Entrenching Impunity
Government Responsibility for International Crimes in Darfur

III. Background

When the problems with the rebels started in Darfur, we in the government of Sudan had a number of options. We chose the wrong one. We chose the very worst one.
—Former Governor of North Darfur Lt. Gen. Ibrahim Suleiman1
Increasing tensions in Sudan’s western region of Darfur escalated into armed conflict in early 2003. In April 2003, the Sudanese government initiated a multi-pronged strategy in response to an insurgency led by two rebel movements, the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The government’s response drew upon tactics used in the civil wars in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains: aerial bombardment, the recruitment of ethnic militias as proxy ground forces, forced displacement—on an ethnic basis—of rural civilians on a massive scale, and persecution of real or perceived political opposition.

The Sudanese government’s recruitment and deployment of militia forces, and its strategy of targeting civilians from specific ethnic groups to combat the rebel insurgency resulted in crimes against humanity and war crimes. International law defines crimes against humanity as criminal acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, whether during peacetime or war. War crimes are serious violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war) that incur individual criminal responsibility.  States have an obligation under international law to prosecute those implicated in crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by Sudanese military and militia forces have included the targeted killing, summary execution, assault and rape of thousands of civilians, the destruction of hundreds of villages, the theft of millions of livestock, and the forced displacement of more than two million people.2 Overwhelmingly targeted were communities sharing the ethnicity of or geographic proximity to the two main rebel movements.3 These ethnic groups initially included the Masalit, Fur, and Zaghawa, and later expanded to include communities of Dajo, Tunjur, Meidob, Jebel, Berti, and other non-Arab tribes.

In many cases documented by Human Rights Watch, there was little to no rebel or armed presence in the targeted villages at the time of the attacks, and the attacks were clearly aimed at the civilian population. Even in cases where there was a rebel presence, the Sudanese government’s attacks made no attempt to discriminate between combatants and civilians, or disproportionately harmed civilians beyond the expected military advantage of the attack, in violation of international humanitarian law.

The rebel groups in Darfur are also responsible for serious abuses, including killings, rape and abductions of civilians, attacks on humanitarian convoys, and theft of livestock, that are war crimes.4 

In April 2004, the Sudanese government and the two rebel movements signed a humanitarian ceasefire agreement mediated by the Chadian government with support from the African Union (A.U.). To monitor the agreement, the parties agreed to an A.U. observer mission (AMIS). AMIS established a military observer presence in July 2004, which included some three hundred soldiers to protect the observers. As of October 2005, AMIS had increased its forces to approximately seven thousand personnel including 686 military observers, 4,890 troops and 1,176 civilian police. Its mandate was expanded beyond ceasefire monitoring to include contributing “to a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian relief and, beyond that, the return of IDPs and refugees to their homes,” as well as protection of civilians under “imminent threat.”5

The ceasefire agreement has been repeatedly violated by all parties: Sudanese government and Janjaweed forces continue military operations against rebel forces, including attacks against the civilian population.  Rebel forces continue to attack and loot government facilities, including military and police bases.

The pervasive pattern of government-militia coordinated attacks on villages has declined in 2005 in comparison with previous years, but this is largely because most of the targeted population has already been displaced from the most fertile, desirable rural areas. Two million displaced civilians survive in a climate of fear, intimidation, and violence, unable to return to their homes and restricted to displaced persons camps due to continuing arbitrary arrest or rape, assault, and murder when they leave the relative security of the camps. More than one million additional conflict-affected civilians require food and other assistance to survive. The continuing violence, and the pervasive climate of fear within the traumatized displaced communities, means that the security required for voluntary and safe return of the displaced persons—an important condition for the reversal of ethnic cleansing—does not exist.

Beginning in August 2005, and continuing in the lead-up to the seventh round of the A.U.-mediated peace talks being held in Abuja, Nigeria, in December 2005, violence in Darfur escalated. It now includes at least four different patterns of violence: 1) military operations by government forces and rebel groups; 2) ethnic clashes linked to traditional tensions over resources such as land and water; 3) banditry and opportunistic crime; and 4) cross-border tensions linked to Chadian internal politics.  Sometimes the parties to the conflict are involved in all of these patterns. Escalating attacks on international and Sudanese aid workers and A.U. personnel demonstrate that these groups are increasingly viewed by the warring parties as legitimate targets, a situation that jeopardizes the delivery of essential humanitarian assistance to more than three million people, or half of Darfur’s population.

The Sudanese government’s failure to protect civilians in Darfur, its unwillingness to disarm the militias it created and has supported, and its policy of permitting militia leaders, military commanders, and government officials to enjoy impunity from prosecution constitute a fundamental obstacle to any improvement in Darfur.  In particular, the policy of impunity from prosecution sends a clear message: as long as these individuals remain in positions of authority the people of Darfur will remain at great risk. The conditions needed for the reversal of ethnic cleansing—security, accountability, and an end to intimidation and coercion—will not be met.

[1] Scott Anderson, “How Did Darfur Happen?” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
[2] See “Darfur in Flames: Atrocities in Western Sudan,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 16, no.5(A), April 2004; “Darfur Destroyed: Ethnic Cleansing by Government and Militia Forces in Western Sudan,” A Human Rights Watch Report, vol. 16, no. 6(A), May 2004; “Darfur Documents Confirm Government Policy of Militia Support,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, July 20, 2004; “Empty Promises: Continuing Abuses in Darfur, Sudan,”  A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, August 11, 2004; “If We Return We Will Be Killed,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, November 15, 2004; “Targeting the Fur: Mass Killings in Darfur,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, January 24, 2005; “Sexual Violence and its Consequences among Displaced Persons in Darfur and Chad,” A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, April 12, 2005. All are available at http://www.hrw.org/doc/?t=africa&c=sudan .
[3] As of July 2005, the U.N. estimated that there were 1.88 million internally displaced persons in Darfur, more than two hundred thousand refugees in Chad, and a total population of 3.2 million “affected” people—meaning that in addition to the displaced population there are 1.32 million people who were not displaced by the conflict but who also have humanitarian needs as a result of the conflict. United Nations, “Darfur Humanitarian Profile No. 16, Situation as of July 1, 2005.”
[4] While these are serious crimes that require further investigation, accountability, and restitution for the victims, and may amount to war crimes, these crimes are not the focus of this report. Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by the rebel movements, specifically the use of child soldiers, abductions, looting, an attack on a hospital, and incidents of indiscriminate killing of civilians—see Human Rights Watch: “If We Return We Will Be Killed,” pp. 32-39, and “Darfur in Flames,” p. 39. Human Rights Watch has been unable to fully document rebel abuses due to insufficient access to government-controlled areas of Darfur. Since the conflict in Darfur began, Human Rights Watch researchers have only received visas once, for a visit to the country in September-October 2004.  Since November 2004, Human Rights Watch’s requests to the Sudanese government for visas have not been granted, however Human Rights Watch visited areas in Darfur under rebel control in 2004 and 2005.
[5]The full text of this provision in the AMIS mandate is:
Protect civilians whom it encounters under imminent threat and in the immediate vicinity, within resources and capability, it being understood that the protection of the civilian population is the responsibility of the GoS
For the complete text of the AMIS mandate, see the African Union Peace and Security Council communiqué of October 20, 2004 at http://www.africa-union.org/News_Events/Communiqués/Communiqué%20_Eng%2020%20oct%202004.pdf

Go to top