(Johannesburg) - Serious abuses have increased in Darfur in the past six months while the world's attention has focused on Southern Sudan's upcoming independence, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The United Nations Security Council, which will be briefed on Darfur on June 8, 2011, and the African Union should do much more to ensure that those responsible for continued war crimes in Darfur are held accountable and press the Sudanese government to end attacks on civilians in Darfur, cease arbitrary detention of rights activists, and reform the state security apparatus, Human Rights Watch said.
The 28-page report, "Darfur in the Shadows: The Sudanese Government's Ongoing Attacks on Civilians and Human Rights," documents the intensification of the eight-year conflict over the past six months. Since December 2010, a surge in government-led attacks on populated areas and a campaign of aerial bombing have killed and injured scores of civilians, destroyed property, and displaced more than 70,000 people, largely from ethnic Zaghawa and Fur communities linked to rebel groups, Human Rights Watch said.
"Darfur once commanded the headlines, but now risks being forgotten," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "With only a month before Sudan splits in two, international pressure to end ongoing government abuses and impunity for war crimes in Darfur is more urgent than ever."
The UN Security Council briefing by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on June 8 about international crimes in Darfur will give governments an important opportunity to insist on Sudan's cooperation with the ICC and enhance their pressure on Khartoum, Human Rights Watch said. The Sudanese government continues to obstruct the ICC's work on Sudan and those subject to arrest warrants by the ICC for crimes in Darfur, including President Omar al-Bashir, remain fugitives from justice.
Human Rights Watch's report is based on research carried out between January and May 2011 in North and South Darfur and Khartoum. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed over 50 Darfuri witnesses and victims of attacks and human rights abuses, government officials, lawyers, and members of civil society in towns, villages, and displaced persons camps.
The renewed fighting in Darfur began on December 10 with government attacks on Khor Abeche, South Darfur, and Shangil Tobayi, North Darfur following the deterioration in relations between the government and Minni Minawi, the only major Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) rebel leader to have signed the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement.
Government forces continue to violate the laws of war in their military operations against rebel forces with utter impunity. There have been clashes and attacks on civilians in North and South Darfur, as well as eastern Jebel Mara, where fighting since early 2010 had already displaced tens of thousands of civilians further into the mountains. In mid-May alone, government airstrikes in North and South Darfur reportedly killed more than 20 civilians.
"Clear patterns of abuses, often based on ethnicity, have accompanied the renewed fighting," Bekele said. "The government's longstanding failure to hold perpetrators accountable appears to be fueling continued violations."
In just one case documented by Human Rights Watch, during the government attack at Shangil Tobayi on December 21, about 20 soldiers surrounded and ransacked the home of a sheikh, or local leader. They demanded to know his tribe and threatened to "kill all of them [Zaghawas] and rape all their women." The soldiers stole the sheikh's farming equipment and abducted his 22-year-old cousin, whom they accused of being a member of the SLA rebel group.
Government human rights violations against civil society activists have also intensified, Human Rights Watch found. On May 6, national security officials arrested HawaAbdallah, a community activist in the Abu Shouk displaced persons camp in El Fasher and an employee of the African Union/United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID). On May 8, the state news service published an article accusing her of "Christianizing" children in displaced persons camps and of links to a rebel group - a crime punishable by death under Sudanese law. An accompanying photo of Abdallah holding a Bible shows visible signs of fatigue and what appear to be bruises on her face.
Dozens of other Darfuri activists and displaced people are detained in Darfur and in Khartoum, many without charges and for periods far exceeding the maximum allowed by Sudanese law, Human Rights Watch said.The National Intelligence and Security Service has, since April 24, detained without charge another Sudanese employee of the peacekeeping mission who is a known activist. Two men from Abu Shouk camp who were arrested in the wake of the UN Security Council's visit in October are also in detention in El Fasher. Four leaders of a group of displaced people have been held under emergency laws for almost two years.
Human Rights Watch documented instances in which government security forces assaulted residents of camps for displaced people, suppressed peaceful student demonstrations, and engaged in sexual violence. The full extent of human suffering and scale of human rights abuses is still not known, however, as the government continues to restrict access to much of Darfur by both the peacekeepers and humanitarian aid organizations.
Sudan also appears to be pursuing a controversial "domestic political process" inside Darfur that would engage members of Darfuri society in dialogues on solutions to the Darfur conflict. The impact of these dialogues on peace talks with Darfur rebel groups and on new constitutional arrangements in northern Sudan following Southern Sudan's split is not clear, Human Rights Watch said. The government has also announced creation of two new states in West and South Darfur and plans to hold a referendum on Darfur's administrative status in July, which rebels and observers contend complicates peace talks.
Southern Sudan will formally secede from the Khartoum government on July 9 under a January referendum for southern independence, called for under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan's 22-year long war.
The African Union and UN have both announced support for the new domestic political process in Darfur on condition that Sudan creates an "enabling environment" guaranteeing rights and freedoms of participants. A list of these indicators of a changed situation in Darfur, and how they will be measured, has yet to be made clear.
"The African Union and United Nations, which play a critical role in Darfur, need to ensure their joint peacekeeping mission can properly monitor the human rights situation," Bekele said. "Any support they provide to Sudan needs to promote and protect rights, not undermine them."
In March, the Sudanese government said it would end a state of emergency, which empowers the government to detain people without judicial review, in an apparent concession to calls for reform ahead of any political process in Darfur. It has yet to do so, though.
Human rights organizations have long urged Sudan to reform the National Intelligence and Security Service, which is empowered to detain people for long periods without judicial review and is widely known for its ill-treatment and torture of detainees.
The UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the ICC in 2005. The court has since issued arrest warrants on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for three suspects for crimes committed in Darfur. In addition to President al-Bashir, they are Ahmed Haroun, governor of Southern Kordofan state, and Ali Kosheib, a "Janjaweed" militia leader. In 2010, the ICC issued a formal finding of non-cooperation by the Sudanese government in the cases of Haroun and Kosheib.
Sudan has also failed to implement any of the key justice recommendations put forth by the African Union's Panel on Darfur report, issued in October 2009, which highlighted the importance of prosecutions for the worst crimes committed in Darfur.
"The UN Security Council brought the situation in Darfur to the ICC," Bekele said. "Now it needs to firmly stand by its pledge to the thousands of victims and press for Sudan's cooperation with the court."