Continuing atrocities in the western region of Darfur and impunity for war crimes in the south jeopardize prospects for peace in Sudan, Human Rights Watch warned today ahead of the January 9 signing of a peace agreement to end the 21-year conflict in the south.

The final peace accords—known as the Naivasha Protocols for the Kenyan city where negotiations took place since June 2002—are scheduled to be signed in Nairobi by the Sudanese government and the main southern rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The peace agreement lacks any provision for a truth commission, prosecutions or other forms of accountability for past abuses in the southern conflict.

“The peace agreement is an important step, but lasting peace in Sudan will require genuine security for civilians and justice for the atrocities committed both in Darfur and southern Sudan,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “Even as the Naivasha agreement is being celebrated in the South, people are being raped and burned out of their homes in Darfur. The Security Council must clearly send Sudan the message that there will be no impunity for crimes of this magnitude.”

The Sudanese government and its Janjaweed militias—many of which have recently been incorporated into the army, police and other government forces—are responsible for a scorched-earth campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” which since early 2003 has turned the previously self-sufficient agrarian and pastoral region into the site of one of the world’s most serious humanitarian disasters.

Despite a ceasefire agreement in April between the Sudanese government and two rebel groups in Darfur, the past few months have seen a new surge in fighting. Continued attacks on civilians and aid workers have hampered relief operations to the more than 1.6 million people who have fled government and militia attacks on their villages since early 2003.

Several hundred thousand people were cut off from aid in late 2004 because of these new attacks. Recent fighting has also caused thousands more civilians to flee their homes. Most of the displaced people are farmers, and the region’s annual harvest has fallen to less than 20% of the usual food production as a result.

“This is a critical moment for Darfur,” Takirambudde said. “The government’s failure to prosecute those responsible for war crimes has meant continued insecurity for civilians.”

The U.N. Security Council in September authorized, under resolution 1564, the establishment of an international commission of inquiry to investigate serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed in Darfur and to determine whether genocide has occurred. Human Rights Watch urged the Security Council to refer the commission’s findings, expected in late January, to the International Criminal Court to help ensure justice for the serious crimes committed in Darfur.

“Ending impunity will help improve protection, but we also need to see more African Union troops on the ground,” said Takirambudde. “The Sudanese government has entirely failed in its responsibility to protect its own people, and others will need to ensure their security.”

The African Union, tasked by the parties in the Darfur conflict to monitor the now-tattered ceasefire agreement, in September sought an expanded force and mandate to protect civilians. While the pan-African organization has shown it is willing to shoulder this burden to promote peace and stability in Africa, it has deployed fewer than 1,000 troops in Darfur—a region the size of France. The African Union promised to deploy another 2,200 by December 31, but has missed the deadline. Human Rights Watch called on the African Union to urgently increase the number of troops deployed in Darfur, expand their presence to rural areas, and seek further international support for its operations.