(New York) - South Africa should use its Security Council presidency in April 2008 to make significant progress on human rights crises in Somalia, Darfur and Burma, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to South Africa’s minister of foreign affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and members of the United Nations Security Council.

“The Security Council should be signaling hope to civilians in crisis, but so far it has failed the people of Darfur, Burma and Somalia,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “South Africa should lead the Security Council in a major new international effort to end horrible abuses in these places and save lives.”

In Somalia, 700,000 people are estimated to have been displaced from the capital Mogadishu since early 2007. Ongoing attacks by all warring parties are harming civilians and forcing people to flee every day. Humanitarian agencies face huge challenges in their efforts to provide assistance to displaced persons. The UN secretary-general’s report on Somalia last week noted “the lack of accountability, for past and current crimes, reinforces a sense of impunity and further fuels conflict [in Somalia].”

Human Rights Watch urged South Africa to push for the establishment of an international commission of inquiry to investigate war crimes in Somalia and for an increased international human rights monitoring presence in the country.

“South Africa has a strong record of speaking out on the need for Security Council action on the appalling human rights situation in Somalia,” said Roth. “South Africa’s leadership would give the long-suffering people of Somalia hope that they will no longer be ignored and that they’ll see war criminals on all sides punished.”

Violence against civilians in Darfur has surged in the past three months. The Sudanese government’s February 2008 offensive in West Darfur saw displacement and killing of civilians on a scale not seen since the darkest days of the crisis in 2004. Khartoum continues to obstruct the deployment of the hybrid African Union/United Nations peacekeeping force, UNAMID. Rebel groups and former rebel groups continue to commit abuses against civilians.

“South Africa should push Sudan to allow the swift and unhindered deployment of peacekeepers to Darfur, including troops from outside Africa,” said Roth.

Human Rights Watch also urged South Africa and other Security Council members to issue a presidential statement demanding that Khartoum immediately surrender for trial the two suspects named in arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court.

South Africa should also use the Security Council presidency to press for measures that will end the continuing oppression by the government in Burma. As underscored by the recent visit to Burma by the secretary-general’s special advisor, Ibrahim Gambari, the military government continues to resist change that would improve respect for fundamental human rights.

“Burma will make the changes essential for real progress only if it comes under serious and sustained pressure from the Security Council,” said Roth. “If South Africa uses its presidency in April to bring such pressure on Burma, we could see real progress there,” Roth said.