chad’s internal conflict, Sudanese Janjaweed militias and allied Chadian militias have been responsible for large-scale attacks against civilians inside Chad, most recently in March 2007, when at least 200 were killed in a village near the border with Sudan. Hundreds more were killed in attacks on more than 70 villages in November 2006.  In many cases these militia groups coordinate their activities with Chadian rebel groups, and membership between rebel groups and local militias can be fluid.

Inter-communal tensions along the border with Darfur have been inflamed by the militia violence, and also by the Chadian government’s policy of funneling weapons to village-based self-defense forces along ethnic lines. This is apparently an effort to reduce support for Chadian rebel groups that operate in the same zone, and to create a first line of defense against cross-border incursions.

In September 2007, the UN Security Council approved a hybrid European Union/UN civilian protection mission for eastern Chad comprised of EUFOR, a 3,700-strong European Union military force, and MINURCAT, a UN humanitarian operation tasked with training police and improving the judicial system.  In September 2008 the UN Security Council is expected to approve a successor mission, MINURCAT II, which will be comprised of 6,800 military and humanitarian personnel. 

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How does the Sudanese government explain the situation in Darfur?

In the first few years of the conflict, the Sudanese government regularly described the situation in Darfur as “tribal clashes” and consistently refused to acknowledge its responsibility for systematic attacks on civilians. Khartoum has accused foreign journalists and human rights groups of “fabricating” the Darfur situation, despite the overwhelming evidence of the Sudanese government’s responsibility for the crimes. The government has tried to limit media access to Darfur and has consistently harassed journalists and restricted press freedom in an effort to stop the information flow from Darfur. In 2004, the government detained an Al Jazeera correspondent in Khartoum for several weeks after the news agency transmitted reports about Darfur. And in August 2006, several western journalists were arrested in Darfur and turned over to Sudanese intelligence. Although these individuals were later released, in September 2006 the Sudanese government began cracking down on Sudanese media through pre-print censorship and arbitrary arrests, and imposing many bureaucratic restrictions on foreign journalists. Khartoum continues to massively understate the crisis in Darfur, maintaining that only 9,000 people have been killed in the five years of conflict.

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What is the UN Security Council doing about Darfur?

Despite passing more than a dozen resolutions over a period of four years demanding that the Sudanese government take certain steps, including disarming its militias and ceasing attacks on civilians, there has been little united effort by the UN Security Council to ensure these demands are implemented.

The main reason is that the UN Security Council is divided on Sudan because different member states have divergent interests. Russia and China have often supported the Sudanese government because of ideological commitments (non-interference in internal affairs of member states) and both have economic interests in Sudan. China, for instance, imports between 4-7 percent of its oil from Sudan and the Sudan oil project is its most successful international oil development endeavor.

The most recent action taken by the Security Council was its approval of the UN-AU “hybrid” peacekeeping force in July 2007. Two other important steps taken by the Council were the referral of the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court in The Hague because of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, and the establishment of a sanctions committee and a panel of experts to investigate individuals who violate the arms embargo, commit abuses of human rights, or impede the peace process. They have to-date only imposed sanctions on four individuals, none of them senior government officials.

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What kind of sanctions is the UN imposing on parties in the Darfur conflict?

In December 2005 the UN panel of experts recommended that 17 people, including the Sudanese Minister of Defense, Major-General Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein, nine other government officials, two Janjaweed militia leaders and five Darfur rebel commanders be sanctioned for their role in committing human rights violations and impeding the peace process. In April 2006 the UN Security Council voted for targeted sanctions on four Sudanese individuals: a former Sudanese military commander, a Janjaweed militia leader and two rebel commanders. These sanctions include travel bans and freezing foreign bank accounts and other assets. No active duty or serving Sudanese officials have been placed on the sanctions list. Since the imposition of targeted sanctions against these four fairly low-level individuals a year ago, the UN Sanctions Committee has failed to sanction further individuals due to objections by China, Russia and Qatar.

In September 2007 the Panel of Experts submitted a new report to the UN sanctions committee that described breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights and blatant violations of the arms embargo by all the warring parties. They also reported the Sudanese government’s unlawful use of “UN”-marked planes for military operations and breach of the ban on offensive military overflights, as well as their failure to implement existing sanctions. The Panel’s October 2006 report included another confidential annex of additional names of individuals recommended for targeted sanctions, and the September 2007 report included a public list of names. However, as of August 2008, there has been no action by the UN Security Council to extend sanctions to any of the senior figures responsible for past or recent attacks on civilians.

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What is the International Criminal Court doing on Darfur?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) opened an investigation into the situation in Darfur in June 2005. The ICC has the mandate to investigate those individuals most responsible for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide committed since July 2002 in accordance with the Rome Statute. On July 14, 2008, the ICC prosecutor requested a warrant for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for orchestrating the government’s abusive counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur. Sudan has sought to delay the court from issuing the arrest warrant pursuant to article 16 of the Rome Statute. For more information, see “Question and Answer” and “Article 16 Question and Answer.”

Previously, on April 27, 2007, the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber issued arrest warrants for Sudan’s state minister for humanitarian affairs Ahmed Haroun and the Janjaweed militia leader Ali Kosheib for a series of attacks in West Darfur in 2003 and 2004. The Sudanese government has publicly indicated it will not cooperate with the ICC and insists that it will try criminals in Darfur itself. Instead of fulfilling its obligations to hand Ahmed Haroun over to the court, Haroun remains State Minister for Humanitarian Affairs in Darfur, and in September 2007 the government appointed Haroun to co-chair a committee mandated to investigate human rights abuses. The second suspect, Kosheib, was reportedly released from Sudanese jail in October 2007, where he had been held on other charges.

Far from cooperating with the court, in April 2008, Sudan’s UN ambassador Abdel-Mahmood Mohamad called for the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, to be brought before a court for impeding the peace process in Sudan.

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What is the Sudanese government doing to prosecute war crimes?

There is no indication that the Sudanese justice system is seriously investigating or prosecuting any of the government officials, militia leaders or other individuals responsible for serious crimes in Darfur. It established the Special Criminal Court on the Events in Darfur in 2005 but has convicted very few persons and no leaders. Following the ICC prosecutor’s recent request for an arrest warrant for President al-Bashir, the Sudanese Ministry of Justice appointed a prosecutor to investigate allegations of war crimes in Darfur over the past five years. However even if the Sudanese prosecutor takes steps to investigate these crimes, serious flaws remain in Sudan’s national justice system that would hinder prosecution of the most serious crimes. These include broad immunity provisions for members of the armed forces, including popular defense forces and Janjaweed militia, police, and national intelligence forces; shortcomings in domestic legislation that make it difficult to prosecute international crimes; and serious obstacles to prosecuting sexual violence.

For more information on the Special Criminal Court, please see the Human Rights Watch report, "Lack of Conviction: The Special Criminal Court on the Events in Darfur."  

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What are the religious dimensions of the conflict in Darfur?

All of the people in Darfur are Muslim. The Sudanese government and its Janjaweed militias are also Muslim. There have been many incidents, however, of government forces and Janjaweed destroying mosques, looting the contents of mosques, killing imams and others seeking refuge inside mosques and desecrating the Koran while attacking civilian villages. For example, in just one small area of West Darfur in late 2003 and early 2004, Human Rights Watch documented the destruction of least 62 mosques by Sudanese government forces and militia.. There have been many subsequent attacks on mosques in different parts of Darfur.

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What are the ethnic divisions in Darfur?

There are many different ethnic groups in Darfur with their own languages and customs. The rebel movements are drawn from three main ethnic groups: the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit, all of which are considered non-Arab. The Janjaweed militias recruited, armed and trained by the Sudanese government are mainly drawn from several small Arab nomadic tribes who historically have no access to land, many of whom migrated into Darfur from Chad as a result of civil wars in Chad in the 1960s-1980s. Historically these groups coexisted peacefully and settled disputes through mediation of their leaders or the colonial government, with payment of damages for casualties and property damaged or stolen. There was intermarriage between ethnic groups, despite clashes over resources. There are also many larger Arab communities in Darfur who have their own homelands or dars, and have not participated in the conflict, so it is an oversimplification to describe Darfur as an African-Arab conflict.

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How are people surviving in Darfur?

Nearly 2.5 million people—more than one third of the population—are now living in displaced persons camps where they are almost entirely dependent on international humanitarian assistance. In many areas they cannot go far from the camps because they continue to be attacked by the militias and women are frequently raped and assaulted when they try to collect firewood or go to market. People cannot return to their homes due to the continuing presence of government-backed militias in the rural areas. Because of the war-caused widespread displacement of subsistence farmers and disruption of trade and nomadic migration routes, the economy of Darfur has been severely disrupted. An additional 2 million people, not displaced, are considered “conflict affected” and many are in need of humanitarian assistance. More than 4 million people in Darfur depend on humanitarian aid in some form.

Hundreds of thousands of people in need are beyond the reach of aid workers due to insecurity and targeted attacks as well as interference from obstructive government officials, both civilian and military.

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Why would the Sudanese government organize the Janjaweed militias?

Many of the members of the Sudanese armed forces are from Darfur, so the government may have been reluctant to use those troops in a conflict in their own region. In addition, the government of Sudan has often used ethnic militias as proxy forces, including in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. The use of militias provides the government with “deniability;” it claims that it cannot “control” the militias. There is no evidence, however, that it has actually attempted to do so and there is considerable evidence that militias continue to be paid, armed, organized and directed by army military intelligence and other officers, with assistance from civilian state and national officials. The militias allow the Sudanese government to have a large but inexpensive armed force at its disposal that will serve loyally as a counterinsurgency force, as the militias stand to benefit financially (loot and land) from their participation in the fighting.

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Who assists the Sudanese government?

The Sudanese government buys and receives military supplies from several countries, including China, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and others. Sudan’s government revenues have increased substantially since it began exporting oil in August 1999; government revenue is now estimated to have tripled from 1999 to 2004 and its oil revenue is estimated to be US$3 billion a year. As a result, Sudan has been able to purchase additional attack helicopters, MiG planes, artillery and other war materiel. At the end of the 21-year war in the south of Sudan, after a ceasefire was reached in October 2002, the government of Sudan was also able to shift many of its recently acquired arms to Darfur for use in counter-insurgency operations.

The Sudanese government, throughout the war in southern Sudan and now Darfur, has received high levels of international humanitarian assistance. The World Food Program, for instance, is providing assistance for 6 million people in Sudan, including in Darfur and the south.  

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AMIS—African Union Mission in Sudan
DPA—Darfur Peace Agreement, signed by the Sudanese government, SLA and SLA-Minni Minawi in May 2006
EU—European Union
EUFOR—A European Union military force that, with MINURCAT, forms part of the hybrid EU/UN civilian protection mission for eastern Chad
ICC—International Criminal Court
Janjaweed—Sudanese militia allied with the government
JEM—Justice and Equality Movement, a Sudanese rebel group
MINURCAT—a UN humanitarian operation that, with EUFOR, forms part of the hybrid EU/UN civilian protection mission for eastern Chad
SLA—Sudanese Liberation Army, a Sudanese rebel group
SLA-Minni Minawi—SLA splinter group led by former rebel leader Minni Minawi
SLM—Sudanese Liberation Movement, a Sudanese rebel group
UNAMID—United Nations and African Union "hybrid" peacekeeping force, which took over authority from AMIS on January 1, 2008

Last updated: September 2008