(New York) - The Sudanese government should end attacks by its armed forces on civilians in Darfur and make the major human rights reforms envisioned in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), Human Rights Watch said in a report issued today. Special Envoys to Sudan, concerned governments, and United Nations and African Union officials meeting in Moscow today should press Sudan's government to make these legal and policy changes a matter of urgent priority, Human Rights Watch said.
The 25-page report, "The Way Forward: Ending Human Rights Abuses and Repression across Sudan" documents human rights violations and repression in Khartoum and northern states, ongoing violence in Darfur, and the fighting that threatens civilians in Southern Sudan. It is based on field research in eastern Chad and Southern Sudan in July and August.
"Sudan is at a crossroads," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "It can either make good on its promises or allow the situation to deteriorate further with its repressive practices."
Today's meeting of concerned governments and intergovernmental bodies in Moscow including the UN, AU and League of Arab States comes at a critical time in Sudan. The National Congress Party (NCP)-led Government of National Unity (GNU) is facing an interlocking mosaic of human rights and political challenges in the coming months.
Darfur peace talks, which have faltered in recent months, are set to resume this month in Doha. Under the terms of the 2005 CPA, national elections are scheduled for April 2010 and a southern referendum on independence for January 2011. Sudan's failure in any of these processes can undermine its overall progress.
"Those who care about the Sudanese people should put human rights first, through strong, comprehensive and coordinated pressure on the governing party to change its ways in the South, on Darfur and in Khartoum," said Gagnon.
The government should immediately end attacks on civilians in Darfur, charge or release people it has arrested arbitrarily, and end harassment of civil society activists, said Human Rights Watch. It should prioritize provisions of the CPA that have clear human rights and security implications, Human Rights Watch said. These include genuine reform of its national security apparatus, North-South border demarcation, and security agreements to withdraw and downsize troops and integrate former militias.
Sudanese national security officials, acting under the sweeping powers of the National Security Forces Act (NSFA), have been arresting and detaining civil society activists, opposition leaders, and suspected rebels in Khartoum, Port Sudan, Kassala, Darfur and elsewhere, often for prolonged periods and without access to family or lawyers, Human Rights Watch research indicated. For example, at least seven Darfuri students who are members of the United Popular Front (UPF) have been in detention since April 2009. Their group held events at several Sudanese universities supporting the International Criminal Court (ICC), which on March 4 issued an indictment against Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir.
On October 1, security officers arrested two more members of the student group in Gazeera state following a university debate on Darfur. Government security forces have also harassed and arrested activists from Kassala in eastern Sudan and political opposition party members in Khartoum and Southern Kordofan.
On August 28, security officers arrested another Darfuri activist, Abdelmajeed Saleh Abaker Haroun, in downtown Khartoum and they continue to detain him without charge.
"The Sudanese government should end its practice of arbitrary arrests, release or charge people it has detained without legal basis, and it should genuinely reform national security laws," said Gagnon.
Harassment of Civil Society and Suppression of Information
The full extent of human rights violations in the northern states and in Darfur is unknown because of government censorship of the media. Its closure of three Sudanese human rights organizations following the ICC indictment further restricted the flow of information about human rights across Sudan. The expulsion of 13 international humanitarian organizations from Darfur around the same time has also restricted the flow of information about humanitarian needs.
The policy of pre-print censorship, which Human Rights Watch has documented, continued with security officers operating under the Security Forces Act censoring and suspending newspapers and blocking civil society activities, particularly on elections, while preparations are beginning for the April 2010 elections.
Human Rights Watch has found that on at least six occasions in the last four months, security and humanitarian authorities interrupted or prevented civil society groups and political parties from holding talks about elections in Khartoum, Port Sudan, Medani and elsewhere in northern states and Darfur. In one case, security officials detained and questioned members of the Communist party for distributing leaflets in Khartoum.
"By repressing civil society groups and political parties, the Sudanese government is restricting fundamental political freedoms at the time they are most important," Gagnon said.
Between January and June, security officials prevented publication of newspapers on at least 10 occasions through heavy censorship, harassed or arrested journalists and the author of a book on Darfur, and shut down an organization that was training and supporting journalists. In September, government censorship caused suspension of at least two major papers.
President Bashir announced on September 29 that his government would stop pre-print censorship, but also warned journalists not to exceed established "red lines." It remains to be seen whether this statement will translate into greater freedom of expression on critical matters of public interest.
Ongoing Clashes in Darfur
In Darfur, recent clashes between the governing party-led Sudan Armed Forces and rebels in September and the use of indiscriminate bombings demonstrate that the war is not over. Government air and ground attacks on villages around Korma North Darfur on September 17 and 18 reportedly killed 16 civilians, including women, and burned several villages.
Witnesses from the North Darfur town of Um Baru told Human Rights Watch that government bombing in May hit water pumps and killed and injured scores of civilians.
"They were dropping 12 bombs a day," one witness told Human Rights Watch. "They dropped in all the areas around the town."
Clashes between government and JEM rebels at Muhajariya, South Darfur, in February included an intensive government bombing campaign that killed scores of civilians and displaced 40,000. An estimated 2.7 million people in displaced persons camps in Darfur and 200,000 in Chad are unable to return to their villages for fear of the attacks and violence, including sexual violence, by government soldiers and government-allied militia.
Insecurity in Southern Sudan
In Abyei and other flashpoints along the North-South border, the GNU's failure to implement the peace agreement provisions on border demarcation and troop withdrawal and downsizing threatens to expose civilians to further abuse and danger. Both armies have failed to downsize and to integrate former militias fully, as required by the security arrangements in the peace agreement.
During the February clashes in Malakal between the northern government forces and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army soldiers, former militias whom the armed forces failed to integrate instigated violence and human rights violations. The presidency has still not taken sufficient action to remove NCP-backed former militias from the area and reduce the threat of further violence.
Elsewhere in Southern Sudan, intense inter-ethnic fighting killed at least 1,200 civilians in the first half of 2009. The Sudan People's Liberation Movement-led Government of Southern Sudan has so far been unable to protect civilians from the civilian-on-civilian fighting, or from a steady stream of attacks by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army operating in Central and Western Equatoria since September 2008.
"The people of Southern Sudan have borne the brunt of the intense inter-ethnic fighting, rebel attacks and clashes between the northern and southern armies," Gagnon said.
Both the southern government and the national government need to do more to prevent the violence and protect civilians, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Mission in Sudan peacekeeping mission should also increase efforts to prevent violence and protect civilians, Human Rights Watch said.