The December 12 special session of the Human Rights Council on Darfur offers member states a long overdue opportunity to tackle one of the worst human rights crises in the world, Human Rights Watch said today. Yet some council members, such as Algeria, seem more concerned to protect the government of Sudan than to address its responsibility for war crimes in Darfur, Human Rights Watch said.

“A ‘see no evil, speak no evil’ approach doesn’t work when it comes to human rights,” said Peggy Hicks, global advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. “If the Human Rights Council won’t speak out on Darfur, when will it be willing to act?”

Discussions on Darfur in the council have at times seemed disconnected from reality. Jordan’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, who visited Khartoum at the invitation of the Sudanese government, claimed that the situation in Darfur is not as dire as reported by the United Nations and the media. The Algerian ambassador to the UN in Geneva, in a statement made on behalf of the council’s African members, said that “the alleged links” between the Sudanese government and militias in Darfur “have yet to be documented.”

In 2005, an extensive investigation by the UN’s International Commission of Inquiry (which included three African experts) concluded the opposite, finding “clear links” between the government and the militias and concluding that: “Government forces and militias conducted indiscriminate attacks, including killing of civilians, torture, enforced disappearances, destruction of villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillaging and forced displacement, throughout Darfur. These acts were conducted on a widespread and systematic basis, and therefore may amount to crimes against humanity.”

Since that time, the continuing carnage in Darfur has been thoroughly documented by numerous experts and groups, including the African Union and Human Rights Watch. Senior UN officials, including the Secretary-General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, have traveled to Sudan, and reported that more than 200,000 people have died and more than 2 million have been displaced by the conflict. In light of these facts, the “Darfur denial” practiced by council members like Algeria and Jordan is inexcusable.

Speaking on December 8 to mark International Human Rights Day, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on African governments to show greater leadership for human rights, noting that, “[m]any, even among the most democratic, are still reluctant to play their role in the Human Rights Council by speaking out impartially against all abuses. They can, and must, do more.”

On November 28, the council adopted a weak resolution on Darfur which was presented by Algeria on behalf of African states in the council. It failed to mention the Sudanese government’s role in violating human rights, or even to discuss its responsibilities for ending such abuses. A stronger text authored by the European Union was rejected by a bare majority vote (20 yes, 22 no and 4 abstentions). The “no” votes included states like Algeria, Egypt and Pakistan, which have consistently opposed criticizing governments, except Israel, no matter what the circumstances. Surprisingly, however, they were joined by a majority of African council members, including Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa, as well as Asian states such as India and Indonesia, and from Latin America Brazil, which abstained.

“The Human Rights Council can stand with the victims of the horror in Darfur or say nothing for fear of offending their oppressors,” Hicks said.