(The Hague) - The request on November 20 by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for arrest warrants for three rebel leaders believed to be responsible for attacks on international peacekeepers in Darfur is an important step toward protecting those who protect civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. Repeated attacks on international peacekeepers have severely compromised the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations in Darfur.
The request for warrants, the first for killing peacekeepers, stems from an attack on September 29, 2007, by rebel forces on an African Union (AU) base in Haskanita, South Darfur, Sudan, that killed 12 peacekeepers and civilian police officers from the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS). At least eight other AMIS personnel were seriously injured. The laws of war and the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) prohibit attacks against international peacekeeping missions, so long as they are not directly involved in hostilities.
"Civilians rely on peacekeepers for protection, and any hope for restoring security for civilians in Darfur depends on peacekeepers being able to do their job," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. "These warrant requests send a strong message that such crimes will not be tolerated."
Peacekeepers are responsible for, among other things, conducting "firewood patrols" to accompany women and girls when they leave displaced persons camps to collect grass and firewood. These escorts, where conducted, have reduced the risk of rape and other sexual violence that is still widespread across Darfur. Following the Haskanita attack, AMIS adopted stricter security guidelines, curtailed all its activities, and confined staff to their bases, severely limiting its ability to protect civilians.
Security concerns remain a serious obstacle for the joint AU-UN peacekeepers (UNAMID) who took over peacekeeping in Darfur on December 31, 2007. The new peacekeeping force has also repeatedly come under direct attack from both rebel and Sudanese government forces:
- On July 8, 2008, unknown attackers killed seven peacekeepers and wounded 22 in a government-controlled area of North Darfur.
- On two occasions in July, unknown attackers shot at patrols in West Darfur, killing a peacekeeper on July 16.
- On July 21, government forces assaulted and arrested a UNAMID security officer in El Fasher.
- In August and September, unknown gunmen fired on peacekeepers' helicopters on at least four occasions.
- On October 6, a group of peacekeepers were ambushed at Menawashei, 75 kilometers north of Nyala, during an assessment patrol from Nyala to Khor Abeche in South Darfur.
- On October 29, a peacekeeper was killed when UNAMID forces came under attack at a water point near the Kassab displaced persons camp in North Darfur.
- On November 9, a peacekeeping patrol was ambushed by a group of well-armed men near Geneina in West Darfur, wounding one peacekeeper.
Since the attack on July 8, all of Darfur has remained at "UN Security Level 4," the second-highest security level, which is severely hampering the humanitarian operation.
"Although the attacks on peacekeepers in Darfur have not been on the same scale as the atrocities committed as part of the Sudanese government's counterinsurgency campaign, they are still serious crimes that interfere with any efforts to protect civilians in Darfur," Dicker said. "If the warrants are issued, all parties to the conflict should assist in the apprehension of the suspects."
On March 31, 2005, the UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC prosecutor. The resolution requires the government of Sudan and all parties to the conflict to cooperate fully with the court and the prosecutor. To date, the court has issued arrest warrants for two men, State Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Ahmed Haroun and a militia leader, Ali Kosheib. Sudan has refused to hand over either suspect. On July 14, the prosecutor of the ICC requested a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur.
The suspects have been charged with war crimes for: murder and causing severe injury to peacekeepers; intentionally directing attacks against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a peacekeeping mission; and pillaging. The names of the suspects in the request for warrants today have not been publicly released.