Displaced Sudanese women walk past an armored personnel carrier of the United Nations-African Union Mission in southern Darfur.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - The decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to summon a rebel leader allegedly responsible for the killing of African Union peacekeeping forces in Darfur underscores the gravity of attacks against those deployed to protect civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. Rebel commander Bahar Idriss Abu Garda is expected to appear voluntarily before ICC judges tomorrow to respond to the summons.

Bahar Idriss Abu Garda has been charged with war crimes stemming from an assault on an African Union base in Haskanita, South Darfur, Sudan on September 30, 2007 that killed 12 peacekeepers and civilian police officers from the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS). At least eight others were seriously wounded. Abu Garda will be the first person to appear in relation to the ICC's Darfur investigation since it was opened in June 2005.

"This case signals the seriousness of deliberately attacking peacekeepers who are defending civilians," said Richard Dicker, International Justice Program director at Human Rights Watch. "We welcome Bahar Idriss Abu Garda's appearance at the court, which contrasts starkly with the Sudanese government's relentless obstruction of justice to the victims in Darfur."

The Rome Statute of the ICC allows the pretrial chamber to issue a summons to appear rather than an arrest warrant if the judges are satisfied that a summons is sufficient to ensure that the person will appear before the court. The ICC prosecutor made a request for a summons to appear in February 2009.

Peacekeepers are responsible for essential civilian protection activities, including patrols to protect women and girls when they leave displaced-persons camps to collect grass, firewood, and water. When these escorts have been provided, they have reduced the risk of rape and other sexual violence that is still widespread across Darfur. Repeated attacks on international peacekeepers have compromised the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations in Darfur, though. In the months 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 African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) that took over peacekeeping in Darfur on December 31, 2007. The peacekeepers have repeatedly come under direct attacks from both rebel and Sudanese government forces, which have killed nearly a dozen peacekeepers since July 2008 - including two peacekeepers since March 2009 - and wounded many more. Since then, all of Darfur has remained at "UN Security Level 4," the second-highest security level, which is severely hampering the humanitarian operation.

"Attacks on peacekeepers further weaken the already-fragile security situation in Darfur," said Dicker. "While rebel attacks have not been on the same scale as the crimes committed in the Sudanese government's counterinsurgency campaign, they are nonetheless serious crimes that also have major implications for civilians."

Those killed during the attack on the Haskanita base included peacekeepers from four African countries. The African Union conducted its own investigation and in October 2007 issued a statement that identified the need to "bring the culprits to international justice." More recently, several North African states that are not ICC members have been critical of the court because of its focus on Africa to date. Although all four of the ICC's current investigations are in Africa, three were referred voluntarily by the governments where the crimes were committed, while the Darfur situation was referred by the UN Security Council.

"The criticism coming from a few non-ICC members that the court is anti-African inexplicably ignores the thousands of African victims whom the court is fighting to defend," said Dicker. "This criticism is even more dubious given the court's effort to try those allegedly responsible for attacks on peacekeepers from Botswana, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal."

On March 4, 2009, the ICC issued a warrant for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. The Sudanese government responded by expelling international aid agencies that provided life-saving assistance to more than a million people from Sudan, and blaming the ICC, adding further to the widespread abuses in which al-Bashir has been implicated.

Background

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. In addition to President al-Bashir, the court has issued arrest warrants for two other men, the state minister for humanitarian affairs, Ahmed Haroun, and a "Janjaweed" militia leader, Ali Kosheib. Sudan has refused to hand over all suspects.

In November 2008, the ICC prosecutor submitted an application to the judges for arrest warrants for three rebel leaders, including Bahar Idriss Abu Garda, in relation to the Haskanita attack. In his application, the prosecutor charged the three suspects 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. Judges are still examining the allegations in relation to the two remaining rebel suspects whose names have not been publicly released. In February 2009, the ICC prosecutor informed the court that due to the stated willingness of the three commanders to appear voluntarily, a summons to appear would be sufficient.