(Juba) - The United Nations Security Council should take immediate steps to ensure international monitoring in Southern Kordofan, where reports of massive human rights violations by Sudanese forces have emerged, Human Rights Watch said today. Council members, who meet on July 28, 2011, should press all parties to end immediately the indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilians and should warn those responsible for these crimes that they will be held accountable.
The conflict began on June 5 between the Sudanese government and Sudan People's Liberation Army in Kadugli and other towns in Southern Kordofan. Sudanese government forces have shelled and bombed civilian areas, looted homes and churches, and arrested and killed civilians suspected of links to the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the southern political party that now rules South Sudan. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Juba described the attacks and the scene.
"Tens of thousands of civilians in Southern Kordofan are in grave danger, and no one is on the ground to report on what is happening, much less do anything about it," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "An international presence in Southern Kordofan is urgently needed to prevent further atrocities."
Fighting is taking place in several locations, and Sudan is bombing areas throughout the Nuba Mountains, including areas where displaced people have gathered. On June 26, government forces bombed Kurchi, killing 16 people, including three children. Images obtained by Human Rights Watch show bodies of women and children that appear severed by the explosives.
Southern Kordofan is home to large populations of ethnic Nuban groups. It is north of the border between Sudan and South Sudan, but the local population has longstanding ties to South Sudan. South Sudan became an independent state on July 9 following a January referendum in which the vast majority of southerners voted for secession. The referendum was one of the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended 22 years of civil war.
The witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that soldiers and armed militias shot civilians during house-to-house searches in Kadugli. They reported seeing dozens of dead bodies in homes and on the ground as they fled town. One student member of the SPLM, who left town on June 6 after a large number of soldiers entered the house where he and other students were living, said, "We jumped over the wall to the neighbor's house, and I found five dead bodies of the father, mother, and three children."
He and six other students sought refuge near the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) compound on the outskirts of Kadugli, but then fled toward Dilling, to the northeast, after government security forces entered the mission's protective area in search of SPLM members.
Near-daily bombing has killed and maimed scores of men, women, and children in the region and has forced thousands of civilians to flee to safety in nearby caves. Sources on the ground estimate that the numbers displaced by the ongoing hostilities have more than doubled, from 73,000 a few weeks ago to over 150,000 now.
Access to Southern Kordofan remains difficult, as Sudan is blocking road and air access to affected populations. In addition, its bombing campaign has destroyed or damaged airstrips, preventing humanitarian aid from reaching displaced people in the Nuba Mountains.
"As a critical first step, the Security Council should secure unrestricted access to Southern Kordofan for humanitarian purposes," Bekele said.
The mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission, which was established as part of the 2005 peace agreement and might have provided some protection to these civilians, formally ended on July 9. The UN forces who remain in Southern Kordofan are confined to their bases until their departure, scheduled for August 31.
In June, the Security Council unsuccessfully pressed Sudan to agree to an extension of the UNMIS mandate. In adjacent Abyei, a disputed area that Sudanese forces took over in May, Ethiopian troops have undertaken a peacekeeping role as the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNIFSA). The African Union High Level Implementation Panel, which is mediating outstanding issues from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, is also involved in Southern Kordofan. It previously brokered the arrangement for the Abyei interim force and has recommended solutions to the Darfur conflict.
An international presence in Southern Kordofan is urgently needed and could grow out of an existing peacekeeping mission or could be a stand-alone operation involving the UN, the African Union, or both organizations. In any case, the mission should have an explicit mandate to monitor and report publicly on human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said.
An unpublished report by UNMIS, leaked to the media in mid-July, documented numerous cases of extrajudicial killings, arrests through house-to-house searches and checkpoints, and abductions. In one example, on June 8, militiamen pulled an independent contractor out of his vehicle in front of the peacekeepers' compound, took him around the corner, and shot him dead.
The report, based on information gathered by UNMIS human rights monitors before the mission's mandate ended, also detailed witness accounts of large numbers of dead bodies, mass graves, the use of chemical weapons, and the presence of landmines. The report noted that such violations, if proven, could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is sending an assessment team to Abyei this week. The team would be available to go to Southern Kordofan, but the prospects of it gaining access to that area are slim. A senior official from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is expected to brief the Security Council about the situation in Southern Kordofan at the July 28 meeting.
"The Security Council needs to have up-to-date information about the crisis in Southern Kordofan so it can respond swiftly to protect civilians and prevent further abuses," Bekele said. "This week's briefing is a good first step, but unless the Security Council presses Sudan to allow access for more monitoring, the tap will be turned off after this report."
Those most responsible for serious violations of humanitarian law and human rights abuses against civilians in Southern Kordofan should face targeted punitive sanctions, including travel bans and assets freezes, Human Rights Watch said. Over the past several months the Security Council, the European Union, the United States, and others have adopted such targeted sanctions against individuals considered responsible for human rights abuses in other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, including Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria.
In Sudan, longstanding impunity for grave abuses in Darfur has probably helped to set a precedent for similar atrocities elsewhere in the country, including South Kordofan, Human Rights Watch said. The UN Security Council referred the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2005. The ICC has issued arrest warrants for three suspects, including President Omar al-Bashir and the governor of South Kordofan, Ahmed Haroun.
Haroun is wanted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur, and al-Bashir is subject to two arrest warrants for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for his role in the same conflict. Six years on, though, Sudan refuses to cooperate with the ICC and to act on the arrest warrants.
The government also has not taken any meaningful steps to carry out the justice recommendations of the African Union High-Level Panel on Darfur, headed by former President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. In October 2009, the panel released a report on Darfur, noting that serious crimes had been committed in violation of international law and that Sudan had failed to ensure justice for those crimes.
On July 11, group of human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Interights, REDRESS, and the Sudanese Democracy First Group petitioned the African Commission to investigate their abuses and press for much-needed accountability.
"With no eyes and ears on the ground, the Sudanese government may believe it can continue this brutal campaign with total impunity," Bekele said. "The Security Council should send a strong message now that those responsible for these violations will be held accountable."