(New York) - The decision today by the International Criminal Court's prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, to start an investigation into atrocities in Darfur is a key step toward bringing justice for those crimes.
"The ICC prosecutor's decision to investigate mass slaughter and rape in Darfur will start the wheels of justice turning for the victims of these atrocities," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "As a U.N. member state, Sudan is obligated to cooperate with the ICC investigation."
On March 31, the United Nations Security Council voted to refer the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court by adopting Resolution 1593.
Under the court's statute, the prosecutor's initiation of an investigation reflects his assessment that the Sudanese authorities are "unwilling or unable" to prosecute crimes within the ICC mandate, namely genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. This is consistent with Human Rights Watch's finding that the Sudanese authorities have not taken any meaningful steps to hold those most responsible for serious international crimes to account since the armed conflict began in February 2003.
While the Sudanese government has recently announced its intention to establish a special tribunal in Sudan to try perpetrators of serious crimes in Darfur, such a tribunal would require Khartoum to take enormous and effective efforts to ensure the tribunal's independence and credibility.
A credible, independent tribunal prosecuting lower-level perpetrators could potentially serve as a useful complementary effort to ICC prosecutions. However, Human Rights Watch believes such a tribunal cannot replace what will be a limited number of prosecutions by the ICC of those most responsible. Other local measures such as compensation for stolen livestock and looted assets are also essential steps for restitution of the many victims in Darfur.
Through the course of its investigation, the ICC must protect its witnesses and conduct an active outreach campaign to explain the court's mandate and purpose.
"Protecting those who come forward to testify and informing those most at risk in Darfur about the ICC are not luxury accessories to the court's investigation in Darfur," said Dicker. "These measures are necessary for justice to be fully realized."
To move ahead with an effective investigation, the Office of the Prosecutor will also need a sufficiently staffed investigative team and adequate support. Canada has provided a voluntary contribution of $500,000 to assist the investigation, increasing resources available through the court's existing budget. Other states can demonstrate their commitment to achieving justice in Darfur by making voluntary contributions to support the ICC's prosecution of crimes committed there.
Background on Sudan and the ICC
More than two million people among Darfur's population of six million have been forcefully displaced from their homes since February 2003 as a result of a government-supported campaign of "ethnic cleansing" carried out in the context of an internal armed conflict. Despite overwhelming evidence of the Sudanese government's role in committing atrocities alongside ethnic militia allies known as "Janjaweed," the government continues to deny its role in the abuses and minimize the scale of the crisis.
Almost two million of the displaced persons remain in camps and towns, entirely dependent on humanitarian aid, and cannot return to their homes and farms due to ongoing attacks, rape, looting, and assault by the government-backed militias as well as other armed actors. An additional million people require food and other assistance as a result of the collapsed economy and pervasive insecurity.
In the past few months, direct hostilities between government forces and rebel groups have lessened, but attacks on civilians continue due to the proliferation of armed groups, the collapse of law and order, and an ongoing climate of impunity. Given the lack of harvest in recent years, there are fears of a potential food crisis.
Since Sudan is not a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC, the ICC could only investigate and prosecute crimes in Darfur following a referral by the U.N. Security Council.